US military extremism problem: What can the government do to solve it?

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They fought each other in hand-to-hand combat, running drills at a bucolic encampment near Fort Bragg. Glenn Miller, an ex-Green Beret, ran the place. Wiry and mustached, the Vietnam veteran paced its grounds in fatigues.

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A smooth talker, Miller used his contacts in the Army to draw dozens of active-duty military personnel from Bragg, one of the largest US military installations in the world, and Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune.

It was the early 1980s and the Vietnam War was over.  But Miller tapped into a burning resentment within some soldiers, not only worn down from battles overseas but from ostracization back home.

Once Miller had their ear, he’d spit fire about how Blacks and Jews were the downfall of the country — a nation weakened by liberalism and the Civil Rights Movement that threatened the White man’s perch. Come join my “special forces,” he appealed to his recruits, claiming that together they would create an all-White utopia by waging a race war and toppling the US government.  

Glenn Miller pictured at a White Patriot Party rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1985.

A former Marine testified that he obtained a staggering cache of military weapons — including 200 pounds of C4 explosives, TNT and ammunition — from active-duty soldiers at Fort Bragg for Miller’s White Patriot Party. Undercover agents ultimately infiltrated his group, Miller was sentenced to prison and his grand plans for a race war imploded.

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But the fact that Miller’s ploy advanced as far as it did shocked Department of Defense leaders and revealed to them a painful truth: White supremacists and anti-government extremists had found a home within its ranks.

Decades later, they still do.

Since Miller’s scheme, cases of service members with racist and extremist ideologies have time and again confronted the Pentagon. Over the years, leaders have taken intermittent stabs at the problem — providing training on recognizing extremist tattoos, for example. But they have mainly relied on — and repeatedly revised — a Defense Department policy intended to prohibit extremism in the ranks, a policy that has not led to meaningful change, experts said.

“Have the policies worked? No. What have we done about it? I’d say not much,” said Ret. Army Lt. General Mark Hertling, a 37-year veteran who served as the commanding general of the Army in Europe. “So, here we are again.”

How many service members harbor extremist views is unknown — the Defense Department has never kept data on the problem. But the January 6 siege on the US Capitol, in which at least 33 current and former service members have been charged, has reignited concerns at the top echelons of the Pentagon.

Lloyd Austin, the new secretary of defense and the first Black person to hold the post, considers the insurrection a “wake-up call,” for the military, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told CNN.

“What’s vexing about this is we don’t have a great sense of the scope of the problem,” Kirby said. “Many of these people … work very hard to conceal their beliefs. We can’t be the thought police.”

A new policy fails to stop more attacks

Glenn Miller in Raleigh, North Carolina, on April 17, 1984.

Miller’s 1986 trial made clear that White supremacists were inherently anti-government and that their twisted warrior ethos made joining the military attractive. That same year, hoping to address extremism in the ranks, the Pentagon looked to a 1969 Defense Department policy about anti-Vietnam protesting, and added to it language that prohibited “active participation,” such as recruiting or participating in rallies, in “White supremacy, neo-Nazi and other such groups which espouse or attempt to create overt discrimination.”

But the policy did not ban belonging to those groups, wearing or displaying extremist symbols, distributing propaganda and other ways to passively support extremist views.

In 1988, just two years after Miller went down, a 20-year-old named Timothy McVeigh enlisted in the Army.

While McVeigh was a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan, and even had a White Power T-shirt, there’s no record of him being reprimanded for that, said journalist Dan Herbeck, whose book “American Terrorist” was culled from more than 70 hours of death row interviews with McVeigh alone, in addition to interviews with more than 150 others.

The book details McVeigh’s racist exploits and how he openly expressed strident anti-government views. McVeigh also passed around to his Army buddies “The Turner Diaries,” dystopian fiction that extremists view as a blueprint for fighting a race war, conquering the US government and creating an all-White paradise.

Timothy McVeigh after he joined the US Army, 1988.

McVeigh had a successful though short career in the service, leaving in 1991 on the cusp of a promotion. He gradually moved away from the KKK, but his intense hatred for the federal government motivated him, along with fellow Army veteran Terry Nichols, to commit the largest homegrown terror attack in US history, Herbeck said.

