Extremists in the military - and how to define and identify them - a challenge for commanders
The National Guard’s deployment of thousands of troops to protect the inauguration of a new president was prompted by the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by right-wing radicals. But its removal of 12 of its own soldiers from that duty underscored a rising concern: how far has radicalization permeated the armed forces?
None of the guardsmen had ties to extremists, but two of them made “inappropriate” comments and texts, the National Guard Bureau said.
It was enough to chill those already worried about domestic terrorism. The armed forces have rules to weed out extremism in the ranks. The question now is whether commanders will be paying closer attention, some observers said.
Military leaders at every level are supposed to remain alert for signs of “future prohibited activities,” and are encouraged to quickly intervene, preferably through counseling.
“All military personnel, including members of the National Guard, have undergone a background investigation, are subject to continuous evaluation, and are enrolled in an insider threat program,” said Gary Reid, the Pentagon’s director for defense intelligence. “Simply put, we will not tolerate extremism of any sort.”
The crowd that attacked the Capitol, though holding a common belief that President Donald Trump, not Joe Biden, was the rightful winner of the Nov. 3 election, came from a variety of right-wing tendencies and groups, including white supremacist and anti-government paramilitaries and Q-Anon conspiracy adherents. Some were affiliated with no group at all.
Almost one out of five of those facing charges stemming from the riot are military veterans, news organizations have found. But actual data on how far extremist ideology has permeated the armed forces is in short supply.
The FBI investigated 68 cases of domestic extremism in all branches of the military last year, but beyond that, the Pentagon is unable to say how many have been disciplined or kicked out for that reason in any recent year.
The vast majority of those in the military serve with honor and “don’t espouse these sorts of dangerous beliefs,” said Pentagon press secretary John Kirby when asked about it Thursday. “But that doesn’t mean … that we don’t think that there might be a problem. The problem is, we don’t understand the full scope of it.”
The Air Force pointed to a decision in August in which Master Sgt. Corey Reeves was reduced to technical sergeant and administratively discharged for activity in a supremacist organization. The 17-year veteran was assigned to Shriever AFB near Colorado Springs, Colo..
“I think it’s been an open secret for a while that there’s a lot of white power stuff in the cops and the military,” said war correspondent, author and documentary filmmaker Sebastian Junger. “Obviously it’s hard to know how deliberately Trump tapped into that. The armed rally at the Michigan statehouse (on April 30) did seem like a trial run for January 6, though. People have always used violence to achieve ends that they couldn’t otherwise. None of it surprises me except how disorganized and inept the whole thing was.”
An unscientific Military Times poll of readers last year found more than one-third of all active-duty troops and more than half of minority service members said they had recently witnessed white nationalism or ideologically-driven racism among other service members.
Mark Pitcavage, a specialist on far-right groups with the Anti-Defamation League and a 1988 Trinity University graduate who has studied extremism since the mid-1990s, cautioned against reading too much into the poll because the magazine didn’t define the term “white nationalist.” The new National Defense Authorization Act has ordered a survey on the issue, he said.
But there’s no question that extremists can be found in uniform, said Pitcavage, who testified about the subject last year before a House Armed Services Committee panel on military personnel.
“This is nothing new, either,” he said. “It does exist. It’s been going on for decades. We’re not talking about a large number of people total, but it’s well documented that it doesn’t take very many people — either outside the military or inside the military — with those extreme views to cause serious problems.”
How to respond
The FBI scrutiny of National Guard soldiers came amid concerns that Trump’s supporters would attack President Joe Biden’s inauguration Jan. 20 in a repeat of their attempt to stop the certification of his election at the Capitol. But it sparked a backlash, with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott expressing outrage on Twitter.
“This is the most offensive thing I’ve ever heard. No one should ever question the loyalty or professionalism of the Texas National Guard,” he wrote Jan. 18. “I authorized more than 1,000 to go to DC. I’ll never do it again if they are disrespected like this.”
The FBI provided the names of suspect guardsmen to the Guard Bureau, which sent the troops back to their home states — but would not say which states. It also wasn’t clear how the FBI was able to vet 25,000 troops in a matter of a week or less.
It all seemed reasonable enough, and legal, to Geoffrey Corn, a professor at South Texas College of Law in Houston.
“I don’t know how they did it, but the suggestion there is something improper or illegal about a federal agency responsible for ensuring security at the inauguration harvesting information from social media accounts that are in the public domain, I think it would be unreasonable not to do that,” said Corn, a retired Army lawyer.
“My response to the governor would be, why would you be upset about learning this?” he added. “You should be thanking the FBI.”
Troops can join political parties, participate in rallies and protests (but not in uniform), sign petitions and contribute to candidates’ campaigns. They can’t join criminal gangs or wear gang clothing and prohibited insignias. And they can’t actively advocate racial supremacist, extremist or criminal gang doctrine, ideology or causes.
The Defense Department policy says those in the military can’t support causes that encourage or advocate illegal discrimination “based on race, creed, color, sex, religion, ethnicity, or national origin or those that advance, encourage, or advocate the use of force, violence, or criminal activity or otherwise advance efforts to deprive individuals of their civil rights.”
The Army updated its guidance in September with a lengthy chapter on extremism. It forbids soldiers from participating in activities advocating or teaching the overthrow of the government by force or violence, or seeking to alter the form of government by unconstitutional means, which it defines as sedition.
