Extremism, white supremacy and white nationalism in the U.S. military have been on the rise over the past year and radical groups are actively encouraging military members to join their ranks, Pentagon officials said Thursday.
While the issue isn’t new, it has gained global attention after the protest of supporters of President Trump — including a significant number of current and former military members — stormed the Capitol last week and forced Vice President Pence and lawmakers to flee for their lives. Five people, including a police officer, died as a result of the attack, and the demonstrator killed by police gunfire was a former Air Force veteran.
In making public the report on extremism in the ranks, Pentagon officials declined to comment on the Jan. 6 rioting, saying they were cooperating with a Department of Justice investigation.
The Defense Department is “doing everything we can to eliminate extremism,” said Gary Reid, the Pentagon’s director of defense intelligence said. “We will not tolerate extremism of any sort.”
Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller has ordered a complete review of the Department of Defense’s policy on dealing with extremists. It is expected to be completed in the next two months, officials said.
A senior Department of Defense official said some extremists in the ranks are part of underground far-right militia groups, while others are motivated by anti-government or anti-authority political beliefs. The rise in the number of troubling incidents also reflects increased reporting and greater visibility by senior officers.
“These are folks who espouse a view that the government is too involved in their daily life. They reject anything that they believe promotes that,” the official said.
Defense Department officials said extremist groups are attempting to recruit current military personnel and encouraging their own members to enlist in the armed forces.
“We recognize that those are skills prized by some of those groups and not only for the capability it offers them,” a Pentagon official said in a background briefing for reporters. “It also brings them legitimacy in their minds to the cause. They can say they have former military personnel who align with their extremist and violent views.”
Gen. Robert Abrams, head of U.S. forces in Korea, was even more pointed in a tweet to his command last week.
The Capitol clash, he wrote, was “an attempted insurrection. If you are serving in uniform and think it was something else, I would encourage you to sit down and read the constitution that you swore an oath to support and defend. … No room on our team if you are not willing to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign AND domestic.”
All military personnel, including thousands of National Guard troops now patrolling the Capitol, have undergone a background investigation and are subject to a “continuous” evaluation of their political activity, including social media presence, Department of Defense officials said.
There have been incidents on both ends of the political spectrum — a video shown at the Democratic convention this summer nominating now-President-elect Joseph R. Biden sparked controversy when U.S. Army soldiers appeared in a clip from American Samoa.
But government analysts say right-wing extremist groups pose the single most potent threat of violence to the country, and their presence in the ranks of the military is particularly problematic.
Lawmakers in Congress are demanding a formal investigation into violent fringe extremist activity in the military. A group of 14 senators warned the Pentagon inspector general in a letter that failing to counter the threat will jeopardize national security.
“White supremacy and extremist ideology within the ranks of our military [are] not new but the attack on the Capitol makes it clear this alarming trend must be immediately addressed by [the Department of Defense] with real solutions,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, said on Twitter.
Several military veterans have been identified as participating in the Capitol building takeover, including retired Air Force Lt. Col. Larry Brock, who was seen carrying zip-tie handcuffs in the Senate chamber, and Ashli Babbitt, the Air Force veteran, who was fatally shot by a Capitol Police officer as she tried to force her way into a room just off the House chamber.
“As a volunteer force, [the military] is a slice of our society. All the issues that exist in society have the potential to exist within the military,” the Pentagon official said.