As the services grapple with the presence of political extremists — including white nationalists and supremacists, within their ranks — President-elect Joe Biden’s defense secretary nominee, who is Black, shared his own feelings and experiences with extremism during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.
His testimony came after the National Guard announced that it had sent 12 troops home from inauguration security duty as of Tuesday, including two with possible links to right-wing militias.
“We also owe our people a working environment free of discrimination, hate and harassment,” Austin wrote in his prepared remarks. “If confirmed, I will fight hard to stamp out sexual assault, to rid our ranks of racists and extremists, and to create a climate where everyone fit and willing has the opportunity to serve this country with dignity. 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.”
While Austin answered questions from multiple lawmakers on the subjects, he offered scant details on how he plans to track, deter or prosecute either issue.
During questioning from senators, Austin shared his personal experience, as a lieutenant colonel in the 82nd Airborne Division in 1995, when an investigation found that 22 Fort Bragg, N.C.-based soldiers had ties to extremist groups.
“... we woke up one day and discovered that we had extremist elements in our ranks and, and they did bad things that ― that we held certainly held him accountable for,” Austin said.
The investigation came after two white soldiers were charged with the racially-motivated murders of two Black civilians in nearby Fayetteville, the Washington Post reported at the time.
“...we discovered that the signs for that activity were there all along,” Austin said. “We just didn’t know what to look for, or what to pay attention to.”
One of those soldiers, Pfc. James Burmeister, had lost his security clearance and had previously been counseled for extremist activities, while his fellow soldiers said he’d displayed a Nazi flag in his barracks room.
The findings, at the time, prompted the then-Army secretary to call for a worldwide investigation into extremism among actively serving soldiers.
“But we’ve learned from that,” Austin said. “And I think this is one of those things that that’s important to our military to make sure that we keep a handle on ― make sure our leaders are doing the right thing so they’re taking care of ... their troops, they understand, they know their troops, and we can never take our hands off the wheel on this, that this has no place in the military of the United States of America.”
Austin also took questions on the prevalence of sexual assault in the military, as recent Pentagon studies have shown that while reports have gone up, prosecution and convictions have not.
In particular, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., called on him to spearhead change, after years of lamenting that top military leaders have told her and her colleagues that they have it under control.
“...but we have not gotten better. And we have to get better,” Austin said. “And we will get better, we have to we have to go after the culture, we have to go after the climate ... this is a leadership issue. It’s a readiness issue. And it starts from the top, and we got to work from the bottom as well.”
Gillibrand and some of her colleagues have suggested taking the decision to investigate or press charges after an assault report out of the hands of commanders, who may have incentive to bury problems in their formations, and assign that decision-making power to sexual assault prosecutors. The idea has not garnered widespread support in the Senate.
“I certainly believe that we need to do better. A lot of things better in terms of investigation and prosecutions and. And I think we have to look at this holistically,” Austin said. And I know that you know that President-elect is committed to standing up a 90-day commission to really look at this soup-to-nuts, and I look forward ... to the readout of that commission. But I won’t wait for 90 days to get after this. As I indicated this starts with me, and you can you can count on me getting after this on day one.”
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.