Pentagon Guidelines on Extremism Remain Vague

By Harrison Tremarello
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The House passed a revised defense spending bill on Tuesday, but left out an amendment that would have scaled up efforts to monitor and prevent extremist actions within the military.

The Defense Department inspector general last week reported nearly 300 allegations of extremist actions by military members in 2021, with more than 50 charged for participating in the pro-Trump Jan. 6 capitol attack. The report also asserted that the department had failed to develop congressionally mandated extremism monitoring standards.

The inspector general's report follows another investigation into the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by a Defense Department task force, commissioned by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Officials have delayed the public release of the document.

This is not the first time the Pentagon has downplayed the rise of white nationalism and right-wing activism in its ranks. Twenty-five years ago, the Army explored overhauls to its extremism policy in response to the Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh, an Army veteran, and the racist killings of two Black civilians by soldiers stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. One of the soldiers convicted of murder in the episode, Private James Burmeister, toldpolice investigators that he wanted to earn a spider web tattoo, a skinhead symbol that sometimes signifies that the wearer has killed a Black person.

The Secretary of the Army at that time, Togo West, launched an investigation into the Army, while the Army's Criminal Intelligence Division examined behavior at Fort Bragg. The local N.A.A.C.P. chapter published its own report on extremism at the base.

The inquiries found that existing policy was ill-suited to prevent extremism in the Army's ranks. Before the murders, Burmeister had been stripped of security clearance for wearing Nazi medals and fighting with a Black soldier. He displayed a Nazi flag in his barracks and was a known skinhead; the F.B.I. and Army labelled him a “budding terrorist” after he threatened to bomb a police station. Army investigators found 26 soldiers at Fort Bragg with ties to extremist organizations, mainly skinhead groups.

The authors of a 1996 Army report criticized the Defense Department and the Army for having vague and confusing regulations on extremism. “Active” participation in an extremist group – attending rallies, organizing and recruiting – was prohibited, but “passive” participation – being a member, having extremist literature or paraphernalia – was not.

The regulations did not address groups that threatened to overthrow the government, nor extremist actions not associated with a group. Language in the Army policy discouraged court-martials and discharges, and no branch of the military offered training directly aimed at preventing extremism.

The 1996 report recommended developing a more comprehensive definition of extremism, stronger punishments, training and monitoring programs, and increased screenings during recruitment. But the authors downplayed the prevalence of extremism in the ranks, finding “minimal evidence of extremism activities” and claiming criminal gangs were more of a threat to military operations.

Burmeister and another soldier, Private Malcolm Wright, were sentenced to life in prison for the racist murders. But in the years after, efforts to revise policies on extremism fell short. Membership in extremist groups, “passive” participation, and extremist acts not affiliated with a group were still not prohibited. The new codes advocated for stronger punishments, but enforcement was at the discretion of individual commanders.

Today, these policies remain largely unchanged, despite the addition of training programs and some restrictions on online interactions. This year for the first time, Congress mandated that the Defense Department develop standards to track extremist activities – something the department failed to accomplish, according to the Inspector General's report released last week.

This loose patchwork of vague rules was ill-suited to address Wade Michael Page, a former soldier stationed at Fort Bragg who knew Burmeister and made openly racist remarks. After being discharged for being drunk while on duty, Page became active in white supremacist groups and in 2011 shot and killed six people and injured four others in an Oak Creek, Wisc., Sikh temple. Page killed himself at the scene.

This year, prosecutors have charged more than 50 current and former military members for their participation in the January 6 capitol attack, and the Defense Department reported 294 allegations of extremist actions in the military from Jan. 1 to Sept. 30. But extremism tracking standards are inconsistent across the branches, with many officials delaying changes until the release of the Defense Department's task force report.

The House passed a version of the National Defense Authorization Act, the annual legislation that funds the military, in September, with an amendment that would create an Office of Countering Extremism, along with strengthened training and education, monitoring and reporting requirements, and a new definition of extremism banning membership in extremist organizations and any extremist action. But this amendment was left out of the final bill passed by the House on Tuesday. The Senate version contains no similar provisions on extremism.

HARRISON TREMARELLO, an intern at Retro Report, is a video and multimedia reporting student in the journalism and political science programs at Northwestern. This article first appeared in Retro Report's free weekly newsletter. Subscribe and receive lessons from history in your mailbox. Follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.