The Pentagon has seen a marked increase in servicemembers’ espousal of extremist views in the past year, a senior official acknowledged on Thursday.
“Over the past 12 months,” a senior Defense official told reporters, the Pentagon has received 200 notifications from the FBI when the bureau opens investigations into active or retired military personnel. Not all of those notifications were about extremism, the official cautioned.
“If we’d had this discussion in June, we’d be talking about Boogaloo and other movements that were in the news and active,” the official said, adding that cases of current and former military were made public back then. “There is an increase based on the societal increases” in support for white-supremacist extremism, he said.
But the Pentagon could not provide any data bounding the scope of its extremism problem, even as it recognized the value that white-supremacist groups place upon servicemembers for recruitment or infiltration.
A week after the Capitol riot, a plethora of information has emerged showing a significant military presence within the insurrection. Ashli Babbitt, whom police shot and killed as she tried to breach a barricaded area, was an Air Force veteran. Navy veteran Joshua Macias, founder of Vets for Trump, was on the Capitol grounds. One of the rioters who made it onto the House floor, Larry Rendell Brock, was another Air Force veteran and is now in federal custody awaiting trial. Other servicemembers, some apparently on active duty, flashed ID badges at Capitol Police to indicate they were not to be apprehended, according to a D.C. cop’s Facebook message. A retired Navy SEAL, Adam Newbold, posted on the internet a video claiming to have “breached” the Capitol.
While the official defended the Pentagon’s vetting procedures to screen out support for white supremacist and other extremist ideologies, the indications of servicemember and veteran support for the Jan. 6 insurrection were serious enough for the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff to warn the ranks against acts of “sedition and insurrection” in a Tuesday message.
The Pentagon would not comment on measures it’s taking against servicemembers involved in the riot and referred questions about military participation to the Justice Department. But it claims to maintain a zero-tolerance policy for indications of extremism.
“We in the Department of Defense are doing everything we can to eliminate extremism in the Department of Defense,” said Garry Reid, director for Defense Intelligence, Counterintelligence, Law Enforcement and Security in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. “DOD policy expressly prohibits military personnel from actively advocating supremacist, extremist or criminal gang doctrine, ideology or causes.”
Current policy focuses on screening out extremist adherence or activity largely through investigation at the recruitment phase. Once enlisted or commissioned, military personnel are subject to vetting, though much of it focuses on automated programs like the post-Chelsea Manning “Insider Threat” initiative that can miss an ever-shifting index of extremist terms and iconography; and attention from unit commanders, who may be inclined to give their soldiers, airmen, marines, sailors or Coast Guardsmen a pass. The Pentagon was not immediately able to say if servicemembers face a penalty for not disclosing all of their social media accounts.
The Pentagon has begun a review as to whether its policies on extremism need an overhaul however it began that review in December, not after January 6. It is expected within 60 days and will accompany a public report, officials said.
There is a long history of servicemember participation in white-supremacist extremism, terrorism, and insurrection, stretching back to a U.S. Army colonel, Robert E. Lee, whom the insurrectionist Confederacy, a secessionist conspiracy predicated on preserving property in human beings, made the commanding general of its armed forces. The scholar Kathleen Belew in 2019 wrote a book about the presence of Vietnam veterans within the late-20th century white-supremacist resurgence. In 1995, a decorated Gulf War veteran, Timothy McVeigh, murdered 168 people, including 19 children, in the Oklahoma City bombing. Recent investigations have uncovered active-duty and veteran presence in white-supremacist and Neo-Nazi groups like Atomwaffen.
“Simply put, we will not tolerate extremism of any sort in DOD,” Reid told reporters on Thursday.