PENTAGON - Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the nominee for the position of second-highest military officer in the United States, Tuesday defended himself against sexual assault allegations made by an Army colonel who worked for him.
"These allegations are false," Hyten said during his nomination hearing for vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"This is the United States of America. The truth has to matter," he added. Hyten is currently head of the U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees the nation's nuclear capabilities.
Army Col. Kathryn Spletstoser has accused the four-star general of inappropriately rubbing against her and kissing her in 2017. After his hearing, she told reporters that he had made false statements during his testimony Tuesday.
An investigation into the colonel's allegations resulted in a more than 1,400-page report, which officials say concluded that the allegations were unsubstantiated.
Hyten was supported Tuesday by the majority of senators in the hearing. Most vocal in her support was Republican Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona, a fervent advocate for sexual assault victims, who revealed earlier this year that she was a rape victim herself while serving in the Air Force.
McSally said she focused on these allegations "near solely" for the past three weeks and concluded that Hyten was "innocent."
"Sexual assault happens in the military. It just didn't happen in this case," she said, while both praising Hyten for his integrity and humility throughout the process and encouraging "real" sexual assault victims to continue to come forward.
U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii, was less accepting of the general's claims of innocence, telling Hyten that "the lack of evidence" doesn't necessarily make the accusations "not true."
While Hyten encouraged the committee to base their judgments on the evidence collected, Hirono said, "Men assault women all the time and don't leave behind any evidence."
Hyten was introduced to the Senate Armed Services Committee by former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, who provided an emotional plea in support of the general.
"Sexual assault is a highly charged issue, more so today than perhaps any time in our history," Wilson said.
"None of us want to appear as leaders to be breaking faith with victims of sexual assault. All of us want to encourage victims to come forward, but we have to do the right thing with this case, with these facts, maintaining the credibility of this committee," she added.
After expressing her support for the investigation's conclusion of Hyten's innocence, Wilson said there is no other active duty officer who combines the intellect and experience of Hyten in space, cyber and the nuclear deterrent.
These areas of expertise have become increasingly important in the United States National Defense Strategy, which dictates the overall defense policy for the Pentagon and has pivoted to focus on near-peer competitors Russia and China.