In April 1995, they blew up the Oklahoma City federal building, killing 168 people. The men fantasized that the carnage would spark a revolution to bring down the government.

“These guys gravitated toward each other in the Army because they both disliked and distrusted the U.S. government,” Herbeck said. “People close to them in the service knew of their views and McVeigh even tried to convert some of his military friends.”

Because McVeigh was a veteran and a so-called lone wolf who didn’t belong to any extremist group, the military “disassociated themselves” from him, said Ret. US Army Col. Jeff McCausland, who commanded a Gulf War combat battalion and recently wrote about the military’s failure to keep out extremists.

“The attitude in the 1990s in the military unfortunately was he (McVeigh) was in the Gulf War and he was an unhappy guy, kind of dismissive. There was no one saying, ‘Gee whiz, maybe we have a problem,'” McCausland said. “It was easy to say, ‘That guy isn’t us.'”

Prosecutors allege Oath Keepers leader and Proud Boys coordinated before Capitol attack

About eight months after the Oklahoma bombing, it became impossible for the military to keep those blinders on.

In December 1995, Army paratrooper James Burmeister and his Fort Bragg friends were drinking at a trailer he kept off base. Burmeister’s place was littered with totems of hate — a Nazi flag, Third Reich books, and neo-Nazi magazines.

When the soldiers headed out to bar hop, Burmeister grabbed his 99 mm Ruger pistol. As the night wore on, Burmeister said that he wanted to earn a coveted neo-Nazi spiderweb tattoo. For that, he needed to hunt and kill Black people.

He and two soldiers slid into a Chevrolet Cavalier and drove to a predominantly Black neighborhood in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Their headlights illuminated two targets: Jackie Burden and Michael James, who were out for a walk.

The car stopped, Burmeister climbed out and fired into the couple’s heads at close range.

Arrests and convictions were swift. Burmeister went to prison for life.

James Burmeister listens as he is convicted of two counts of first-degree murder in Fayetteville, North Carolina, on Feb. 27, 1997.

Shaken by the murders, the Army launched a sweeping investigation that identified at least 22 soldiers with links to extremist groups. And military officials learned Burmeister had been brazen about his beliefs, hanging a Nazi flag in his barracks where he also kept a KKK belt buckle and White supremacist newspapers. But none of that had been enough to violate military rules until the murder, because he wasn’t “actively” participating in extremism, said Ret. Army Col. George Reed, who was in charge of the criminal investigation into the slayings.

“The Army did a lot of reflecting and soul searching during that time,” Reed recalled. “We learned so many lessons from (the murders at Bragg), but I fear we’ve forgotten them. Instead of tackling the problem in a meaningful way, we’ve been putting a Band-Aid on a policy every time there’s an embarrassing event that happens.”

At a 1996 Congressional hearing focused on the Bragg killings and Oklahoma City bombing, military leaders admitted that the anti-extremism policy — unchanged since 1986 — was flawed. Discerning the “difficult issue” of what constituted active or passive participation in extremism left room for confusion, and the military also needed training and tools to help them detect when service members were extremists, a senior Pentagon official testified at the time.

So, once again, the Pentagon beefed up the policy to a version that, largely, remains in effect today.

It required military personnel to “reject participation in organizations that espouse supremacist causes” and prohibited discrimination. Distributing propaganda, training and fundraising on behalf of those groups also violated the policy. And, it firmly placed the onus on commanders to discern if their service members were violating the policy and, if so, how to punish them.

But, despite those enhancements, the policy fell short, experts said. It still did not prohibit mere membership in an extremist organization, and its focus on organizations themselves created a blind spot for those who subscribe to a movement but don’t belong to any group. Another big flaw, they contend, was that it placed the responsibility of identifying and punishing extremists on commanders, resulting in uneven enforcement.

“You might have a soldier who’s posted something racist and one commander may think that’s worth a reprimand while another thinks it deserves something more severe,” said Ret. Lt. Gen. Hertling, who is a CNN military analyst. “We should be trying to avoid these types of people getting in in the first place.”

‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy toward extremism

Several years into the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as the need for recruits rose, Pentagon researchers bluntly concluded that the military had a “‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy pertaining to extremism.”

