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Active duty Army colonel calls nominee for vice chairman’s job a liar

Correction: This story has been corrected to show that The Armed Services Committee has not written a report. Only the Pentagon has a written report.

After the confirmation hearing for Gen. John Hyten, the four-star general nominated to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Col. Kathryn Spletstoser held an impromptu press conference outside the Senate Armed Services Committee and reiterated her accusation that Hyten had sexually assaulted her, and is lying about it. William Brangham talks to Don Christensen and Rachel VanLandingham.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The confirmation hearing for General John Hyten, who is the four-star general nominated to assume one of the highest positions in the U.S. military, took a dramatic turn today when an active-duty colonel again accused General Hyten of sexual assault and lying to the Senate.

    William Brangham has the story.

  • Kathryn Spletstoser:

    We just had a four-star general get in front of the American people and in open testimony in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and make false official statements under oath. But the bottom line is, he lied about sexually assaulting me.

  • William Brangham:

    It's an unprecedented accusation. Active duty Army Colonel Kathryn Spletstoser alleged General John Hyten, the Air Force general tapped by President Trump to be the Pentagon's second in command, lied to the Senate today about sexually assaulting her in 2017.

    She spoke to reporters immediately after Hyten's confirmation hearing, where he again categorically denied her allegations. Spletstoser alleged that, during a 2017 conference in California, Hyten came to her hotel room, kissed, touched, and pressed up against her until he ejaculated.

    She says he was infatuated with her and had touched her inappropriately several times before. The Air Force investigated the allegations for several months, and found — quote — "insufficient evidence to support any finding of misconduct against General Hyten."

    Since the allegations emerged, the Senate Armed Services Committee conducted its own investigation.

  • Woman:

    The truth is that General Hyten is innocent of these charges.

  • William Brangham:

    Both Republicans and Democrats today praised the committee's handling of the probe.

  • Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D.:

    Thank you to Chairman Inhofe and Ranking Member Reed for conducting a very thorough and a very fair inquiry.

  • Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala.:

    The fact this has been such an exhaustive, extensive, professional investigation speaks volumes.

  • William Brangham:

    There was also bipartisan agreement that Hyten was innocent of the charges, perhaps, most notably, from Arizona's Republican Senator Martha McSally. She's an Air Force veteran and revealed this year she was raped by a superior officer years ago.

  • Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz.:

    I didn't take coming to this conclusion lightly. I knew the message it could send to sexual assault survivors, who haven't seen all the information on the case that I have. The process I just witnessed was strong, fair, and investigators turned over every rock to seek justice.

  • William Brangham:

    Notably, two of the Democratic senators who've been critical of how this investigation unfolded, Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren, were both absent because of their Democratic presidential debate.

    Throughout the hearing, as he has since the allegations emerged, General Hyten denied the charges.

  • John Hyten:

    It has been a painful time for me and my family, but I want to state to you and to the American people in the strongest possible terms that these allegations are false.

  • William Brangham:

    But Spletstoser, who was in the room for his hearings, said Hyten was lying, and his confirmation will deter assault victims from coming forward.

  • Kathryn Spletstoser:

    This moving forwards tells everybody, every sexual assault survivor, victim, whatever you want to call them, that they need not bother to report, that they won't be taken seriously, that their own character, despite having a flawless record, will always be questioned, that they will be the ones investigated, that they won't see justice.

    And hey, in the end, senior officers are allowed to sexually assault people, and we will just give them a promotion instead.

  • William Brangham:

    The Armed Services Committee has not written a report on the investigation. They're poised to approve Hyten's nomination.

    For more on this case and how the military investigates sexual assault, we get two views.

    Retired Colonel Don Christensen had a 23-year career as a lawyer in the Air Force and has prosecuted many sexual assault cases. He's now president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy organization that defends sexual assault victims in the military. And retired Lieutenant Colonel Rachel VanLandingham had a 20-year career in the Air Force as a lawyer, and she has also prosecuted sexual assault cases. She's now a professor of law at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles.

    Thank you both for being here.

    Don Christensen, I would love to start with you first.

    You represent an advocacy organization that looks out for people in the services that have been assaulted or harassed. What do you make of these allegations? And what do you make of the investigation that was done into these allegations?

  • Don Christensen:

    Well, the allegations are extremely troubling.

    Colonel Spletstoser has been consistent. She has made herself available to both the Senate, OSI, the media. It was incredible that she talked to the media right afterwards. And there are no inconsistencies in what she has said.

    So, the investigation itself seemed to be rushed. A typical OSI investigation is much longer than this. But the thing to remember about a sex assault investigation into something like this — and we heard the Senate say there is no corroboration — she never said anybody else was in the room. As in most sexual assaults, there is nobody else in the room.

    I don't know what they would want for corroboration. Do they think that General Hyten was stupid enough to send an e-mail saying, hey, sorry I sexually assaulted you?

    So, when we prosecute these kind of cases, this is often the kind of evidence we're left with.

