FBI Works With Cruise Lines to Bury Reports of Rapes at SeaS

Our mental images of cruises usually involve lots of sundecks and cocktails and endless buffets of food, but the reality is that cruise ships are basically floating cities in which all kinds of ugly things happen—including rape. In fact, rape aboard these vessels was such a problem that Congress passed a bill to change the way these crimes were reported and give consumers access to information about them. Only the FBI slyly introduced some language into the bill that has effectively stopped the reporting of these assaults to the public. Why would they do such a thing? Some experts believe it's because they've gotten a little too friendly with the cruise industry.

Rape has long been a problem aboard cruise ships, but it wasn't until Congress enacted the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010 that regulation of the cruise industry was increased, and cruise companies were required to have policies in place to protect rape victims. The bill also mandated that serious crimes and missing persons be reported to the FBI if a U.S. citizen was involved. Those statistics would then, for the first time, be made public on a website that would allow consumers to see which cruise lines had which types of crimes. You can imagine that if a company had a high number of sexual assaults in its column, you might think twice about heading out into the middle of the ocean on one of their ships.

Sounds great in theory but, as Salon's Matthew Harwood reports, it hasn't worked out as the consumer groups who lobbied for the law originally planned. The problem centers around language that the FBI quietly inserted into the bill when it was in committee. It said that crimes would be reported "that are no longer under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation." Seems innocent enough, and, in fact, it made it past all the people who'd been advocating for this bill, including its sponsors in Congress, without raising any eyebrows.

After the law was in place, however, this language had a surprising effect. International Cruise Victims, a victims' advocacy organization, began to notice a precipitous drop in the amount of cruise crimes being reported under the new system. Between 2007 and 2008, for instance, there had been 363 crimes reported to the FBI voluntarily by the cruise lines. Between 2010 and the first quarter of 2012, however, there were only 54 crimes. In the third quarter of 2011, there were ZERO crimes reported—even though the FBI itself has said that there are crimes which allegedly happened onboard cruise ships during that time.

Jaime Barnett, president of the ICV, said the group couldn't figure out what was happening. They assumed it was something to do with the FBI not complying with the new law, but soon they realized the problem was with the law itself. The ICV hadn't even known it was the FBI who was behind the insertion of that seemingly innocuous language, which it now turned out was the root of the entire problem.

The FBI interpreted the "no longer under investigation" part of the language to mean that a case would be reported when the FBI had opened and closed a case. Seeing as FBI cases are only opened for about 10 to 20 percent of the crimes that are reported on cruise ships, this method leads to misleadingly low crime rate. In addition, even for the crimes for which cases are opened, it can often take a long time for them to be declared closed—since they remain open while appeals are processed, etc. So, they wouldn't necessarily show up in the statistics until years after they'd actually happened. Barnett says that this style of reporting the numbers destroys the original intent of the bill which was to protect consumers by giving them timely information about which cruise lines are safe for their families. And, indeed, it does seem to defeat the entire purpose.

What's even more unusual is that this system of reporting crime statistics is the exact opposite of the well-established way that the FBI has reported crime numbers within the U.S. The existing system, which has been in place since 1929, calculates crime statistics using criminal complaints and reports. That means the benefit of the doubt is given to the crimes, so they show up in the statistics even if they never end up being successfully prosecuted. Stephen G. Fischer Jr., of the FBI's own Criminal Justice Information Service, says, "Reporting only on crimes that were closed and/or prosecuted would be a misrepresentation of the true crime picture." Jeeze, when you've got your own guys saying your statistics are junk, that's pretty bad...

So then why oh why would the FBI go out of its way to sneakily put an entirely new and faulty crime reporting system in place specifically for cruise ships? Well, groups like the ICV charge that the FBI has an "incestuous relationship" with the cruise line industry. Royal Caribbean is under particular suspicion, because they've hired two former FBI executives into their ranks in recent years. There's also a report that Cruise Lines International Association, the industry's trade association, hosts closed door dinner meetings every two months for the FBI and the Coast Guard during which they discuss security issues. Terrific—so much for that much needed transparency and consumer protection. For their part, the ICV has requested invitations to these meetings, but naturally they've been ignored. Well, it's certainly nice to see that good old-fashioned American corporate influence extends all the way into international waters.

Erasing cruise ship crime [Salon]

Image via Laszlo Halasi/Shutterstock.