Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor in the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University, writes about women and social media. She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
Olympic gymnasts Simone Biles, McKayla Maroney and Aly Raisman and former college champion Maggie Nichols on Wednesday offered devastating testimony, sometimes through their tears, to the Senate Judiciary Committee about how USA Gymnastics, their sport’s governing body, and the FBI, America’s principal federal law enforcement agency, mishandled investigations into convicted sexual abuser Larry Nassar. The former USA Gymnastics team doctor was accused of violating more than 200 victims and is now serving a prison sentence of 40 to 175 years.
The gymnasts’ words were gut-wrenching to hear, both because of the deep suffering they described and because it was clear throughout that these young women, these strong athletes, should never have had to be there in the first place. They were in the public eye, before the nation’s highest legislative body, recounting their trauma for the world – and they were doing it because, at every turn, the people tasked with keeping them safe failed. As Biles said Wednesday, “I blame Larry Nassar and I also blame the entire system that enabled and perpetrated his abuse.”
In July, the Justice Department’s inspector general released a shocking report that found that allegations against Nassar were first reported to the FBI in Indianapolis in July 2015, but the agency didn’t investigate until September 2016. In the interim, according to the report, Nassar abused at least 70 more young people.
Maggie Nichols, known as “Athlete A” in the Nassar case because she was the first elite gymnast to report her abuse to USA Gymnastics, recounted, “While my complaints [were] with the FBI, Larry Nassar continued to abuse women and girls.” She reported in July 2015; the Lansing office of the FBI opened its official investigation into Nassar in October 2016.
Maroney told senators that FBI agents “committed an obvious crime” and made “entirely false claims about what I said.” She said they should be indicted. Raisman testified, “I felt pressured by the FBI to consent to Nassar’s plea deal.”
Senators concurred with the gymnasts. “The FBI’s handling of the Nassar case is a stain on the bureau,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin said. Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal described the FBI investigation as a “systematic” failure.
FBI Director Christopher Wray said he was “deeply and profoundly sorry” to the victims. He described the actions of the highest-ranking FBI official in Indianapolis as “violations of the FBI.” US law enforcement officials told CNN that, in recent weeks, the FBI fired an agent accused in the inspector general’s report of failing to launch a proper investigation in the case; a supervisor also named in the report for false statements and violating protocol retired in 2018.
Wray told the committee, “I don’t have a good explanation” for what went wrong. He also pledged to “make damn sure that everybody at the FBI remembers what happened here in heartbreaking detail.”
But, sadly, these athletes – the ones who testified and the scores more who were also victimized by Nassar – are far from the only women the FBI has failed. It’s long past time for the agency to do far more to prioritize investigations into violence against women and girls.
In 2015 – around the same time the FBI was failing to investigate the allegations against Nassar while he victimized more and more girls – women in the gaming industry were being viciously attacked online. They were getting violent threats, being doxed and more – as part of coordinated attacks now known as Gamergate. One female developer, Brianna Wu, told an interviewer then that she spent a day every week trying to get help from law enforcement after receiving death threats that left her with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Congresswoman Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) told Sue Scheff, author of the 2017 book “Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate,” that when she tried to get the FBI to help Wu, “frankly, the FBI told us cases of online abuse were not a priority.” FBI files released as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request (and eventually, a redacted report posted by the FBI itself) later revealed that the agency identified four alleged perpetrators – two of whom actually confessed – yet no charges were ever brought. “All this report does for me is show how little the FBI cared about the investigation,” Wu later said in a media interview. “I’m fairly livid.”
Today, women and girls continue to be victimized online at alarming rates. In the United States, according to Pew, 11% of women have been physically threatened online. The threat is far higher for women of color. Researchers and advocates have said that the problem of gender-based violence online has only grown during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Like Wu, women who are abused on the Internet rarely see justice. The journalist Anna Merlan has pointed out that women who report online rape threats and death threats to law enforcement rarely get help – but when people make online threats against law enforcement officers, they’re often promptly identified and charged.
In July, the State Department reported that online sexual exploitation increased precipitously during the coronavirus pandemic and victims were often children, who spent more unsupervised time online. There were dramatic increases in sex trafficking online as well as demand for sexually exploitative material. It’s more important than ever for the FBI, as the nation’s leader in law enforcement and as an institution now facing Congressional critique for its handling of crimes against children, to confront this new landscape with transparency and resolve.
The FBI should also hire more women. Just 20% of FBI special agents are female, according to the agency. Research finds that women are more likely than men to believe children who report sexual abuse. In 2019, 16 women who trained to become FBI agents filed a lawsuit against the agency, alleging gender discrimination in the way agents are recruited and evaluated. (The agency told NBC News at the time that it doesn’t comment on pending litigation.)
Enough is enough. The FBI and all law enforcement need to take threats reported by women and girls seriously, investigate them urgently, and dramatically scale up investigations into gendered violence. President Biden should give the agency a direct mandate to make investigations into violence against women a priority.
On Wednesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the President “supports” the FBI implementing the inspector general’s recommendations, which include making clear for staffers when they should coordinate with other law enforcement and social service agencies after receiving reports of crimes against children and more training for FBI staffers. Wray said the recommendations were already being implemented.
Wednesday’s hearing showed the devastating toll the FBI’s lack of action in the Nassar case had on young women – and they’re far from the only victims of the agency’s slowness to investigate crimes against women. It’s long past time for a federal case to be made about all of this.