Three U.S. senators are calling on Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite to provide answers regarding what the sea service is doing about human trafficking involving U.S. sailors stationed on the Middle Eastern island nation of Bahrain.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-CT, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, and Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-WI, sent a letter to Braithwaite on Tuesday requesting “immediate information on the steps you have taken to remedy the deplorable circumstances in Bahrain, combat the broader culture that allowed these crimes to flourish, and ensure that justice is delivered to trafficking survivors and their family members.”
The letter comes in the wake of a series of stories published last month by Military Times that revealed for the first time a web of investigations into sailors trafficking Thai women working as prostitutes on the island.
Those stories unearthed a shadowy subculture where sailors sought to traffic and pimp the women, often out of their taxpayer-funded apartments.
Allegations of sexual assault against the women and sailors shaking down other shipmates on behalf of Bahrain prostitutes were also revealed.
“We write with deep concern regarding U.S. Navy Sailors’ involvement in human trafficking in Bahrain,” the three senators wrote in a letter obtained by Military Times. “We look forward to your response and are committed to ensuring that the Navy has all the necessary authorities and resources to ensure that these horrific crimes never again occur at the hands of U.S. military personnel.”
Navy officials told Military Times earlier this year that there had been no new cases involving sailor trafficking or solicitation in Bahrain since late 2018, but the lawmakers wrote Tuesday that they were “concerned that these crimes are not confined to this location.”
The senators also pointed to Military Times reporting which showed that sailors and trafficked women had long co-mingled on the island, a shadowy subculture that was “left unaddressed for years.”
“Even the perception that Navy personnel could be involved in trafficking is damaging to local and global perception of U.S. forces,” the letter states. “Beyond the despicable crime that Sailors were charged with, the underlying culture—often referred to as ‘a girl in every port’—that has allowed prostitution in U.S. Navy ports is shameful.”
The senators also questioned the efficacy of Navy policies to prevent such crimes. Blumenthal and Gillibrand sit on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“It is evident that the Navy’s zero tolerance policy against trafficking has not been effectively communicated to every echelon of commanders,” they wrote. “We request information on the training that the Navy provided in response to this investigation and how measures to prevent future infractions are communicated down the chain of command.”
Several of the Navy’s cases against sailors accused of such crimes in Bahrain ultimately collapsed when the victimized women at the center of several cases did not take the stand to testify, and Tuesday’s letter also calls on Braithwaite to explain how the service is protecting the rights of such women.
“Regardless of their decision to participate in proceedings, it is incumbent on the Navy to ensure that survivors are connected with appropriate victim services and that all Sailors who participated are subject to appropriate punishment,” the senators wrote.
The letter also calls on the Navy to establish “formal relationships with human trafficking advocacy organizations to ensure that assistance is available to survivors” and asks if the Navy needs additional authorities to establish such partnerships.
The senators also questioned whether the Navy has considered allowing such victims to testify virtually, which could increase their willingness to participate.
How much help the Navy has sought from the Bahraini government in combating human trafficking among sailors remains unclear, and Bahraini officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment from Military Times before the investigation was published.
“We request information on the Navy’s efforts to combat prostitution and trafficking by Navy personnel in Bahrain, including efforts to engage with local government agencies,” the letter states.
Navy spokesman Cmdr. Clayton Doss declined to comment on the letter Tuesday, stating that the service does not comment on Congressional correspondence.
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.