WASHINGTON — Nebraskans have come to know Gen. John Hyten as head of U.S. Strategic Command and hailed his nomination earlier this year to the highest levels of military leadership.
But that nomination is now in jeopardy amid allegations that Hyten sexually harassed and assaulted one of his aides while running StratCom, which is headquartered at Offutt Air Force Base south of Omaha.
The accuser told the Associated Press that Hyten subjected her to a series of unwanted sexual advances by kissing, hugging and rubbing up against her in 2017. And she says he tried to derail her military career after she rebuffed him.
Her allegations come as the Senate Armed Services Committee is reviewing Hyten’s nomination to be the next vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the second-highest military position at the Pentagon.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, is one member of the committee who has made a point of pressing all nominees about any past misconduct.
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“These kinds of allegations are serious,” Hirono told The World-Herald on Thursday. “I just learned about them yesterday, so I will be reviewing some documents tomorrow before I make a decision.”
An Air Force investigation did not uncover evidence to support the allegations.
“There was insufficient evidence to support any finding of misconduct on the part of Gen. Hyten,” Pentagon spokeswoman Col. DeDe Halfhill said in a statement. “Gen. Hyten cooperated with the investigation. With more than 38 years of service to our Nation, Gen. Hyten has proven himself to be a principled and dedicated patriot.”
And StratCom officials also provided a written statement:
“U.S. Strategic Command fully cooperated with the investigation by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. According to Air Force officials, there was insufficient evidence to support any finding of misconduct on the part of Gen. Hyten.”
But one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the subject involved personnel matters, said the investigation also found no evidence that the woman was lying.
Armed Services Committee members were briefed this week on the allegations and the results of the Air Force investigation.
Those members include Sens. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, who have both worked on legislation to combat sexual assault in the military.
Ernst declined to comment through a spokesman. Fischer declined to discuss the specifics of the allegations but said the Air Force investigation was thorough and resulted in no charges.
“I have had a great working relationship with Gen. Hyten,” she said. “He is a committed, capable man. He has given years of service to this country.”
The woman who made the allegations said she is willing to testify under oath to the committee, preferably in a closed-door session.
She remains in the military but has moved to a different job.
“My life was ruined by this,” she told the AP.
The woman asked to not be identified by name. The AP generally does not identify those who say they have been sexually assaulted.
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., previously served on the Armed Services Committee but left the panel in order to join the Intelligence Committee. Sasse said he hadn’t heard of the allegations when asked about them Thursday morning.
Sens. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., have raised questions about whether Hyten received special treatment because of his high rank.
In an interview, Duckworth agreed with Fischer that the Air Force investigation was thorough and professional but questioned why Hyten was allowed to remain in his position in the interim.
Duckworth said other military officials have been removed from duties when facing such allegations.
“I do think that he’s been treated differently than other officers who have had similar allegations,” she said.
Duckworth also said members of the committee need to hear from the accuser before deciding on the nomination.
“When we have issues of sexual assault, especially in the military, that the alleged victim deserves her time to tell her story before we make decisions,” she said.
Duckworth said she has not spoken with the accuser personally but has reviewed her allegations.
“I’ve read all of her allegations, and she’s a very believable witness,” she said.
The accuser began working for Hyten in November 2016, the month he became commander of StratCom.
She said the unwanted sexual contact, kissing and hugging began in early 2017 and recurred several times that year when she was working closely with Hyten. She said she repeatedly pushed him away and told him to stop.
In December 2017, when they were in California for the annual Reagan National Defense Forum, Hyten came into her room wearing workout clothes and hugged her tightly and rubbed up against her, the woman says.
She said she didn’t report the incidents at the time in order to avoid embarrassment and out of fear of retaliation. She was also thinking about retiring and believed that Hyten was as well, so she concluded that he would not pose a risk to any other service members.
She later learned that she was under investigation for what officials said was “toxic” leadership behavior.
That allegation surprised her, she said, because Hyten was familiar with her leadership style and “encouraged” it. He had given her glowing performance reviews, some of which were reviewed by the AP.
“Exceptionally competent and committed leader with the highest level of character,” Hyten wrote, adding that “her ethics are above reproach.”
It remains to be seen whether Hyten will press forward or withdraw his name from consideration.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said that senators are still reviewing the information available and that no hearings are scheduled at this time.
Inhofe declined to say how the allegations will affect the nomination but did point to the Air Force investigation.
And while not commenting on the allegations against Hyten, Fischer rejected a suggestion that the four-star general had been handled with kid gloves because of his high rank.
“I specifically asked the question, ‘Was there preferential treatment given to Gen. Hyten at any time during this investigation?’ and there was not,” Fischer said.
This report includes material from the Washington Post and the Associated Press.
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