The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Capitol riot shows the military needs help fighting radicalization in the ranks

National Guard troops at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 18. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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Jackie Speier, a Democrat, is a U.S. representative from California and chair of the House Armed Services military personnel subcommittee.

I will be haunted for the rest of my life by the sights and sounds of armed insurrectionists breaching the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 as I and my colleagues threw our bodies to the floor of the House gallery. But it is the image of retired combat veteran and Air Force Academy graduate Larry Rendall Brock Jr. that stands out most in my mind.

Brock later acknowledged to the New Yorker that he was the man shown in a photograph in the Senate chamber wearing a combat helmet, body armor and other tactical gear. Prosecutors, who have charged him with one count of knowingly entering a restricted building and one count of violent entry and disorderly conduct, say he was also carrying a white flex cuff, used as a restraint by law enforcement.

He was not alone; many other veterans took part. The Defense Department is now trying to determine whether any current service members participated in this assault on American democracy. We can’t say we weren’t warned. Last February, experts testified before the House Armed Services military personnel subcommittee, which I chair, that white supremacists have targeted recruitment of service members for decades — seeking their training and experience with weapons and operations — and that former service members have led violent white-supremacist groups.

Even before Jan. 6, we saw horrific illustrations of this national security threat. In June, an Army soldier was accused of plotting with a neo-Nazi group to ambush his own unit; an Air Force staff sergeant with ties to the extremist “boogaloo” movement was charged with murder for killing a federal security officer in Oakland, Calif.; and three men with military backgrounds and ties to the same movement were charged with planning a violent attack on peaceful protesters in Las Vegas.

These developments involve only a tiny minority of military personnel and veterans. But the attitudes that lead to them are much more widespread and visible. A 2019 survey conducted by the Military Times found that 36 percent of active-duty service members have seen evidence of white supremacist and racist ideologies in the military, “a significant rise from the year before,” the paper said, “when only 22 percent — about 1 in 5 — reported the same.”

Military policies prohibit participation by service members in extremist groups, but the military lacks the tools it needs to detect and root out this insidious threat. This is not for lack of trying. In the recent defense policy bill, the House adopted my proposal to create a stand-alone military offense of violent extremism, to enhance criminal penalties and investigative resources for service members who conspire to attempt violent offenses targeted at a protected group or calculated to influence the political process.

The proposal was dropped from the final, enacted legislation due to opposition from President Trump — not surprising for a man who has described white supremacists as “very fine people” and said to the Capitol invaders, “We love you. You’re very special.”

Meanwhile, the military, along with the federal government more broadly, is being overmatched by violent white supremacists and other extremists who deftly use social media to recruit and radicalize supporters. Yet I’m told by the Pentagon that the military does not screen recruits’ social media posts, and the U.S. government does not review social media as part of the background investigation process for secret and top-secret security clearances. Service members applying for a clearance must share intrusive personal information about finances, mental health, criminal history, drug use and other personal activities. Why aren’t they asked to disclose which social media platforms and handles they use?

Domestic terrorism and violent extremist groups are problems that go well beyond our military. The attack on the Capitol reminds me of the intelligence failures and failure to share information that preceded the 9/11 terrorist attacks. We’re now discovering that before the assault on the Capitol, an FBI office in Virginia warned of “war”-like violence in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, but these warnings did not reach key decision-makers. I and dozens of my colleagues have called for an independent commission on domestic terrorism, analogous to the 9/11 Commission, to review the threat of domestic violent extremists and the whole-of-government response.

As the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in their statement after the Capitol attack, the military must “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.” The military is also vital to preventing radicalization in its ranks. This year, the new administration and new Congress must finally give the military the tools, resources and direction it needs to achieve this critical part of its mission.

Read more:

Read a letter responding to this opinion piece: Countering radicalization in the military

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Jennifer Rubin: The seditionists made clear what their attack was about: White supremacy

Max Boot: Trump couldn’t have incited sedition without the help of Fox News

The Post’s View: The assault on the Capitol underscores why federal law enforcement should use body cameras