The sea of protesters-turned-rioters massing near the Capitol on Jan. 6 carried with them pro-Trump signs, American flags and an array of political banners.
Also among the crowd were many emblems of the military community: Some waved Marine Corps flags, many sported military tactical gear, even specific unit patches signifying their time in service.
Those affiliations were real. More than two dozen people who were later charged in crimes stemming from the attack on the Capitol had military ties, including a Virginia Army National Guardsman, a Navy officer and one retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, dressed in military gear, holding zip ties on the Senate floor. Another veteran is accused of being the leader of the far-right, anti-government extremist group Oath Keepers.
Not all of those who stormed the Capitol that day were military or veterans, but so far, authorities estimate that 1 in 5 of those who’ve been charged criminally were either currently serving in the military or had once worn the uniform.
The links between the insurrection on Capitol Hill and the military community seemed shocking to many leaders and the public overall.
For decades, domestic extremists have flaunted ties to the U.S. military, seeking to claim the status, credibility and effective tactical training that military service entails.
And for decades top leaders in the military have promised to go after domestic extremists — like militia groups, white supremacists and those who advocate violence against the government — when discovered in the ranks.
Yet past efforts focused on disciplining individuals rather than addressing a broader problem across the military.
Despite finding recent evidence of troops with known ties to extremist groups like the Atomwaffen Division or Identity Evropa, military leadership’s response has never drawn as much institutional support as other high-profile problems like sexual assault, suicide or hazing.
Even today, as the attack on the Capitol has heightened concerns, the Pentagon cannot say how many service members in uniform may have ties to extremist ideologies that are a threat to both the military and the nation at large.
The Defense Department has no central tracking of allegations or disciplinary actions related to extremism, and regulations allow for extremist affiliations and rhetoric, as long as a service member doesn’t act upon them.
In the past, defense officials have downplayed the issue, claiming the numbers were low and that mere membership in such organizations is not a crime, making it difficult to track.
Yet internally, the concerns were evident long before the attack on the Capitol.
Extremism inside the military is a “threat” of unclear proportion, not only because of possible violence but also because it endangers morale, according to an Pentagon report quietly delivered to Capitol Hill this fall.
“Despite a low number of cases in absolute terms, individuals with extremist affiliations and military experience are a concern to U.S. national security because of their proven ability to execute high-impact events,” the report stated. “Access to service members with combat training and technical weapons expertise can also increase both the probability of success and the potency of planned violent attacks.”
Military leaders note, correctly, that the effort to tackle the problem aggressively is fraught, because the Constitution protects freedom of speech and the law prohibits criminalizing affiliations that may be deemed fundamentally political in nature rather than a threat to harm the public.
But others who study the problem say much more can be done, and the military’s ability to enforce standards for good order and discipline gives commanders and senior leaders powerful tools to send a message and remove or punish service members who are identified as a problem.
“The military has unique abilities to set boundaries on conduct that other parts of government don’t have,” Katrina Mulligan, the managing director of national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress, told Military Times. “But they have been unevenly applied.”
That may soon change. The spate of arrests and investigations involving dozens of current and former service members involved in the Capitol riots has drawn a spotlight to the problem of the military community’s ties to domestic extremism.
The new defense secretary, retired Army four-star Gen. Lloyd Austin, vowed at his confirmation hearing in January 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.”
He soon acted on that promise.
“Extremism has risen to a top priority as the new secretary called in the service secretaries and Joint Chiefs of Staff in early February, directing them to conduct a 60-day stand-down for leaders to speak with troops about the problem and “get a sense from them about what they’re seeing at their level,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters Feb. 3.
But it won’t be easy. As a practical matter, monitoring the activities of 1.3 million active-duty service members is challenging. Culturally, it’s not a problem leaders have prioritized over the years. And legally, it’s difficult to distinguish between the casual gestures of some troops and the real warning signs of potentially illegal extremist activity by others.
Tougher enforcement is now under consideration at the highest levels of government.
Some measures under consideration include: better vetting of incoming recruits, monitoring social media for those in sensitive positions, adding questions about extremism to command climate surveys, a tattoo database so commanders know what to look for, increased training and an accountability mindset that encourages reporting.
Cumulatively, the impact would be swift, with career-ending discharges for anyone involved in extremist activities.
