For years experts on domestic extremism and U.S. intelligence analysts have warned the Pentagon that it has a problem with white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and anti-government extremists in the ranks. How serious a problem is not known because civilian and military leaders haven’t done what is needed to find out—no surveys, no central database of extremist incidents or disciplinary actions, and the rules on which activities are permitted and which violations need to be reported up the chain are confusing, making them easy to ignore. As a result, nearly seven months after scores of people with military experience joined an assault on the U.S. Capitol, we are relying on a few disparate data points to understand the scale and potential danger of extremist affiliations in the country’s armed forces:
· Of the 550 people charged so far for the January 6 insurrection, at least 58 have military experience—more than 50 with previous service, 4 current members of the Reserves or National Guard, and a currently serving Marine Corps major.
· In a 2020 Military Times poll with Syracuse University, 31 percent of activity-duty readers said that they had “personally witnessed” examples of white nationalism or racism within the ranks.
· The FBI opened 143 criminal investigations into current or former service members last year, 68 for domestic extremism.
The military’s problem with extremists, and its denial, reflect broader problems and denial in our polarized society. Despite a rising number of attacks from far-right homegrown extremists, the national security infrastructure has since 9/11 focused overwhelmingly on foreign and foreign-inspired terrorism. And while 10 percent of January 6 arrestees with military service is lower than early counts (the FBI has more arrests to make, so the percentages could change again), it is higher than the 7 percent of the adult population that has served and far higher than anyone would ever hope to see from people who have sworn to support and defend the U.S. Constitution and been trained to use tactical weapons.
More than three months after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced a campaign to root out extremism in the military’s ranks, we are waiting for answers on a host of questions: How will the Pentagon define extremism, how will it get a true accounting of the problem, and will the information be shared with the public? Will service members still be allowed to join groups like the Oath Keepers, Boogaloo Bois, American Identity Movement, or QAnon as long as they don’t “actively participate”? How will the services improve their recruitment processes to screen out applicants with extremist behavior or affiliations—researchers say some extremist groups are sending members to enlist to gain skills and experience—and train active-duty forces and soon-to-be veterans to identify and resist pitches from extremist groups?
And how hard is Austin willing to push to make this happen, while congressional Republicans and Fox News lead a spurious charge against a “woke military?” In late March, Fox’s Tucker Carlson accused Austin of ignoring the shutdown of the Suez Canal—“Was it an accident? Maybe. Maybe not.”—because of his focus on extremism. “Lloyd Austin believes the real threat to America is not the Chinese government or paralyzed global trade. The real threat is people who didn’t vote for Joe Biden.”
Sources of Confusion
Austin, the country’s first Black defense secretary, saw chilling examples of violent white supremacy during his forty-one-year career in the U.S. Army; in 1995 when he was a lieutenant colonel with the 82nd Airborne Division, two skinhead soldiers murdered a Black couple as they walked down a street near Fort Bragg, the division’s home base. Still, there is no sign that without the January 6 attack he would have made this a priority. In a December 2020 essay by then-President elect Biden in The Atlantic explaining why he had chosen another recently retired general to lead the Pentagon, Biden emphasized Austin’s “crucial role in bringing 150,000 American troops home” from Iraq; the only terrorists he mentioned Austin battling belonged to ISIS. In Austin’s opening statement for his confirmation hearing—two weeks after January 6—he warned that the Department of Defense (DOD) can’t keep the country safe “from our enemies … if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks.”
In February Austin ordered a one-day “stand-down” to discuss the threat from extremism within the military and civilian force. The Department of Defense template for “facilitated discussions” starts with a reminder of the oaths of enlistment and office, reviews which activities are prohibited in support of “supremacist/extremist” groups—“fundraising, demonstrating, rallying, recruiting, training, organizing, leading members, distributing material (including posting online), or knowingly wearing gang colors or clothing, having tattoos or body markings associated with such gangs or organizations”—and presents recent case studies. These include an enlisted Marine sharing “racist social media posts” of himself in blackface and a swastika made of military explosives (the Marine was administratively discharged) and a junior Coast Guard officer—a “self-described white nationalist”—caught stockpiling weapons and plotting “to conduct a widespread domestic terror attack targeting politicians and journalists” (the officer was “dropped from the Coast Guard rolls and sentenced to 13 years in prison”).
In April Austin ordered the Pentagon to review its definition of prohibited extremist activities and ordered the services to update recruitment questionnaires and training for outgoing service members. He also announced the creation of a task force led by Bishop Garrison, his top adviser on diversity, equity, and inclusion, to oversee progress and make further recommendations, including whether the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) needs to be amended and how better to police social media use, a neuralgic subject since President Donald Trump’s ouster from Twitter and Facebook. (The New York Post quickly targeted Garrison, a West Point graduate who did two tours In Iraq and was awarded two Bronze stars, for his supposed “extremist views,” flagging anti-Trump tweets he posted when he was a private citizen.)
