Law enforcement officials are ramping up security in Washington, D.C., this week because of right-wing chatter about more violence timed to occur March 4. The date has somewhat bizarre significance to conspiracy theorists like followers of the “sovereign citizen” movement and QAnon. The fact that men and women with sophisticated military skills might buy into such theories is alarming. A small number of skilled and motivated extremists could do outsize damage.
We already know that plenty of far-right extremists see themselves as “soldiers.”
We already know that plenty of far-right extremists see themselves as “soldiers.” Several right-wing nationalist groups played a disproportionate role in the Jan. 6 attack on America’s Capitol. These groups carefully planned their efforts, co-opting the language, the look and even the tactics of the military. But it is more than play-acting. According to multiple reports, we also know that a significant number of those involved in the attack have real ties to the military. Some Americans seemed shocked by this fact; they should not have been.
The number of right-wing nationalist groups that have been identified in the United States has increased dramatically over the past decade, a fact FBI Director Christopher Wray confirmed during his Senate testimony this week. Consequently, it is not surprising that their members include veterans, active-duty personnel and members of the National Guard or the reserves. The Defense Department also acknowledged this fact in a report released Tuesday.
Whether timed to March 4 or not, the growth of right-wing groups and their ability to infiltrate the military is unquestionably a significant threat. Clearly Americans are alarmed. In a poll conducted by the Anti-Defamation League after the attack on the Capitol, over 75 percent of respondents expressed serious concerns about widespread violence in the next year by white supremacist groups or anti-government militias.
Some of these groups have actively encouraged their members to join the military or sought to recruit veterans. They not surprisingly view the unique training the military offers in weapons, communications and cyber as an exploitable asset. One expert observed that military members could “dramatically escalate the impact of fringe activism, pass on explosives expertise or urban warfare expertise.” The presence of military personnel or veterans also gives militia groups a degree of political legitimacy and public credibility.
Obviously, this dynamic also threatens to further undermine America’s faith in its military, and it is damaging to vital civil-military relations. But the participation of active-duty service members, National Guard members or reservists in such groups is not simply contrary to “good order and discipline” in the ranks. Forty percent of the men and women in uniform today are people of color. As Dov Zakheim wrote in The Hill in January, “eliminating from the ranks racial, ethnic and religious hatred and the White supremacists who stoke it is not a ‘nice to have.’ It is critical if America is to win its wars.”
Shortly after his confirmation, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin sought to confront the issue with the full support of all of the uniformed service chiefs and civilian secretaries. He directed a thorough review of all department policies on extremist activity and a study to ascertain the depth of the problem. Some experts in domestic terrorism and law enforcement have estimated that veterans and current members of the military may now make up at least 25 percent of militia rosters in the U.S. The same analysis suggests that there could be 20,000 active militia members in around 300 groups. The comprehensive studies that previously examined the question of military members’ participation in extremist organizations are over two decades old.
Austin also ordered all commanders to conduct a leadership “stand-down” for their units by the end of March. In the military, stand-downs are used to focus the attention of the entire force on a serious issue. This is a problem of culture and values. All service members swear an oath at enlistment and at promotion to “support and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic.” Consequently, these discussions must focus on the meaning of that oath, impermissible behavior and each individual’s responsibility to report activities to the contrary.
One of the challenges is that, unlike with international terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda, membership in extremist organizations is not illegal. Nor is it always stigmatized. There is evidence that some military personnel are very open about membership. Pentagon regulations do forbid service members from active “participation” in organizations that advance supremacist or extremist ideology. This includes involvement in groups that advocate illegal discrimination or racism or seek to deprive people of their civil rights. There have, however, been suggestions to update this guidance — which was written in 2012.
One of the challenges is that, unlike with international terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda, membership in extremist organizations is not illegal.
Legislation has also been proposed to change the Uniform Code of Military Justice to address “extremist activity.” Even with such changes, legislation that would provide greater clarity and criminalize certain actions or membership in specific organizations is unlikely because of civil liberties concerns.
The stand-down will also remind all military commanders of actions they can take against members of their units involved with extremist groups. These include counseling, removal from certain duties, denial of security clearances, bars to re-enlistment and even courts-martial. Military leaders should be also required to familiarize themselves with relevant external signs, like flags, patches or tattoos, associated with such groups, to enhance overall awareness.
Still, no one in the Defense Department expects the stand-down to be a panacea. Dealing with this challenge effectively will require much closer coordination between the Pentagon and the FBI. Commanders of major military bases and National Guard units must also expand contact with local and state law enforcement agencies, particularly in those parts of the country where such groups are prevalent and active.
Screening potential recruits, as well as monitoring those now serving, must also be a focus. And this will present significant logistical and legal challenges.
Currently, screening people before they join the military includes looking for extremist, racist or gang-related tattoos, as well as checking people against local and federal criminal databases. Any increased screening of potential recruits must consider that the military (particularly the active Army, the National Guard and the reserves) is already confronting the most difficult recruiting environment since the advent of the all-volunteer force almost 50 years ago. Expanded reviews and requirements for enlistment will inevitably complicate the challenge recruiters face to meet enlistment quotas without significant additional resources. This may even discourage them from digging deeply into the backgrounds of potential recruits who are otherwise qualified.
Vetting social media for recruits, as well as monitoring the current force, is clearly a monumental task that may also have legal implications. Recruits do provide consent for obtaining publicly available social media when they submit applications for mandatory personnel screens. But subsequent reviews raise important freedom-of-speech questions. As an Air Force legal opinion in 2013 observed, “The bottom line is that the right to free speech is an important one, and restrictions of servicemembers’ speech rights should not be undertaken without carefully balancing those rights against identifiable and important military interests.”
The Defense Department has begun an effort to examine social media and has sought to incorporate FBI resources to help better identify and screen anyone who advocates domestic terrorism. But there are major challenges, such as getting access to the encrypted platforms often used by extremist organizations, as well as obtaining the legal authority to collect private discussions.
In the long term, senior civilian and military leaders must continue to emphasize the threat right-wing extremism poses to military values and overall operational effectiveness — not to mention America. Combatting this threat must become an essential part of entry-level training, as well as officer/non-commissioned officer education and development. It should be a topic of thorough discussion at basic training, non-commissioned officer academies and military academies, in the Reserve Officer Training Core, at senior service colleges, etc.
The challenge of dealing with the veterans community may be the most intractable part of the problem. It will require greater efforts by both the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs to assist veterans during community reintegration. Many veterans voice a desire for the sense of belonging, brotherhood and patriotism offered by the military, and especially during deployments. These desires, coupled with anti-government sentiment, can motivate right-wing recruitment. Greater cooperation and outreach by veterans groups could be useful in providing purpose and positive social relationships for those leaving military service.
Finally, the military services may need to revisit their cultures and the importance of military values and oaths — both for those actively serving and for veterans. As one young Marine observed after the Jan. 6 attack, “I wonder if there’s a way for the Marine Corps to craft a more vivid narrative about what it means to be a Marine after you’ve hung (the uniform) up.”
Ending right-wing extremism in the military will not be accomplished by a one-day stand-down, a closer examination of tattoos or reviews of recruits’ Twitter accounts. It will require a sustained effort by both the uniformed and civilian leadership of the Defense Department in concert with other federal agencies. As Austin observed during his Senate confirmation hearing, “The job of the Department of Defense is to keep America safe from our enemies, but we can’t do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks.”
In his new job, Austin is confronted by enormous challenges abroad — the Afghan war, nuclear proliferation and threats from North Korea, Iran, China and Russia. But removing the cancer of right-wing extremism from the military ranks could be his greatest service to our democracy, and his ultimate legacy.