Advocates who support a more aggressive crackdown inside the military point to the era of “don’t ask, don’t tell” to show that the military has the capability to police personal behavior among troops.
“The military put a lot of effort ... I think ridiculously, trying to find homosexuals,” former Air Force chief prosecutor Don Christensen, who now heads the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, told Military Times.
“If they wanted to stop something, they can. The question is, how much effort are they putting into investigations?” he said.
Christensen pointed to the services’ task forces for child pornography and said they should set up the same for extremism.
“They already know how to do it,” Christensen said. “I think any military leader, if asked, would admit that white supremacy, extremism would be a threat to good order and discipline, and you would have a legitimate reason for doing this.”
Why this time is different
The commander in chief is already talking about the problem. President Joe Biden said in his inaugural address that the “rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism,” were threats the nation must confront and defeat.
More specifically to the military and the Pentagon’s response will be the new defense secretary.
Austin, an African American who grew up in the Deep South, graduated from West Point in 1975 and spent 41 years in the Army, brings a personal perspective to the problem that could have a far-reaching impact.
During his January confirmation hearing, Austin recalled his time as a lieutenant colonel in the 82nd Airborne Division. In 1995, racist paratroopers in the unit murdered a Black couple near Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
A subsequent investigation uncovered nearly two dozen skinheads in the division and sparked a global review of extremism in the Army’s ranks.
“We woke up one day and discovered that we had extremist elements in our ranks, and they did bad things that we certainly held them accountable for,” Austin said.
“But we discovered that the signs for that activity were there all along,” he added. “We just didn’t know what to look for or what to pay attention to — but we learned from that.”
There were warning signs, Austin said, but leaders didn’t see them.
“I can tell you that most of us were embarrassed that we didn’t know what to look for, and we didn’t really understand that being engaged more with your people on these types of issues can pay big dividend,” Austin said.
“We can never take our hands off the wheel on this,” he said. “This has no place in the military of the United States of America.”
After the Capitol riot, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., sent a letter to Biden, Austin and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, asking the Pentagon to begin screening social media accounts of service members with sensitive roles for any white supremacist or extremist ties.
She asked the president to elevate white supremacy and violent extremism as a critical threat, which would raise scrutiny during the security clearance background checks.
She urged Austin to direct the services to review standards for social media activity of recruits to help identify such activity.
Events pre-dating the Capitol attack signal an appetite for countering extremism.
Last year, the services banned display of the Confederate battle flag in public places. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger led the way when he directed that all Confederate-related paraphernalia be removed from Marine bases, saying that the symbol has, “the power to inflame feelings of division.” The other services have since followed with similar actions.
Days before the Capitol riot, Congress passed a law ordering DoD to rename military installations that currently honor the Confederate States of America. The legislation passed Jan. 1 will create a commission to rename, within three years, the military installations and Navy ships that commemorate anyone who served in the Confederacy.
Weeks before the Capitol riot, then-acting defense secretary, Chris Miller, directed Pentagon officials to toughen policies and regulations banning extremist activities among troops, and update the Uniform Code of Military Justice to specifically address extremist threats.
A former top official at the Pentagon told Military Times that the latest comments from both the commander in chief and the new defense secretary hold promise.
“We all know that personnel issues do not normally rise to the level of attention that they sometimes deserve. However, the events of the last few years, culminating with the Jan. 6 attack on our Capitol, have revealed to America, military included, that we have serious issues that must be addressed,” said Todd Weiler, a former assistant defense secretary for manpower and reserve affairs during the Obama administration.
“There is no doubt that these issues will garner the attention of the new administration and I am confident that they will be addressed,” he said.
Why it won’t be easy
The thicket of laws and politics that the Pentagon will have to navigate will not be easy.
Some monitoring of social media is allowed under military policies and regulations, but it will be tricky to strike the right balance between increasing enforcement without veering into an overly aggressive surveillance effort that critics will call a witch hunt, legal experts say.
It’s unconstitutional to make mere membership in an organization a crime, said Eugene Fidell, Yale Law School military law expert. But that can be discouraged by other means; for example, officials could bar enlistment or revoke a security clearance, which could end a career without using the UCMJ, he said.
“For First Amendment reasons, mere ‘paper’ membership in an organization, whether it be the Communist party during the McCarthy era or, today, a gang or a group that believes in white supremacy, is not a crime. Taking a leadership role in such an organization is another matter,” Fidell said.
