DANGER

08.16.14

The Peace Corps' Awful Secret

The Peace Corps’ inspector general says she can’t oversee the agency properly without access to sex-assault records it refuses to hand over. Why won’t the Peace Corps comply?

The Peace Corps’ internal watchdog is publicly criticizing the agency for not releasing sexual assault records, which they say is disrupting oversight of an agency that has struggled in the past to protect its volunteers.

It’s a worrisome charge, leveled at one of America’s most storied programs by its own inspector general, and is just the latest episode for an organization roiled by exposés about the deaths of its volunteers abroad and the inadequacy of its sexual assault practices.

Since 2008, Peace Corps Inspector General Kathy Buller has led internal investigations that have led to 21 criminal convictions for crimes such as rape, attempted rape, abuse of minors, embezzlement, theft and possession of narcotics. She’s a career watchdog, with nearly 30 years of experience in the inspector general community.

Buller charged the Peace Corps with employing procedures that have hindered her office’s oversight efforts, and said the agency was not fully disclosing its sexual assault reports.

“By not allowing us to have access to those records, in order [for us] to ensure that victims are being treated properly, there’s a distinct possibility that the treatment of the victims who had come forward and complained would continue,” Buller said in an interview with the Daily Beast.

Last month, the New York Times ran a front-page story looking at the medical missteps that contributed to the death of Nick Castle, a Peace Corps volunteer in China. Salon ran multiple stories last year about female volunteers who were raped abroad, and then, while waiting to see if they were pregnant, were told that the Peace Corps would not pay for an abortion.

And in 2011, ABC reported that more than 1,000 female Peace Corps volunteers have been raped or sexually assaulted in the past decade, and that some victims felt the agency either sought to cover up incidents or treated victims with insensitivity.

The murder of Peace Corps volunteer Kate Puzey in Benin seized public attention in 2011. The volunteer was found dead after she reported her suspicions that a Peace Corps contractor was sexually harassing students at the school where she taught. Less than a year after her death, Congress passed reforms to protect whistleblowers like Puzey and to improve the agency’s sexual assault practices.

But even after Puzey’s murder, sexual assault still remains a problem for the Peace Corps and the thousands of volunteers they send abroad to promote American interests. The Peace Corps told the Daily Beast that in 2012, with approximately 5,000 female volunteers in service, 161 reports of sexual assault were filed.

The Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011 includes a process for volunteers to submit a confidential report of sexual assault. Disagreement over this process—the default method by which volunteers may file sexual assault allegations—is at the heart of the dispute between the Peace Corps and its inspector general.

The law says that a volunteer can submit a confidential report that will not be disclosed to anyone other than those providing support services. The law does provide an exception if disclosure is required by Federal statute.

The inspector general argues that Federal law—the Inspector General Act—authorizes IGs to all records in the agency, including confidential sexual assault reports. Meanwhile, the Peace Corps maintains that it has an overriding obligation to protect the privacy of sexual assault victims.

Earlier this year, after Buller complained about this problem in a congressional hearing, the IG and Peace Corps reached an agreement whereby the agency would provide additional information but would continue to withhold personal identifying information and graphic details of assaults.

“The Peace Corps respects and values the important role of the Inspector General, which is why we worked hard to reach an agreement,” a Peace Corps spokeswoman told the Beast. “We are committed to working with the Inspector General to ensure rigorous oversight while protecting the confidentiality and privacy of volunteers who are sexually assaulted.”

Although an agreement has been reached in theory, Peace Corps policy has not been updated to reflect it, leading to what the inspector general’s office said was an “information blackout” on sexual assault reports. The inspector general also continues to assert that it needs all records, including personal identifying information and graphic details of assaults, in order to properly oversee the agency’s response to sexual assault.

“[We need] to know what happened to the victim to evaluate whether [the Peace Corps] properly responded to the incident and whether the agency adequately categorized the incident as a rape, aggravated sexual assault, or sexual assault,” said Buller.

There is no evidence that the Peace Corps is deliberately stonewalling, or declining to provide information simply to be difficult. In fact, they were swift in providing unflattering information in response to the Daily Beast’s inquiries. One spokesperson even worked late into the night to compile statistics related to Peace Corps safety.

And the agency says it has undertaken extensive reforms to address sexual assault: training volunteers and staff, implementing new risk reduction procedures, and ensuring effective support when a crime occurs.

But the Peace Corps’s tension with its inspector general exists because the agency is trying to uphold a principle other than transparency: commitment to the privacy of volunteers. It’s far from an ignoble ideal, but it also implies that the office of the inspector general would not treat reports responsibly.

The provision of confidential details to the IG does not mean that they will be publicly released. In fact, under law the IG is under the same obligation as the Peace Corps to keep personal details private.

There are always inclinations for people in powerful positions to protect themselves after embarrassing lapses of responsibility, and without oversight the incentives always lean towards obfuscation. Without broad oversight, mistakes are more likely to happen again.

Further, it is hard to imagine a case where volunteers decline to report sexual assault because the agency’s internal watchdog will be provided information to determine that there is no negligence or wrongdoing. The denial of information, even for pure intentions, is difficult to defend—especially for an agency that has struggled to ensure the safety of its volunteers.

“Are Volunteer victims of sexual assault better off when the Peace Corps is allowed to withhold information from the Inspector General and operate in secrecy,” Buller asked, “or when the Inspector General has full access to information and can hold the agency fully accountable?”