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Pentagon report warns of threat from white supremacists inside the military

A Defense Department report highlights disturbing examples of white supremacy inside the military, calling for changes in how the department screens recruits for possible ties to domestic extremism.

The report, which the Trump administration drafted last year before the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, was sent to Congress in October, but it has not been made public until now.

It describes one case in which a Florida National Guards member, 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 his colleagues.

“Are you worried at all about being found by your mates or someone, now being in the U.S. military?” he was asked.

The guard membersman 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.”

Feb. 4, 202101:41

The exchange appeared in an extremist “Iron March” online forum in 2016, part of a database that the news site Ars Technica published in 2019. A screenshot from the chat appears in the Pentagon’s report to Congress, which examines efforts to prevent white supremacists from joining the military.

The report, which was first obtained by Roll Call, does not estimate the number of white supremacists in the military, although it says the number is low in a force of more than 2 million active-duty members and reservists.

But it warns that even a small number of extremists poses 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. forces 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 the deadly siege of the Capitol last month by a pro-Trump mob, the new defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, ordered a militarywide stand-down to allow commanders to hold discussions with members about the threat posed by extremism. A number of current and former service members face federal charges in connection with the storming of the Capitol.

Lawmakers ordered the Defense Department to prepare the report after they raised questions last year about how it screens recruits and about recent cases of service members linked to white supremacist causes.

The report recounts how some service members were discharged after they were found to be active supporters of the neo-Nazi group known as the Atomwaffen Division and the white nationalist American Identity Group.

Others were disciplined but not kicked out of the force, it said.

A Marine involved in the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, 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 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 a leading far-right figure, Richard Spencer, according to the report.

In another chat on the Iron March forum, a user who calls himself an infantryman described how fellow white nationalists find one another 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 that the Pentagon work more closely with the FBI, including the bureau’s Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit and its 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 that 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 using the FBI’s counterterrorism expertise.

The Defense Department, however, sounded a note of caution about screening potential recruits’ social media posts. 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 is a risk of relying too heavily on reviews of social media data, it said. “Databases alone cannot provide a full, whole-person determination of applicants,” the report said.

The report examined recruitment only 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,” said Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow who studies extremism for the Anti-Defamation League.

He said white supremacy and anti-government extremism have periodically surged in American society and in the military dating to the 1980s. But, he said, the Pentagon has never enacted the kind of sweeping reforms necessary to tackle the problem.