A Pentagon report highlights disturbing examples of white supremacists inside the military and calls for changes to how the department screens recruits for possible ties to domestic extremism.
The report was drafted by the Trump administration last year before the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol and was sent to Congress last October, but never made public until now.
It describes one case in which a Florida National Guardsman, who was part of a neo-Nazi group, was chatting in an online forum with a fellow white supremacist, bragging that he makes no secret of his racist ideology among other troops.
“Are you worried at all about being found by your mates or someone, now being in the U.S. military?” he was asked.
The soldier replied: “I was 100% open about everything with the friends I made at training. They know about it all. They love me too cause I’m a funny guy.”
The exchange appeared in an extremist “Iron March” online forum in 2016, and it was part of a database that the Ars Technica news site published in 2019. A screen shot from the chat appears in the Pentagon report to Congress that examines efforts to prevent white supremacists from joining the military.
The report, which was first obtained by Roll Call, does not offer an estimate on the number of white supremacists inside the military, though it says the number is low in a force of more than 2 million active duty and reserves.
But the report warns even a small number of extremists pose a threat to national security and to the cohesion of the armed forces, citing murders, foiled terrorist plots and other incidents linked to white supremacists in the ranks over the past decade.
“Despite a low number of cases in absolute terms, individuals with extremist affiliations and military experience are a concern to U.S. national security because of their proven ability to execute high-impact events,” the report said.
Domestic extremist groups view the membership of active duty U.S. troops as “highly prized” because service members can bring “legitimacy” to their cause and help them attract more recruits, according to the report.
“Access to service members with combat training and technical weapons expertise can also increase both the probability of success and the potency of planned violent attacks,” it said.
After a deadly Jan. 6 siege of the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered a military-wide stand-down to allow commanders to hold discussions with troops about the threat posed by extremism. A number of current and former service members are facing federal charges in connection with the storming of the Capitol.
Lawmakers required the Defense Department to prepare the report after raising questions last year about how it screens recruits and recent cases of service members linked to white supremacist causes.
The Pentagon report recounts how some service members were discharged from the military after they were found to be active supporters of the neo-Nazi group known as Atomwaffen Division and the white nationalist American Identity Group.
Others were disciplined but were not kicked out of the force, it said.
One Marine involved in the deadly Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally in 2017 was discharged for his ties to the Atomwaffen Division in 2018. Another member trying to recruit members for the organization enlisted in the U.S. Navy, the report said.
As of 2017, a member of the American Identity Movement was enlisted with the Alabama National Guard and worked as a civilian security guard for the leading far-right figure, Richard Spencer, according to the report.
In another chat on the extremist Iron March forum, one user who calls himself an infantryman, described how fellow white nationalists find each other through fascist symbols, the report says.
“A good way people in the military find other rightists is to simply wear a shirt with some obscure fascist logo,” the person wrote, according to the report. “I met my good buddy at a brigade luncheon when he noticed the Totenkopf on my shirt.”
Tattoos and security clearances
The report recommended the Pentagon work more closely with the FBI, including with the bureau’s Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit and National Gang Intelligence Center, to help spot possible white supremacists applying to join the military.
Those offices could help the Defense Department identify tattoos or other telltale symbols during the recruitment process, it said.
The report said security clearance checks should include questions worded in a clearer way to spot white supremacist links, and that federal agencies need to agree on a consistent definition of what constitutes domestic extremism.
The authors also recommended more training of military recruiters and others involved in overseeing who joins the force, including making use of the FBI’s counter-terrorism expertise.
The Defense Department, however, sounded a note of caution on screening social media posts of potential recruits. The department is exploring the use of social media information in background checks but “more review and analysis are required before we will be able to determine how and if we can integrate this information into the background check process,” it said.
There was a risk of relying too heavily on a review of social media data, it said. “Databases alone cannot provide a full, whole-person determination of applicants,:” the report said.
The report only examined recruitment and did not look at how to handle extremism among current service members.
“Given its narrow focus, it does make several suggestions that I think are good or viable,” Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow who studies extremism at the Anti-Defamation League, said of the report.
He said white supremacy and anti-government extremism has periodically surged in American society and in the U.S. military, dating back to the 1980s. But he said the Pentagon has never enacted the kind of sweeping reforms necessary to tackle the problem.
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