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Pentagon watchdog to launch probe of white supremacists in the military

Pentagon watchdog to launch probe of white supremacists in the military
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The Pentagon’s internal watchdog announced Thursday that it will investigate whether the Department of Defense (DOD) has adequate procedures in place to prevent white supremacists and other extremists from joining and remaining in the military.

“Our objective is to determine the extent to which the DoD and the Military Services have implemented policy and procedures that prohibit active advocacy and active participation related to supremacist, extremist, or criminal gang doctrine, ideology, or causes by active duty military personnel,” the Inspector General’s office said.

The office plans to launch the probe this month, according to a letter sent to top Pentagon officials.

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Following the announcement, acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller said the watchdog report "will be but one of many efforts" to provide transparency on the violent Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol.

"The Department will do everything it can to ensure that review is fulsome, thorough, and holds parties to account," Miller said in a Friday statement.

The investigation comes as the Pentagon conducts a separate review of its policies on extremist activity in the ranks. Miller directed the review following reports that active and former service members participated in the deadly pro-Trump attack on the U.S. Capitol last week.

“We clearly recognize the threat from domestic extremists, particularly those who espouse white supremacy or white nationalist ideologies,” a senior defense official told reporters Thursday regarding the separate review. “We are actively involved in always trying to improve our understanding of where the threat is coming from as a means of understanding and taking action.”

The official pointed to a “resurgence in white supremacy and white nationalist activity over the past five or six years,” adding that studies based on FBI data have found that “between 2001 and today, right-wing extremists are responsible for more deaths in the U.S. than any other type of extremist group.”

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U.S. military policy is conduct background checks on prospective service members and bar individuals from entering the ranks if extremist views are discovered. Service members are also prohibited from participating in or advocating for supremacist or other extremist ideologies once they join the armed forces.

One challenge, the senior defense official said, is determining whether a recruit could be lying about their beliefs or if they might be courted by extremist groups after becoming a service member.

“We know that some groups actively attempt to recruit our personnel into their cause, or actually encourage their members to join the military for purpose of acquiring skills and experience,” the official said, noting that there are parts of military service “that are of appeal to these groups.”

“We recognize that those skills are prized by some of these groups, not only for the capability it offers them, but it also brings legitimacy, in their minds, to their cause, the fact that they can say they have former military personnel that align with their extremist and violent extremist views,” the official added.

The FBI helps out in such cases, notifying the Pentagon if it discovers any active duty troops or veterans participating in domestic extremist behaviors, the official said.

No statistics were provided to reporters regarding how many such individuals are being monitored. The official also did not say whether the Defense secretary’s office and services have a central tracking system on open cases.

The official declined to provide other information about current or former military members involved in the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, and instead referred questions to the Justice Department.

Asked if Pentagon officials are seeing an uptick in extremist activity within the military, the official replied: “Yes,” adding that it was due in part to increased reporting and public visibility of hate groups.

Numerous current and former service members were found to have participated in last week’s insurrection of the U.S. Capitol. The woman who was fatally shot by a Capitol Police officer was a 12-year Air Force veteran; the man photographed inside the building wearing a horned, fur-covered headdress and face paint served in the Navy for two years; and the man photographed in tactical gear and carrying zip tie restraints on the Senate floor is a former Air Force lieutenant colonel.

The Army is investigating a psychological operations officer who was still on active duty when she led a group at last week’s protests that preceded the attack on the Capitol. The officer was already in the process of separating from the service.

A group of 14 Democratic senators has since demanded a new Pentagon investigation into “white supremacist and violent fringe extremist activity” in the military.

“The issue of white supremacy and extremist ideology within the ranks of our military is not new, but the attack on the Capitol makes clear this alarming trend must be immediately addressed,” the senators wrote in a Thursday letter to Pentagon Inspector General Sean O’Donnell. “The spread of white supremacist ideology is dangerous for the military and threatens to rupture civil-military safeguards that our democracy requires.”

Led by Senate Armed Services Committee member Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), the lawmakers ask for the watchdog to “identify recommendations for each of the services to prevent, address, and neutralize extremist ideology within the Armed Forces.”

They also press the Pentagon to support service members when they transition out of the military so that they are “less vulnerable to recruitment by extremist organizations, and more resilient in the face of misinformation and conspiracy theories – the perpetuation of which the FBI has deemed a domestic terrorism threat.”

Updated Friday at 2:34 p.m.