“If individuals can perform satisfactorily, without making their extremist opinions overt through words or actions that violate policy, reflect poorly on the Armed Forces, or disrupt the effectiveness and order of their units, they are likely to be able to complete their contracts,” according to a 2005 report by the Defense Personnel Security Research Center which was examining how to identify “terrorists” in the course of the recruitment process.

At about the same time that report was published, military police investigator Scott Barfield was working to identify gang members in the service. While doing that, he also found dozens of White supremacists and other extremists, he told CNN.

“They didn’t try to deny it,” Barfield said, adding that some enlistees told him that recruiters actually helped them cover up their extremist tattoos or pass them off as meaning something else. “I’d do an inspection in the barracks and identify extremists and gang members and the response I would get is, ‘I have a quota to deploy and we have a mission. If we deploy and get them out of this environment, we’ll be fine.'”

“I reported them all up the chain and I can’t remember one person that got in trouble, ever,” Barfield said. “Nothing ever happened.”

Frustrated, Barfield spoke to reporters about his experience. His superiors reprimanded him for talking to the press without prior authorization, he said, and he left his military work in 2006. Today, he works as a civilian police detective.

Barfield’s assertion that there were dozens of White supremacists and other extremists in uniform is “overwrought,” said David S.C. Chu, who was the undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, overseeing recruitment and career development, from 2001 to 2009.

Chu said that while Barfield concluded certain members were extremist, military procedure would have dictated that a larger investigation take place to determine if Barfield’s information was correct. In some instances, investigations concluded that Barfield was right and, Chu recalled, those service members were dismissed from the Armed Forces. But in others, Barfield’s conclusions were not substantiated, Chu said.

Neither he nor Barfield were able to provide records to CNN; they could only recall their experience of what transpired about 15 years ago.

As Barfield watched live coverage of the insurrection, his mind raced as he saw the police outnumbered.

“My fear was always (that) you’re going to create a much more dangerous extremist when you give him urban warfare training (in the military),” Barfield said, “and they come back home and teach their local extremists.”

National Guard soldier posts on neo-Nazi forum

Some 14 years after Barfield’s warnings, a Defense Department report last year detailed the brazenness of White supremacists in the military. One of several examples in the report shows a National Guard soldier bragging on a neo-Nazi online forum.

“I’m 100% open about everything with the friends I made in training,” the service member posted. “They know about it all … I’d say the craziest sh*t and get away with it.”

The report also notes that a White supremacist Army veteran trained other extremists in firearms and hand-to-hand combat, encouraging other racists to enlist so they could use their training against the US government.

Made public only after a reporter obtained it in February, the report struck a chord with Daryl Johnson, a former extremism analyst with the US Department of Homeland Security.

In 2009, Johnson authored a DHS report cautioning that right-wing extremists could foment anti-government resentment in veterans struggling to find jobs in the recession or recruit those angry about the election of the first Black President or fearful of possible gun restrictions.

“The willingness of a small percentage of military personnel to join extremist groups during the 1990s because they were disgruntled, disillusioned, or suffering from the psychological effects of war is being replicated today,” Johnson wrote. But soon after its release, Johnson’s paper was decried by a veterans’ group who said it was disparaging to those who served. The controversy prompted the head of DHS, Secretary Janet Napolitano, to apologize to veterans, clarifying that the report was an assessment and not an accusation. The report was revised and an edited version was reissued.

Later that year, Army Major Nidal Hasan shot to death 13 people and injured dozens more at Fort Hood in Texas. Hasan said he’d gunned down soldiers being deployed to Afghanistan in order to protect fellow Muslims.

In this November 10, 2009 file photo, soldiers salute as they honor victims of the Fort Hood shooting at a memorial service at Fort Hood, Texas.

Prior to the rampage, Hasan had been emailing about violence with an al Qaeda spokesperson — emails that were intercepted by the FBI, but the bureau ultimately decided Hasan was not involved in terrorist activities. Service members who knew Hasan told investigators that he had seemed like a “ticking time bomb” for openly supporting violent jihad, but the Major was not disciplined for expressing those views. Instead, Hasan was lauded for his military work and promoted.

Reacting to the Fort Hood murders, the Defense Department again updated its anti-extremism policy, this time banning service members from communicating extremist ideology through email or online posts.

