Senate appropriators included in their $695 billion defense spending plan for fiscal 2020 a mandate for military officials to more closely track and respond to incidents of white supremacy and pro-Nazi activity in the ranks, which lawmakers have labeled a growing concern for the services.
The provision would require the defense secretary to submit a report to Congress on any violations regarding Defense Department policies on “white supremacist, neo-Nazi, terrorist, gang and other extremist affiliations by service members and recruits.”
It echoes similar language inserted into the House draft of the annual defense authorization bill earlier this year by Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md. That legislation includes hundreds of policy priorities and changes. Including it in the appropriations bill carried extra significance because the spending legislation largely sticks to funding tables and financial decisions.
Current Defense Department rules mandate that “military personnel must reject active participation in criminal gangs … and in other organizations that advocate supremacist, extremist, or criminal gang doctrine.”
Earlier this year, in response to an inquiry from Brown, department officials said that all new recruits undergo background investigations to search for any ties to extremist groups and that all service members are reminded of those rules on a regular basis.
Despite that, about 22 percent of service members who participated in the fall 2018 Military Times poll said they have seen signs of white nationalism or racist ideology within the armed forces. Among non-white service members in the poll, more than half reported witnessing incidents of racism and racist ideology.
The issue of extremism in the ranks gained closer scrutiny earlier this year after the arrest of Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Hasson, a former active-duty Marine and Army Guardsman who was plotting a mass murder of political and media figures. Investigators found evidence after his arrest that he was a long-time white nationalist who held violently racist views even before his first enlistment in the military.
Earlier this month, Marine Corps Times published new details of a naval investigation into the enlistment and eventual dismissal of Marine Lance Cpl. Vasillios Pistolis, who for years had ties to racist and extremist groups. Despite that, he was able to join the service without any problems.
Those incidents have raised serious questions about the reliability and focus of military background checks.
If the language survives negotiations with House leadership — a likely scenario, now that both Democrats and Republicans on the Hill have offered public backing for the idea — defense officials would be required to issue an unclassified report to Congress on the issue of extremism in the ranks within six months of the spending bill’s final passage.
However, the fate of the spending bill remains uncertain. The legislation passed out of committee 16-15 on Thursday after a party-line vote, with Senate Democrats angry over Republican leaders’ decision to sideline an amendment designed to block President Donald Trump’s ability to transfer military funds to pay for his controversial southern border wall project.
House leaders have already said they are considering a budget extension later this month to avoid a partial government shutdown at the start of the new fiscal year (Oct. 1). That could push a final defense appropriations vote into late fall or early winter.
In addition to the white supremacist language, the $695 billion spending bill also includes a 3.1 percent pay raise for troops in 2019, in line with other congressional and White House plans for military salaries next year.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.