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‘Mere Membership’ in Extremist Groups Doesn’t Spark Military Investigations, Congress Hears

Members of the military who claim membership in white supremacist or other domestic extremist groups have to be active in a group in order to warrant investigation, and even then may face an administrative reprimand but not expulsion, Congress heard this past week.

The House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel held two panels — one with experts on extremism, and the other with representatives of the armed forces — to discuss the latest Military Times poll of active-duty readers regarding extremism within the ranks. Thirty-six percent of troops who responded said they personally witnessed evidence of white supremacist and racist ideologies in the military in 2019, up from 22 percent in the 2018 poll.

In November, Tech. Sgt. Cory Reeves at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs was reduced in rank from master sergeant due to his involvement with Identity Evropa, a white supremacist group that actively distributes propaganda and participated in the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally as well as the tiki torch march the night before. The group rebranded last year as the American Identitarian Movement.

U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations Law Enforcement Deputy Director Robert Grabosky noted that policy states military personnel “must reject active participation in criminal gangs and other organizations that, among other things, advocates supremacist, extremist, gang doctrine, ideology or causes,” but “mere membership in the organization is not prohibited.”

“Mere participation is not something that OSI actually investigates. We actually investigate the active participation of a member. There’s many avenues within the military, including command or Equal Opportunity offices, that conduct investigations of viewpoints of individuals. If it does not rise to the level of a felony investigation of active participation, we do not get involved,” he said, clarifying that “active participation” is defined as “attending rallies, fundraising for them or actually being part of the organization and actively involved in it.”

Without referring to Reeves by name, Grabosky said the active participant investigated by his office was fundraising for Identity Evropa. A letter of reprimand was the punishment along with the reduction of rank; a month later, the Air Force began discharge proceedings. Because the airman received non-judicial punishment, Grabosky said, the extremist activity would not be reported to the FBI.

Stephanie Miller, director of military accession policy in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Personnel Policy, said the DoD believes it has been “effective at screening for individuals that have extremist ideologies or support extremist groups but we continuously review our policies, our practices. and our methods for improvement.”

“For example, the department has recently launched a centralized screening capability that vets all accessions to identify and resolve indicators of questionable allegiance. And this new vetting process has proven successful over the summer in identifying unique adverse information not only available solely from the standardized background investigation form, the SF 86,” she said, adding that recruiters also play “a very critical role” in vetting applicants. “We are gaining additional insights on service members through the deployment of new technologies and have also explored additional testing and screening techniques that assess a range of personality dimensions to identify applicants who best fit with the military’s culture of treating all personnel with dignity and respect.”

Social media checks are currently not a part of recruitment screening, though. “That is an element that we are working in collaboration with our colleagues in the department, in the intelligence community to determine how best to potentially incorporate that requirement,” Miller said.

Garry Reid, director of defense intelligence, counterintelligence, law enforcement and security in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, testified that all DoD personnel “are covered by at least one of the 43 insider threat hubs distributed across the department, and reporting of suspicious or alerting behaviors is steadily increasing.”

Currently, “1.9 million DOD personnel are enrolled in our continuous evaluation system,” with plans for all employees to be included in the automated monitoring of multiple government commercial and public data sources for threat indicators by October 2021.

Joe Ethridge, chief of the Criminal Intelligence Division, Army Criminal Investigation Command, said soldiers suspected of participating in extremist activities are pinpointed “in multiple ways to include chain of command reporting, local police, the media, public-facing social media searches, tipline reports, and FBI domestic terrorism investigative reporting.”

“The majority of the soldiers identified as participating to some extent in extremist activities are not subjects of criminal investigations. The more common scenario is participation in an online forum that might be expressing extremist or supremacist views,” he said. “In these instances, CID notifies commanders via information report for action in accordance with Army policy.”

CID, Ethridge said, has “observed a small increase in criminal investigations initiated with soldier participation in extremist activities as a component,” from an average of 2.4 investigations per year from fiscal years 2014 to 2018 to seven investigations in 2019. “During the same time period, the Federal Bureau of Investigation notified CID of the increase in domestic terrorism investigations with soldiers or former soldiers as suspects. The FBI reporting also clearly stated that extremist organizations were actively seeking veteran skills.”

Ethridge said complaints are commonly received through their tipline, most often coming from a fellow soldier or a family member.

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service “is currently conducting multiple domestic terrorism investigations involving racially-motivated extremism directed against or affecting the personnel in or associated with the Department of the Navy,” NSD Executive Assistant Director Christopher McMahon told lawmakers. In response to an increase in the number of domestic extremism-related reports involving DoD personnel, NCIS established a unique case category for domestic terror.

NCIS “does not pursue investigations of Department of the Navy-affiliated individuals who simply make statements indicating they share the beliefs or a subset of the beliefs held by domestic extremist groups” unless evidence exists that they have “an aspiration to further the identified violent ideology by threats, acts of violence, or other enabling criminal activity.”

All of the 14 ongoing investigations were referred to NCIS by the FBI. “There are a few investigations that have indicated one or two other members that are in communication. But quite often they’re involved in a group that the other members are not current military, potentially maybe have been former military but are former military,” McMahon said. “But currently, a lot of times they’re just in communication with people that are just espousing the same viewpoints.”

Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, has researched extremism in the military for two decades and has often forwarded information to military investigators.

“Barring white supremacists from the military is of the utmost importance… the problem of white supremacists in the ranks is a serious and growing one,” she told lawmakers. “Many of us know of former soldiers with extremist views who have gone on to commit serious acts of terrorism. Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City is the one that most people usually think of. But this is not an old problem: just in this past year, active-duty troops have been found to be involved in white supremacist groups responsible for murders and domestic terrorism plots and, in some cases, international terrorism.”

And as rising white supremacism is “bucking the trend of declining rates of terror globally,” some “are training white supremacists and other countries on military tactics — this is a significant threat to our troops, to the American public and folks in other countries.”

Beirich recommended the military keep a database of extremist tattoos, develop procedures to investigate social media, ensure regulations against white supremacist activity are enforced, report hate crime statistics to the FBI, and issue annual reports on the levels of white supremacy in the military.

“There also is evidence of the existence of extremists in the ranks is now contributing to worldwide terrorism,” she said. “Members of the most violent American neo-Nazi groups have recruited veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as active-duty service members. And that military expertise is now being shared with white supremacists in other countries. This is something else that merits examination.”

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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