In 2012, the DOD made its latest addition to the policy — which remains in effect today — for the first time explicitly prohibiting service members from actively advocating “extremist” and “criminal gang doctrine.” The rule warns service members against “knowingly wearing gang colors or clothing; having tattoos or body markings associated with such gangs or organizations.”

“What is frustrating about this change is that the Defense Department doesn’t tell you what they mean by ‘extremist’ anywhere in the regulation, so that’s left open to debate,” military law attorney James M. Branum told CNN. “And you could wear so-called gang colors but how do you prove ‘knowingly’?”

Branum said he’s never heard of anyone being prosecuted using the policy.

“In my experience, that’s because the policy can be interpreted so many different ways,” he said. “It’s vague.”

Whether those policy changes resulted in extremist service members being punished or discharged can’t be quantified because the Defense Department hasn’t kept records on that, Pentagon press secretary Kirby said.

It’s clear, however, that tweaking the policy didn’t prevent extremist soldiers from committing more high-profile crimes. Most notably, active-duty soldiers from Fort Stewart, Georgia, formed what prosecutors deemed “an anarchist group and militia” called FEAR, which stood for Forever Enduring, Always Ready. The group plotted to kill Barack Obama and overthrow the government, prosecutors said in late 2012. The militia was exposed after four soldiers killed two people in order to keep the militia secret. Each was convicted.
And, between 2017 and 2019 alone, there have been at least 15 instances of service members accused of acting in the name of extremist ideology, according to the Anti-Defamation League. That includes a Coast Guard lieutenant, sentenced in early 2020 to 13 years behind bars on weapons charges. Prosecutors said he was a White nationalist who plotted to kill liberal politicians and television journalists.

“You look at the Capitol and see these veterans and service members taking part … it’s a shame, but we saw this coming, in a way,” Johnson told CNN. “I don’t know how many times the Pentagon needs to be told to do something more.”

The Pentagon’s policy is ‘not working’

On January 6, Jason Crow could hear glass breaking and the mob pounding on the doors of the House of Representatives as he, in the gallery a floor above, rushed to make sure those doors were locked.

The Democratic congressman, who served three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, was deflated when he later learned that some of the rioters were active-duty service members and fellow veterans.

“We had this common experience of service and we all raised our right hands and pledged fidelity to the Constitution,” he said. “It’s still hard to think about.”

Symbols of the military were everywhere at the Capitol. People in camouflage were spotted heading single file into the building with their hands on each other’s shoulders in a military stack. Olive-colored helmets. Body armor. A retired Air Force Reserve officer was photographed on the Senate floor wearing a helmet, green tactical vest and black-and-camo jacket while clutching a white flex cuff, which is used by law enforcement to restrain or detain subjects.

Retired Air Force Reserve officer, Larry Rendell Brock, seen on the Senate floor on January 6.
The arrest of an Army reservist and Naval contractor prompted the Navy to conduct their own investigation, finding that more than 30 of his naval base coworkers said he expressed extremist views about Jews, minorities and women. Prosecutors said he kept offensive videos on his phone, including one in which he said, “the Jews did 9/11.” A manager had also rebuked the contractor, Timothy Hale-Cusanelli, who had a secret-classification security clearance, for wearing a Hitler mustache at the base, according to federal court filings. His attorney recently said in court that Hale-Cusanelli, who pleaded not guilty to the charges, hasn’t acted violently based on his beliefs, and that he isn’t part of any White supremacist groups.
At least three military veterans who have been affiliated with the right-wing militia the Oath Keepers were charged with conspiracy related to the insurrection. The FBI obtained an audio recording of Army veteran Jessica Watkins communicating on a walkie-talkie phone app with others inside the Capitol. A man’s voice is heard offering encouragement and, referring to her Army training, “We’ll see you soon, Jess. Airborne.” Watkins has since disavowed the militia group and pleaded not guilty to the federal charges against her.

The Pentagon’s policy against extremism is “not working,” Crow said.

US Rep. Jason Crow comforts Rep. Susan Wild while taking cover as protesters disrupt the joint session of Congress to certify the Electoral College vote on January 6, 2021.