  • William Brangham:

    Professor VanLandingham, same question to you.

    What do you make of this? Do you think that this was a rushed investigation? Do you think that there's still more to uncover here?

  • Rachel VanLandingham:

    Well, neither of us have actually seen or read the investigation. We have only seen what has been released in the media and has been articulated by our representatives, the senators of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

    But investigations are contextual. So it would only be rushed if there had been quite a bit of evidence to uncover. And it doesn't seem to be the case in this situation.

    There was — in fact, what this case and what the situation tells me is that no one is above the law, that even a four-star general in the United States Air Force, when serious, credible allegations of sexual assault or lodged against him or her, is going to be investigated, and is going to be investigated quite thoroughly.

    The Air Force — there's, in fact, been two investigations, as well there should be, both the Air Force Office of Special Investigations investigation, and then, as we just heard on that clip, the Senate Armed Services Committee conducted their own investigation.

    So it — so what I have been able to ascertain from the — from the news reports is that there were over 50 witnesses interviewed and thousands of pages of documents. So I'm not really quite sure what hasn't been done here.

    I don't know what else can actually be done to corroborate an accusation in which there is just simply no other evidence to support it.

  • William Brangham:

    Don Christensen, let's pick up on that.

    Professor VanLandingham believes that this was sufficient and there was an appropriate investigation. I know some questions have been raised as to whether it's appropriate to have a four-star general, which is General Hyten's rank, be investigated by officers who are inferior to him, not directly under his rank, but who are clearly below rank.

    Do you think that that is appropriate?

  • Don Christensen:

    Well, there's definitely perception problem in this case.

    I believe General Hyten was the second or third most senior general in the entire United States Air Force at the time of the investigation. And there are only about 13 four-star generals in the Air Force.

    If there was going to be an investigation, for perception issues, it would have been much better off if one of the other services' criminal investigators had looked at this.

    But the thing to remember about investigations from the OSI, contrary to what the Air Force and the Department of Defense keep spinning this with, the investigators do not reach a conclusion whether or not these allegations are true. All they do is uncover facts and get interviews and track down evidence.

    They do not make a suggestion. They don't reach a conclusion. So, perception-wise, much better to go off to somebody else. But just let's remember he wasn't cleared by an investigation. He was cleared by a fellow general officer.

  • William Brangham:

    Professor VanLandingham, what do you make of that, that this wasn't a true exoneration; this was simply them trying to gather the facts, and we still don't necessarily know what all that evidence is saying?

  • Rachel VanLandingham:

    Well, we do have professional — the Air Force does have professional investigators and fact-finders.

    And Don is absolutely correct that they reach factual conclusions, not legal conclusions. And those legal conclusions, however, where I disagree with Don is that those are — the conclusions of whether or not a crime was committed or whether any kind of adverse administrative action was warranted by the actual evidence was made by a senior officer in the United States Air Force, senior to General Hyten, as well as was made by the Senate Armed Services Committee individuals today.

    So there — so the investigators themselves weren't reaching those conclusions, and they shouldn't be reaching those conclusions.

    And if there was any doubt regarding either the comprehensiveness of the investigation or appearances of partiality, the Senate Armed Services Committee could have easily had the lead investigator to come speak with them. And to the best of my knowledge, they didn't.

    Instead, they actually had the putative — the claimed victim here, the colonel herself, they spoke with her to assess her credibility and to ensure that they were doing their due diligence.

  • William Brangham:

    Don Christensen, Colonel Spletstoser said, if General Hyten is confirmed, that this will send a terrible signal to other sexual assault victims going forward, that they just won't be willing to come forward and put their necks out on the line.

    Do you agree with that?

  • Don Christensen:

    I absolutely agree with that.

    The Air Force — or the military already has a problem with survivors coming forward. Approximately 75 to 80 percent, every year, people who are sexually assaulted in the military won't come forward and report it, because they fear retaliation. Retaliation is through the roof in the military.

    What has happened to her today is a classic example of blaming the victim, smearing the victim. It sent a terribly negative message to the force that, even when credible evidence is brought forward, that a general officer will still be promoted after sexually assaulting someone.

  • William Brangham:

    Professor VanLandingham, same question to you. Do you think this will — if Hyten is confirmed, does this cause a chilling effect?

  • Rachel VanLandingham:

    This doesn't cause a chilling effect.

    In fact, it sends a message that all allegations of sexual assault will be taken seriously, even if you're a four-star, even if you're a major, even if you're a staff sergeant. And, in fact, that an individual who accuses someone of sexual assault even gets to — is invited to Congress and gets to sit down with senators to discuss their complaints.

    If that's not being — something being taken seriously, I don't know what is.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Professor Rachel VanLandingham and Don Christensen, thank you both very much for being here.

  • Rachel VanLandingham:

    Thank you so much.

  • Don Christensen:

    Thank you.

  • Rachel VanLandingham:

    Have a great day.

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