Facing sexual assault allegations in his bid to be the second highest military official, Air Force Gen. John Hyten was given key endorsements, but senators on both sides still have questions about his ability to lead.
In a confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday, two powerful advocates — former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and military sexual assault survivor Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) — backed Hyten in his nomination to be the next Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
However, senators like Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), questioned Hyten’s ability to lead after reports showed he was slow to act amid allegations of toxic leadership under his command. He also had few answers for how the military should move forward in decreasing sexual assault and harassment within its ranks.
Hyten was publicly accused of making unwanted sexual contact with his subordinate, Army Col. Kathryn Spletstoser, in several events taking place in 2017.
Hyten denied those allegations during the hearing.
The Senate committee held five closed-door executive sessions, totaling 15 hours of testimony, before the hearing. The committee spoke with Spletstoser and Hyten about the incidents in question and reviewed thousands of pages of documents, including the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigation’s report, which did not substantiate Spletstoser’s claims.
“The truth is Gen. Hyten is innocent of these charges,” said McSally, who was raped by a superior officer while in the Air Force. “Sexual assault happens in the military. It just didn’t happen in this case.”
Some senators and advocacy groups were not as convinced.
“The Senate cannot in good conscience confirm Gen. Hyten. Col. Spletstoser has bravely reported the criminal actions of her commander and has cooperated fully with the rushed investigation by the Air Force,” Don Christensen, the former Air Force chief prosecutor and president of Protect Our Defenders. “The question before the Senate is not whether Gen. Hyten should be tried and convicted; it is whether he should become the second highest-ranking member of the U.S. Armed Forces. There is no evidence that Spletstoser has fabricated a single word of her allegations or has anything to gain by coming forward. In fact, quite the opposite.”
Concerns about Hyten’s leadership came out of the investigation and a separate look into Spletstoser.
In 2018, Spletstoser was accused of toxic leadership. Hyten’s handling of the situation lead Ernst to question his management.
“The facts have left me with concerns regarding your judgement, leadership and fitness to serve as the next Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” Ernst said.
According to Ernst, the investigation cited numerous times that Hyten enabled the toxic leadership, and did not take the issue outside of his command for an impartial officer to review.
A month before the investigation into Spletstoser, Hyten gave her the top rating among 71 colonels in his command and evaluated her as having multi-star potential.
After the toxic leadership reports, Hyten never counseled Spletstoser formally about the complaints.
“Other people, multiple times, went to you, voiced their concerns about the toxic leadership, but you did not acknowledge that,” Ernst said. “You did not do written counseling statements, you did not advise her any differently. You serve in one of the most important positions in our United States military overseeing your nuclear arsenal. However, you could not bring yourself to admit or recognize toxic leadership within your command and you did nothing to change that course until the investigation was brought forward and you continued to endorse her. You only did something about it when concerns were raised about your own leadership and the investigation was not forwarded on to your higher echelon command, which I see as a conflict of interest.”
Ernst said these actions show a tension between personal inclinations and professional responsibilities.
“She was a White House fellow,” Hyten said. “My predecessor, when I took command, had nothing but great things to say about her. When I look at a White House fellow and my predecessor, the finest gentleman I’ve ever met, says glowing things about her, I’m assuming this is a spectacular officer.”
Sen. Tammy Duckworth raised another question about Hyten’s leadership. Hyten said he has been concerned about sexual assault for more than 10 years, and yet had little ideas for how to deal with the issue.
“You can’t tell us that when you become vice chair that one of the first things you are going to do would be appoint someone to your personal staff whose job it is to deal with this? Create a panel that’s going to deal with this? Go out to the Air Force Academy and personally figure out what is going on?” Duckworth said. “You can’t come up with any ideas like that after 10 years of concern? I worry about your leadership on this issue.”
Hyten said he thought about the issue a lot.
“Every time I see the numbers they seem to be worse,” he said. “We are taking all these actions. I think those are good programs and I have good feedback from them. But the numbers don’t change, so it is a vexing problem and I can commit to you that I will do everything with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to put the right people in place and a team in place. I’ll support working with Congress.”