The Jan. 6 events at the Capitol, in which Trump supporters stormed Congress in an attempt to prevent President Biden from taking office, laid bare the appeal of white-supremacist and anti-government groups among some veterans and, in smaller numbers, currently serving troops. Among the 190 people charged in the siege, at least 30 are veterans. Three are reservists or National Guard members.
The involvement of individuals with military links follows several incidents in which troops have espoused support for racist or extremist movements on social media or to their peers.
The military’s planned stand-down comes as part of a larger Pentagon effort to reckon with its troubled history of racial discrimination, sexual assault and other internal scourges that officials say harm troops, threaten military values and damage recruitment and retention.
Even as they seek to get the effort off the ground, Pentagon officials are grappling with legal and institutional issues that have posed an impediment to addressing extremism in the past. Separate rules and disciplinary systems across the military services also present a challenge in managing a threat that is constantly evolving and difficult to define.
“We don’t know the full breadth and depth of this,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters this month. “It may be more than we’re comfortable feeling and admitting, and probably a lot less than the media attention surrounding it seems to suggest it could be. But where is it? It’s just not clear.”
Officials attribute support in the military for far-right movements among troops to larger trends in American society. But experts say the stakes are particularly high for the military, which imbues specialized training and skills that could make far-right groups more powerful, and dangerous.
“What you want is for people who are trained with safeguarding the population in some capacity, who have military weapons training, to be better than the rest of the country at resisting, at not being susceptible, to propaganda, to ideological radicalization,” said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University.
The Pentagon’s performance on this issue may constitute a key metric in the Biden administration’s effort to demonstrate a break with President Donald Trump, who was seen as tolerating and at times fueling far-right currents, which often overlapped with his political base.
For Austin, it represents both a political and management challenge, as he seeks to marshal the Pentagon’s vast bureaucracy and handle sensitivities around personal freedoms as he steps into his new role. The former combat commander, who was the first African American to hold a number of military jobs as he rose through the ranks, has said relatively little in public about his own experiences as a Black man in the U.S. military.
A lack of clear data
First among the challenges for Austin and his aides is the lack of centralized means of documenting and tracking incidence of extremism in military units.
Historical data from outside the government has suggested a correlation between military experience and right-wing terrorism. An academic analysis published in 2011 by the Justice Department’s Terrorism Research and Analysis Project found that right-wing terrorists have been significantly more likely to have military experience than other terrorists indicted in U.S. courts. They were also more than twice as likely to assume a leadership role in right-wing groups.
According to Michael Jensen, a senior researcher at the University of Maryland’s START Center, 15.6 percent of a sample of 1,534 individuals arrested for ideologically motivated crimes were veterans or serving in the U.S. military, significantly higher than the percentage of the population that are veterans or currently serving in the force. The database Jensen analyzed included U.S. arrests up to 2018 and dating back decades.
But official statistics provide only a fragmentary picture. Last month, Pentagon officials said the FBI had informed them about 68 domestic extremism cases in 2020 involving current or former troops. Little other data exists.
One reason for the military’s limited understanding of the problem is that current rules permit troops to join extremist organizations, so long as they don’t become “active” members who fundraise, recruit or take part in other prohibited activities. While the distinction is rooted in troops’ First Amendment rights, it means supporters of extremist causes can go undetected.
Brad Carson, who served as acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness during the Obama administration, pointed to the military’s tradition of bringing together people of different beliefs and backgrounds under a shared mission.
“If people are posting things anonymously in chat rooms and they don’t bring it into the workplace, do you get separated for that?” Carson asked. “A lot of people have political views out there. But day in and day out on the range, they’re not really showing those things. So we don’t inquire too much.”
In addition, while the criminal investigation arms of the military services have compiled some data about criminal probes related to white supremacism, they do not aggregate and track other categories of far-right extremist actions or incidents that fall below the criminal threshold, officials said.
Those lesser infractions, which can result in verbal rebukes or administrative actions, like a reduction in rank, are typically handled by commanders and are not required to be reported up through the chain.
“No one has ever asked us to track this in that way,” said one defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe internal challenges.
A decentralized system
Even more consequential is the difficulty of establishing a common definition of extremism that officials can use to track internal trends, a challenge enhanced by a rapidly changing ecosystem of extremist groups, symbols and technological access. In some cases, an individual’s extremist beliefs might not pose a threat to society at large but could jeopardize order and discipline in the military.
To effectively identify signs of extremist ideology, experts say military commanders must make themselves more familiar with relevant external signs like flags, patches or tattoos. The creation of a military-wide tattoo and symbology database would help, they say.
“Everybody knows what a swastika is, but I don’t know that everybody knows what Pepe the Frog is,” Jensen said, referring to the green frog meme that became associated with white-supremacist and other groups. “So they don’t know they are witnessing something that has ties to extremism.”
Even before Austin’s arrival as defense secretary, the Defense Department had launched a review of policies surrounding extremism. Among the issues it will consider is whether the military needs to alter its vast, decentralized system for screening troops and recruits.
The military services all have some level of screening upon entry into the force that includes looking for extremist or racist tattoos and checking individuals against certain local and federal law enforcement lists for criminal records or extremist affiliations.
The Marine Corps, for example, uses a “Questionable Conduct/Aberrant Behavior Screening Form,” which addresses participation in gangs or extremist organizations and must be signed by applicants to enter the service. It is part of a broader evaluation the service calls “moral qualification screening.”
Some extremism experts say the military’s screening procedures for recruits are insufficient.
Lawmakers including Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who chairs the House Armed Services’ military personnel subcommittee, are calling for the Biden administration to mandate stronger screening of social media for service members. Under her proposal, recruits would be required to provide social media handles when they apply for security clearances.
“Now that we have an administration that is taking this problem seriously, we must take action,” Speier said in a statement.
Another problem for the Pentagon is deciding which of the movements proliferating online are extremist and how involved service members must be before they are counseled, disciplined or removed from the armed service.
Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, said the military has relatively clear rules concerning involvement in white-supremacy groups, but not for anti-government organizations or QAnon, an extremist ideology that the FBI has deemed a domestic terrorism threat.
In another sign of increasing congressional concerns, the annual defense policy bill, passed after Congress overrode a veto by Trump on Jan. 1, established a deputy inspector general to conduct oversight of diversity and inclusion in the military and also track supremacist, extremist or criminal gang activity.
The law requires the Pentagon to include questions about antisemitism, racism and white supremacy in its annual workplace climate survey, potentially showing how many service members have encountered racists and extremists in the ranks.
Last year, Speier proposed including a provision in the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act that would explicitly name violent extremism a crime under military law, but it was removed when Trump threatened to veto the bill, according to Speier’s office.
But in December, a Pentagon report recommended a similar change to the Uniform Code of Military Justice that would “address extremist activity.” Speier’s office said they believe changes to military law could be made by the end of 2021.
Some experts have suggested the military should create deradicalization programs for service members, many of whom are in their teens when they enter the military. That would give commanders tools to potentially avert a more serious problem.
“What if someone is starting to flirt with these things?” Beirich said. “What do you do before they go full-bore on this?”
Julie Tate and Alex Horton contributed to this report.