WASHINGTON — Army Col. Kathryn Spletstoser looked on stone-faced as Gen. John Hyten testified Tuesday that claims he sexually assaulted her are untrue.
“I want to state to you and to the American people in the strongest possible terms that these allegations are false,” Hyten told the Senate Armed Services Committee, describing an Air Force investigation into the matter as extensive and thorough. “Nothing happened, ever.”
Currently the head of U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base, Hyten has been nominated to serve as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the military’s second highest officer.
The committee chairman Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said in an interview that he expects the committee to approve Hyten’s nomination this week, before lawmakers leave for their August recess.
Spletstoser was a top aide to Hyten at StratCom, where she received positive reviews before being forced out for creating a “toxic” work environment.
After Hyten’s nomination to be vice chairman was announced, Spletstoser came forward with accusations that Hyten made a series of unwanted advances toward her.
Spletstoser sat in the front row of the hearing room’s section for the public Tuesday and told reporters afterward that Hyten was the one not being honest.
“He lied about a myriad of items ... he lied about sexually assaulting me,” Spletstoser said.
Spletstoser referred to “sophomoric” advances by Hyten toward her over her time working for him.
“Gen. Hyten was very much infatuated with me,” she said.
She has alleged that at the 2017 Ronald Reagan Defense Forum in California, Hyten came into her hotel room and rubbed up against her until he ejaculated.
In hindsight, she said, she should have raised an alarm at that time in order to hold Hyten accountable.
“As somebody who had just almost been raped that evening,” Spletstoser said, taking a long pause as she choked up, “I was just devastated as a human being and I was scared.”
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During the hearing, Hyten repeatedly denied all of the allegations, saying that he had never even visited the colonel’s hotel room. He cited the Air Force investigation that resulted in no action being taken against him.
Former Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson introduced Hyten at the hearing, saying the allegations against him were taken seriously and exhaustively investigated. That produced a report totaling more than 1,400 pages, she noted.
“General Hyten was falsely accused and this matter should be set aside as you consider his nomination,” she said. “I accept that it is entirely possible that his accuser is a wounded soldier who believes what she is saying is true, even if it’s not.”
Spletstoser said Wilson’s comments show the former secretary was uninformed, and she disputed suggestions that investigation was thorough, saying it seemed aimed more at investigating her and did not include all relevant materials.
The committee includes two Republican women who have detailed their own experiences as sexual assault victims — and the two differed sharply in their approaches to the hearing.
Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., revealed earlier this year how she was raped by a superior officer while serving in the military. She said she takes sexual assault allegations seriously but was unequivocal in backing Hyten.
“The truth is that General Hyten is innocent of these charges,” McSally said. “Sexual assault happens in the military. It just didn’t happen in this case. I pray the accuser gets the help she needs and finds the peace she is searching for, but it cannot be by destroying General Hyten with these false allegations.”
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, on the other hand, was responsible for some of Tuesday’s toughest questioning.
A retired Army National Guard officer, Ernst revealed earlier this year that she had been raped in college.
Ernst focused her questions on how Hyten allowed that “toxic” environment to develop at StratCom and suggested he did not tackle it appropriately.
“You serve in one of the most important positions within our United States military, overseeing our nuclear arsenal,” Ernst said. “However, you could not bring yourself to admit or recognize toxic leadership within your command.”
Hyten talked during the hearing about the difficulty of high-ranking officers seeing when otherwise high-performing subordinates create those kinds of toxic environments.
Ernst said she would watch how the rest of the confirmation process goes, but described what she views as a clear conflict between Hyten’s “personal inclinations” and professional responsibilities.
“This leaves me with concerns about your judgment and ability to lead in one of the highest positions in the U.S. military,” Ernst said.
Ernst told The World-Herald later in the day that “I think we’re in a position today because of a lack of leadership that was shown in the past.”
As for the sexual misconduct allegations?
“They can’t be proven, they can’t be disproven,” Ernst said.
Spletstoser told reporters that she did not think her approach to the job at StratCom was “toxic,” but that Hyten was well aware of her leadership style and encouraged it.
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., is a senior member of the committee who said she believes that the sexual misconduct allegations are false. She focused her questions during the hearing on Hyten’s official duties.
“It’s nukes, it’s cyber, it’s space,” Fischer said. “You don’t have a better qualified individual than John Hyten.”
Fischer said she disagrees with Ernst about Hyten’s handling of the toxic leadership situation.
“He assumed responsibility when he heard issues, when people came to him,” Fischer said.
According to an Omaha Police Department report, Spletstoser was taken into emergency protective custody on Feb. 26, 2018, after threatening to kill herself.
The responding officers were advised that she had told Hyten earlier in the day that he had “24 hrs. to rectify the situation,” or she was going to kill herself with a family firearm, according to the report.
In response to emailed questions about the police report, Spletstoser’s attorney, Air Force Lt. Col. Nora Rule, said that Hyten called the police in an effort to have her committed for 72 hours.
But Rule said her client was not suicidal and never told Hyten that she planned to kill herself.
“The Omaha police arrived and found zero guns, and the hospital that she was sent to refused to keep her beyond a few hours after evaluating her,” Rule wrote.
Spletstoser said confirming Hyten to the uniformed military’s second highest position would send a poor message.
“It says that every general officer, or flag officer, is above the law, and that they won’t be treated under the same set of circumstances as anybody else,” Spletstoser said.