“You can have binders of policies and it won’t matter if they aren’t enforced by the command and you aren’t trained on them,” he said. “When you’re in basic training, you’re working on marksmanship, how to march, but we don’t spend near enough time countering extremism and racism …”

Lawmakers and experts have called for several changes, from the herculean task of monitoring the social media accounts of some 1.3 million active-duty personnel to coordinating with the FBI on identifying tattoos to better training staff in recognizing the signs of extremism.

While those measures might help, they won’t completely purge extremists from the Armed Forces, reasoned Ret. Army Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the vice chief of staff of the Army between 2008 and 2012.

The military represents a cross-section of an America where extremism, in all its forms, thrives, he said.

“I know Lloyd (Austin) recognizes this problem: we get these people when they’re 18, sometimes older, so we are battling to change all the prejudices and wrong things they’ve learned up until they put on a uniform.”

New defense secretary ‘cannot afford to fail’

Two weeks after he was confirmed as defense secretary, Austin ordered a “stand down,” instructing military leaders to pick one day in the following two months to discuss extremism with their service members and report back. Austin has already received “anecdotal feedback,” Kirby said, which is “reinforcing for us that there is a problem out there.”

Kirby declined to elaborate, saying that Austin wants to wait until all commands deliver their assessments, so he can digest that information and plan next steps. “The stand down is not a one-and-done or a panacea,” Kirby said. “Secretary Austin is going to be dealing with this every day, continually raising it with leaders.”

It’s impossible to underscore the complexities that await him.

Secretary of Defense Ret. Army Gen. Lloyd Austin answers questions during his confirmation before the Senate Armed Services Committee on January 19, 2021.

The military has always tried to walk the line between guaranteeing service members’ First Amendment rights to expression, assembly and religion while also recognizing that some ideologies run counter to its oath to defend the Constitution and obey the orders of the president, said Kirby.

Then there is the quandary of defining what exactly is extremist. “What is a radical group or ideology to some will not be to others,” said Ret. Col. McCausland. “Is Black Lives Matter an extremist group? Is Antifa an extremist group? I can promise you there are some commanders who will draw that false equivalency. So where is the line drawn?”

Making Austin’s challenge even more daunting is that he’s operating blind, in a way. The Pentagon has no data pertaining to extremist service members, said Kirby.

Commanders in charge of identifying and punishing service members may have information about how they’ve handled certain cases, but that information has never been collated across branches. Even if it was, it wouldn’t provide much historical context because commanders don’t maintain that information for long, Kirby said.

“If the Secretary were to say (to commanders), ‘OK, I want you to give me all the accountability on extremist activity, they would be hard-pressed to do that,” Kirby said.

The lack of data shows that the military “has not treated the issue of extremists in the ranks as an ongoing and long-term problem,” said Mark Pitcavage, an extremism expert with the Anti-Defamation League who has a PhD in military history. “The military has only responded to specific controversies rather than thinking this is something we’ll always have to deal with.”

There are several practical changes the military could make right now to address the problem, he said. There should be a central communication pipeline so that anyone can report when they believe a service member is aligned with an extremist group or ideology. When the Anti-Defamation League has identified online posts featuring suspected service members espousing extremist beliefs, the group doesn’t always know who to call and if they do, they rarely know if their message was conveyed up the chain of command, Pitcavage said.

Key personnel such as noncommissioned officers, junior officers, equal opportunity trainers and recruiters need training to recognize behavior and symbols that may indicate a service member’s extremist leanings.

And, there should be a system created that allows service members to report extremist colleagues anonymously, Pitcavage said. “There are some who fear retribution, who don’t want to speak out and figure that there’s a big risk in doing that.”

Kirby said Secretary Austin is “keeping an open mind” and is considering adding to the policy yet again, this time explicitly prohibiting membership — or allegiance — to any extremist movement.

Austin’s legacy will be shaped by this moment, said McCausland. The nation’s first person of color to head the Pentagon not only has an opportunity to clean dangerous ideologues from the ranks, but he is also expected to curb sexual harassment and rape in the military. He has to create a climate that is safe and productive for transgender service members. On top of all of that, he’s got to worry about the usual headaches — Chinese aggression, nuclear advancement in Iran and more.

“But the problem of extremism is higher than it’s ever been, and the Capitol riot showed us that,” McCausland said. “He cannot afford to fail.”

CNN’s Ellie Kaufman, Oren Liebermann and Marshall Cohen contributed to this report.



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