The most prominent example of domestic terrorism committed by a U.S. military veteran was former Army Sgt. Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 bombing of a federal office building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people, including children in a day-care center, and wounded more than 680. His motivation: an anti-government desire to avenge federal law enforcement action at Ruby Ridge in Idaho and the Branch Davidian compound near Waco.
The bombing came on the second anniversary of the fire that ended the Davidian siege, killing 76 people, 25 of them children, as officers closed in. A decorated Gulf War veteran, McVeigh had been honorably discharged after psychological testing deemed him unfit for Green Beret training.
The active duty service members who committed “insider attacks” on fellow soldiers in more recent decades were motivated by personal grudges and in some cases Muslim religious fanaticism, the deadliest being Maj. Nidal Hasan, an Army psychiatrist who killed 13 and wounded 31 at Fort Hood in 2009.
Hasan and two others, Sgt. Hasan Akbar and Sgt. William Kreutzer Jr., are on death row. Akbar killed two men in a Kuwait camp in 2003 while Kreutzer killed one GI and wounded 18 others in 1995 at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Spc. Ivan Lopez killed himself after gunning down three others and wounding 14 at Fort Hood in 2014.
Some argue that rigorous vetting of service members, including the surveillance of social media posts as the FBI did with the guardsmen in Washington, is overdue.
One of them, retired Army Col. Mike Jason, a veteran of Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Kuwait, said those in active duty that he talks to, with few exceptions, have tried harder to stay apolitical even as America “has gotten so polarized and so partisan.”
“I’ve watched social media, I’m in contact with former soldiers that are now NCOs, a lot of officers, and most of them that are still in, really seem to have embraced the professionalism of being apolitical. In private conversations, especially with peers, they were very disturbed by a lot of things they were seeing, very frustrated, but they kind of kept their head down and tried to maintain the shared values in the formations they had control over.
“ I have not been able to see an increase in radicalization but, again, I’m not there. The kids that are in the formations, they go back home … if their peer group, their parents, are into this stuff, some of it could bleed over. We’ve seen enough incidents.”
Those incidents, which have included racist posts from Marines and soldiers, and an Army lieutenant who made jokes on social media about the Nazis killing Jews, were dealt with severely, Jason said.
Diversity a firewall?
Even if radical politics follows soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines from their hometowns into the service, the military’s diversity remains a hedge against the problem, some say.
Those joining the armed forces come from too many places to be unified in their beliefs or identities while serving, said Ross Ritchell, an author and Army special operations veteran.
The difference these days, he said, is the nation’s supercharged politics.
“People may be scared or angry or misinformed and manipulated, so agitators might latch on to anyone vulnerable to persuasion or incitement/persecution,” Ritchell said in an email. “What is unique to the (presidential election and its aftermath) was the nature of trying to weaponize service and patriotism with delusion, partisan politics and conspiracies.”
Concern over the potential that radicalized troops could strike at Biden’s inauguration was so strong, the Joint Chiefs of Staff signed a letter reminding troops of their duty. Some of the veterans interviewed for this story called that extraordinary.
“As service members, we must embody the values and ideals of the nation,” the chiefs 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.”
Enforcing that isn’t so simple. Retired Army Col. David Maxwell, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said countering extremism and insider attacks is “probably one of the most complex and difficult issues the military must address.”
“On the one hand, extremism in the ranks absolutely cannot be tolerated. On the other hand, the appearance of witch hunts and purges and unfounded and mistaken allegations will undermine good order and discipline of military units,” he said in an email. “This issue is a leadership issue, a law enforcement investigation issue, and even a counterintelligence issue.”
Leaders must be able to identify and deal with extremists while recognizing legitimate political views that might be distasteful to some, Maxwell said.
“There’s a balance between McCarthyist behavior and letting Nidal Hasan get to the point where he executes a mass shooting,” agreed Texas National Guard Maj. Travis Pendleton, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I think it was pretty well documented that there were multiple red flags with Hasan’s interactions with other personnel — public statements, written statements, email traffic, things like that. He was on everybody’s radar.”
Corn, the law professor, said the military doesn’t have to justify scrutinizing social media because those posting on platforms like Facebook and Twitter have no privacy protections.
But unlike social media, email messages are protected by the Fourth Amendment unless it’s an official government account. Troops with security clearances submit to background investigations, he said, so there’s no legal impediment to screening them.
There’s no rampant extremism in the military, but the military “is like the rest of our society where you’re inevitably going to have a small percentage of individuals to either covertly sympathize with these groups or more directly become involved” with them, Corm said.
“But it’s complicated because there’s a fine line between constitutionally protected freedom of expression and association, even in the military, and conduct that compromises your fitness to continue to serve in the armed forces.”
Maxwell, a 30-year Army veteran, said ideology and beliefs can’t be blocked by gates and checkpoints, especially in the information age. If the Pentagon tries to actively monitor online activity, he argued, it would play into extremist propaganda and offer a way for enemies overseas to tap into domestic discontent.
“If I was advising a foreign intelligence organization, I would start creating and providing false information about service members’ beliefs,” Maxwell said. “I would create deep fakes to implicate service members in extremist activity to cause overreactions by unit chains of command. This would be one of the most subversive actions that could be taken against modern military organizations in western democracies.”