I asked Cynthia Miller-Idriss, who directs American University’s Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL), for her assessment of the DOD stand-down materials—and whether they get what they are up against. She thought the case studies could be particularly helpful because they “are not exaggerated, not the bogeyman,” but she was concerned by the “heavy leaning into” discussions on the oath of enlistment without trainers explaining how extremists use the same language and concepts to manipulate potential recruits. “One of the biggest groups on January 6,” she noted, calls themselves the “Oath Keepers, and all the people [storming the Capitol] say they were saving democracy from tyrannical illegitimate action.”
Service members with whom I spoke had their own mixed reactions to their “stand-downs.” One Army officer described “the best discussion on racism” but said the group barely talked about the threat of extremism. A Marine reserve officer found the materials “legalistic.” Rather than making an impassioned case for why extremism goes against everything the Marines represent, “it felt like they were telling us just how far people could go to avoid trouble.”
Last year, Congress directed the Pentagon to add questions on exposure to racist, anti-Semitic, or white supremacist activity to its annual command climate surveys and DOD has begun testing questions. The services and the Department will need to gather a lot more information: tracking the number of prospective recruits rejected because of extremist affiliations; and data on the full spectrum of violations in the ranks—those that lead to criminal investigations, or charges, or involuntary separations, as well as lesser incidents that result in a reduction in rank, a poor evaluation, or an order for counseling, which should also set off alarm bells. The House version of last year’s defense authorization bill also called for revising military law to add a clear prohibition on committing, supporting, or soliciting violent acts of extremism. It was dropped to avoid a Trump veto. (Trump vetoed the bill anyway mainly because of its direction to remove the names of Confederate generals from military bases.)
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters in April that one of the key takeaways from the stand-downs is that “the force wants better guidance … about what extremist activity really is.” For now, the most explicit language is contained in the 2012 DOD Instruction 1325.06, “Handling Dissident and Protest Activities Among Members of the Armed Forces,” which says that military personnel must “reject active participation” in criminal, supremacist, or extremist gangs or causes, with the list noted above. It goes on to say that “while mere membership or possession of literature normally is not prohibited, it may merit further investigation and possibly counseling … to ensure that the service member understands what activities are prohibited.”
Commanders need a lot more guidance. The DOD instruction—and the individual services’ policies, whose variations fuel further confusion—gives commanders at all levels enormous discretion and almost no direction on which prohibited activities pose the most serious threats to the force or the country, or on which punishments are most appropriate for particular offenses, and no clear warning of the costs to their own careers if they decide it is easier to look the other way.
The Scope of the Challenge
An immediate question is why the Pentagon doesn’t simply ban all membership in extremist or supremacist groups—an idea that makes me queasy from a civil liberties perspective. Kirby told reporters at the same briefing that Austin “has indicated that he wants the working group to look at” a possible ban. Susan Corke, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center who has made recommendations to the Pentagon effort, says there was a time when her organization advocated “zero tolerance” but “we have moved away because of what we have learned about radicalization.” A ban, she warns, could contribute to a “a sense of victimhood” and further radicalize a service member. “Instead we favor more programs that prevent radicalization” at all stages of military service.
Experts on domestic extremism have a list of changes they believe the Pentagon and the services need to embrace. The services and DOD need to speak with one voice. Rewriting the UCMJ would send a strong signal—to the system if not necessarily the offenders—of the seriousness of the crimes. Regulations need to be clarified and updated to reflect 21st-century realities, including that not all violent extremists join formal groups and a lot more happens online to promote extremism than just distributing materials. Data collection and reporting requirements for leaders and commanders need to be a lot stronger, and there need to be more options and clearer pathways for reporting extremist incidents outside the chain of command and much stronger protections for whistleblowers. Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, says there also need to be “massive retraining for recruiters” and “a major push with veterans groups to raise awareness” of the problem. While the overwhelming number of rioters with military experience charged in the wake of January 6 are veterans, Veterans Affairs has been nearly silent.
Prevention and de-radicalization programs are key, but how one trains a force of more than 1.3 million to resist or reject disinformation and polarizing, hate-filled politics is not clear, especially when civilian society is failing so spectacularly on these fronts. Miller-Idriss and her colleagues at the PERIL lab have been working with Jigsaw, a Google-owned incubator, to develop ways to “inoculate” people (given current sentiments, “defend” might be a safer term) against extremist messages in online videos and memes, starting with a short video that deconstructs the techniques used by extremist groups to manipulate consumers. The approach is similar to public health research that found that when teenage boys in particular were shown how fast-food advertisements were manipulating what they order, they changed their behavior. “Adolescent boys didn’t like finding out they were being manipulated,” Miller-Idriss says.
The extent of the challenges are daunting. The denial can be found even among some of Austin’s top commanders. In mid-April, two months after Austin ordered the stand-downs, the heads of U.S. Strategic Command and the new U.S. Space Command both told the Senate Armed Services Committee that they had no extremists in their forces. Space Command’s General James Dickinson said, “We have done everything that Secretary Austin has asked us to do in terms of training and awareness. But in my organization I would say that number is zero.” During his own “years of experience,” he told the Senators, he had “not seen” an extremist in the ranks.
Carla Anne Robbins is faculty director of the master of international affairs program at Baruch College’s Marxe School and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is an editorial board member of American Purpose and former deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times. Twitter: @robbinscarla
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