Posted on January 20, 2021

Pentagon Accelerates Efforts to Root Out Far-Right Extremism in the Ranks

Eric Schmitt et al., New York Times, January 18, 2021

The Pentagon is intensifying efforts to identify and combat white supremacy and other far-right extremism in its ranks as federal investigators seek to determine how many military personnel and veterans joined the violent assault on the Capitol.

In the days since a pro-Trump mob breached the Capitol on Jan. 6, senior leaders of the 2.1 million active-duty and reserve troops have been grappling with fears that former or current service members will be found among the horde.

The F.B.I. investigation into the Capitol siege, still in its very early stages, has identified at least six suspects with military links out of the more than 100 people who have been taken into federal custody or the larger number still under investigation. They include a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel from Texas, an Army officer from North Carolina and an Army reservist from New Jersey. Another person with military service was shot and killed in the assault.

The military’s examination of its ranks marks a new urgency for the Pentagon, which has a history of downplaying the rise of white nationalism and right-wing activism, even as Germany and other countries are finding a deep strain embedded in their armed forces.

“These people are not representative of our country’s military,” Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview. He said most active-duty troops and veterans “continue to serve honorably and uphold their oath to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution.”


Federal officials are vetting thousands of National Guard troops arriving to help secure the inauguration. Of the 21,500 Guard personnel who had arrived in Washington by Monday, any who will be near President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will receive additional background checks, a standard procedure to counter insider threats that was also taken before President Trump’s inauguration in 2017.

Defense Department officials say they are looking into stepping up the monitoring of social media postings from service members, in much the way companies do with their employees.


Last Tuesday, General Milley and the rest of the Joint Chiefs of Staff sent an extraordinary letter to all military personnel, reminding them that Mr. Biden would soon be their commander in chief and that they were duty bound to defend the Constitution.

The Defense Department inspector general announced an investigation last week into the effectiveness of Pentagon policies and procedures that prohibited service members from advocacy of or participation in supremacist or extremist groups.

The reckoning at the Pentagon comes as retired Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III is poised to become the nation’s first Black defense secretary, an ascension that, depending on how General Austin decides to proceed, could either sharpen or blur the American military’s decades-long battles with racial inequality and white supremacy.


“This needs to be rooted out of our military,” Senator Tammy Duckworth, Democrat of Illinois and an Iraq war veteran, said in an interview last week. General Austin, she said, “will be in a unique position to head up that effort.”


Pentagon officials have known for some time that they have a problem. The Defense Department routinely brags that the American military is a microcosm of American society — but officials now acknowledge that if a segment of American society holds white supremacist views, that means there will be a similar segment of the military that does, too.

Last year, the F.B.I. notified the Defense Department that it had opened criminal investigations involving 143 current or former service members. Of those, 68 were related to domestic extremism cases, according to a senior Pentagon official. The “vast majority” involved retired military personnel, many with unfavorable discharge records, the official said.

The majority of the domestic extremism cases involved antigovernment or anti-authority motivations, including attacks on government facilities and authorities, the official said. One-quarter of the cases were associated with white nationalism. A small number were associated with antifascist or anti-abortion motivations.

The acting secretary of defense, Christopher C. Miller, directed Pentagon officials last month to toughen policies and regulations banning extremist activities among troops, and update the Uniform Code of Military Justice to specifically address extremist threats.


The United States military, unlike police departments and other law enforcement groups, has the ability to use extremist beliefs to disqualify those seeking to join. {snip}


All military personnel, including those in the National Guard, undergo extensive background investigations and physical examinations including assessments of tattoos. Troops are continuously monitored for indications that they are involved in extremist activity and receive training to identify others around them who could be “insider threats.”