Three lawmakers want the Navy secretary to explain how his service will combat prostitution and trafficking in the wake of a troubling report about sailors in Bahrain profiting from the sex trade there.
Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal, Kirsten Gillibrand and Tammy Baldwin sent a letter to Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite on Tuesday, calling on him to respond to a host of questions about how the service is responding to charges that sailors in the Middle East were attempting to recruit and harbor women for commercial sex acts.
Navy Times recently published a series of stories that detailed the Naval Criminal Investigative Service probes into sailors trafficking Thai women to work as prostitutes in Bahrain. Some sailors, the paper found, seized the women's passports and were housing them in government-funded residences.
The senators called the reports deeply concerning.
"We request 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," they wrote.
Blumenthal, of Connecticut, and Gillibrand, of New York, both sit on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Baldwin represents Wisconsin.
Cmdr. Sarah Higgins, a spokeswoman for Braithwaite, declined to respond to questions about the letter.
"We won't comment on congressional correspondence," she said.
The senators called on Braithwaite to not only say how the Navy has improved anti-trafficking training in the wake of the investigations, but also how the service is combating the "girl in every port" culture they say contributes to a climate that allows those crimes.
"Beyond the despicable crime that sailors were charged with, the underlying culture ... that has allowed prostitution in U.S. Navy ports is shameful," the letter states. "It is evident the Navy's zero tolerance policy against trafficking has not been effectively communicated to every echelon of commanders."
Vice Adm. Jim Malloy, the head of Naval Forces Central Command, said in June that the Navy launched an "awareness campaign" in the summer of 2018 that includes training on combating human trafficking and ethics and character development.
"The goal of this campaign is to raise awareness of this issue, enforce Navy core values, and promote bystander intervention," Malloy said. "Working with our host nation, NAVCENT remains vigilant to both monitor for any recurrence and prevent such activity."
The Navy also made several locations off-limits to U.S. troops, the command said. Navy Times reported that sailors involved in the cases in 2017 and 2018 went to bars and nightclubs that were popular spots for prostitutes.
The senators said they're concerned the problems uncovered by the NCIS investigation in Bahrain mean the problem isn't limited to that location.
"Even the perception that Navy personnel could be involved in trafficking is damaging to the local and global perception of Navy forces," they wrote. "... We strongly encourage the Navy to tailor training for locations where human trafficking is more prevalent, as it did in ... 5th Fleet."
The letter did not state a deadline by which Braithwaite should respond.