Pentagon & Congress

The military knows it has a problem with domestic extremists, white supremacists

In the wake of reports that current and former service members are under investigation for their participation in the Jan. 6 protest and subsequent attack on the Capitol, the Pentagon is making an effort to reinforce its policies on extremism.

At the same time, the Defense Department is in the midst of a review of all of its policies on extremist activity, a senior defense official told reporters Thursday.

“We clearly recognize the threat from domestic extremists, particularly those who espouse white supremacist or white nationalist ideologies,” the official said. “We are actively involved in always trying to improve our understanding of where the threat is coming from as a means of understanding and taking action.”

The official pointed to studies on domestic terrorism, which have found that “between 2001 and today right-wing extremists are responsible for more deaths in this country than any other extremist group,” the official said.

Many of those are based on both data and public statements from the FBI.

Though the services do background checks for extremist views and will drop recruiting prospects when they find evidence of it, the armed forces has a particular challenge when it comes to extremist groups.

In short, there are aspects of military service “that are of appeal to these groups,” the official said.

“We know that some groups actively attempt to recruit our personnel into their cause, or actually encourage their members to join the military for [the] purpose of acquiring skills and experience,” the official added.

Those skills are “prized” by some groups, the official went on to say, primarily for the capabilities they bring, but because “it also brings legitimacy, in their minds, to their cause, the fact that they can say they have former military personnel that align with their extremist and violent extremist views.”

The FBI regularly updates the services and DoD when it becomes aware of currently serving and former troops who pop up in their domestic extremism research, the official said, though he could not share statistics.

Elsewhere, commands have the ability to investigate their troops for extremist political speech, or hate speech, as well as referring them for criminal inquiry through each service’s investigative command.

Those numbers are difficult to come by, however, as the defense secretary’s office and the service headquarters do not centrally track the opening and progress of those cases.

They are able to fetch data from the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces, the official said, which the criminal investigative services share with the FBI, but he did not respond to the question of whether the services or the defense secretary’s office are centrally tracking them.

On the question of whether there is a surge in right-wing extremist activity within the military, the official said that there is, anecdotally, an increase. But part of that has to do with increased reporting and the visibility of these groups in the public, particularly in response to Black Lives Matter movement protests over the summer.

“There were cases of current and former military that were made public at that time,” he said, including an active-duty airman accused of shooting and killing a federal law enforcement agent on behalf of the Boogaloo Boys, an antigovernment group that has been implicated in domestic terror.

Last fall, a Military Times poll found that about one-third of all active-duty respondents said they saw signs of white supremacist or racist ideology in the ranks.

Troops surveyed classified white nationalism as a national security threat on par with al-Qaida and the Islamic State, and more worrisome than the danger posed by North Korea, Afghanistan or Iraq.

The defense official characterized the poll as dealing more with “discrimination” in the ranks, but did not respond to a question of whether these attitudes are something they are surveying, or would consider surveying, themselves.

The recurring Rand Military Workplace Study, which collects anecdotal data on toxic command climate, sexual harassment and more on behalf of DoD, does not currently ask about white supremacist or other extremist attitudes.

Calls for action

At the same time, lawmakers are demanding a new investigation into extremism and “violent fringe extremist activity” in the military.

In a request to the DoD inspector general’s office Thursday, a group of 14 senators warned that “extremist ideology threatens to compromise the unity and effectiveness of our armed forces, and in turn jeopardizes the national security of the United States.”

They want a full inquiry into extremist activity and behavior among service members, specifically including white supremacist groups, and for recommendations to “prevent, address, and neutralize extremist ideology within the armed forces.”

The effort — led by Senate Armed Services Committee member Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. — comes as military leaders are working to determine how many, if any, active-duty and reserve troops may have been involved in the assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6, and to what extent individuals may have been radicalized by extremist groups.

In a statement released Tuesday, DoD’s top uniformed officials condemned the attack and urged troops to remain focused on their duty to the country.

“As service members, we must embody the values and ideals of the nation,” the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote. “We support and defend the Constitution. Any act to disrupt the Constitutional process is not only against our traditions, values and oath. It is against the law.”

Five people died in the Jan. 6 assault, which followed a protest event on the National Mall where President Donald Trump encouraged his supporters to reject the results of last November’s presidential election. The dead included Capitol Hill police officer Brian Sicknick, a former New Jersey Air National Guard member who died after being struck in the head by a fire extinguisher during the riot.

The senators’ letter noted that “several former military personnel” participated in the attack. They include Ashli Babbitt, a 35-year old Air Force veteran who was shot by a Capitol Police officer as she tried to force her way into the House chamber.

“As investigations continue, it is possible that additional military personnel beyond those we already know of will be found complicit,” the group wrote.

“Beyond the insurrectionist attack on the Capitol, it has been widely reported that white supremacists are joining the military and permeating the ranks … The spread of white supremacist ideology is dangerous for the military and threatens to rupture civil-military safeguards that our democracy requires.”

Lawmakers included in the recently-passed fiscal 2021 defense authorization act language to create a new deputy inspector general to conduct oversight of diversity and inclusion issues, as well as supremacist and extremist activity. Senators said the recent news “necessitates a comprehensive investigation as early as possible.”

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