The Army, for example, prohibits collecting, recording or reporting “information concerning purely political activities and personalities, or disorders in which no crime is indicated or suspected” by its criminal investigators, according to Army Regulation 195-2.
However, there is precedent for this kind of easily shared data. The 21st Century Sailor office, in the Navy’s chief of naval personnel office, keeps a spreadsheet of hazing reports from around the service.
“I don’t think it’s rocket science, it’s a commitment to be able to do it. If you can screen for psychological and health concerns, you can screen for signs of radicalization,” Lecia Brooks, chief of staff for the Southern Poverty Law Center, told Military Times.
While the president and defense secretary have pushed the importance of combating extremism, the groundwork falls to individual services and unit leaders to identify bad behavior and for commanders to respond to it.
And to do that effectively will require resources — specifically more money and people.
“We get a lot of help from external law enforcement agencies with these sorts of things because of the domestic nature” of the offenses, outgoing Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said during a Jan. 18 interview.
“But do we have enough resources in place to truly get after this in the appropriate way? We’re looking at that, too.”
How big is the problem?
Last year the FBI notified the Pentagon that it had opened criminal investigations that involved 143 current or former service members. Sixty-eight of those involved domestic extremism and the vast majority involved veterans, not active-duty troops, a defense official told Military Times.
Unlike suicide and sexual harassment or sexual assault, neither the Pentagon nor the services centrally track extremism, whether its links to domestic terrorism or the white supremacist ideology that often overlaps with it.
In the case of military suicide, Congress directs the Pentagon to produce a yearly report on its suicide fatalities, including research on the demographics affected most. The DoD also uses the Rand Military Workplace Study to gather anecdotal data on toxic command climates and sexual harassment.
No similar tracking exists for extremism. The Pentagon reported in 2020 that 21 service members had been disciplined or discharged over the previous five years for extremist activities.
Anti-extremist groups say they find higher results on an annual basis through publicly available online research. Many experts are skeptical that this data reflects the true scope of the problem.
UCMJ and other tools
Step one will be for the military to find and identify those involved in extremist groups and activities. Past efforts don’t leave much room for optimism without increased tools, training, resources and priorities.
Scott Barfield was working as a military police investigator at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, in 2002 when his supervisor assigned him to work with local civilian police on gang cases.
It wasn’t until they taught him what to look for, and where to look for it, that Barfield started finding soldiers who were linked to white supremacists or involved with gangs and other extremist groups.
Over the next five years, Barfield identified about 80 soldiers at JBLM with links to extremist or white supremacist group members.
Those numbers, at one Army installation, were nearly five times what the Army said it saw across the entire force for the same period.
But Barfield met resistance from top Army officials, who denied the military police investigator’s claims that the problem was so widespread. Barfield resigned from his civilian investigator job when he was told he’d be transferred to the traffic division. He now works in civilian law enforcement.
“There’s no way in my mind that I can fathom that the problem has disappeared or severely reduced since I left,” Barfield said in a recent interview with Military Times.
He recalled that some commanders took the issue seriously and punished the soldiers with ties to extremism, while other commanders said they needed the guys for deployments, taking little or no action.
Barfield faulted the high turnover of most military police and a lack of training and lack of coordination with local law enforcement.
In February 2020, at a hearing on Capitol Hill about white supremacy in the military, some lawmakers called for adding a standalone UCMJ article addressing extremism.
But legal experts say that may not be necessary. Existing articles and regulations cover extremist activities ― it’s a matter of enforcing them.
“In fact, a host of formal and informal sanctions are available, including administrative reprimands, reenlistment, promotion, performance evaluations, duty assignments, special training and various kinds of privileges,” Fidell said.
Prosecutors can pursue criminal charges if troops serve in leadership roles in a hate group or anti-government group or if they commit crimes through their conduct with that group.
The threat of extremism poses major threats to military recruiters. One concern is that the perception that parts of the military are sympathetic to extremist views could corrode the military’s culture and hurt the Pentagon’s efforts to recruit a more diverse force.
“If the military starts looking like it’s exclusively a good old boys network of soon-to-be KKK members, we’re going to have a tough time recruiting in the future,” Marine veteran Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., said during a hearing on recruiting last year.
Another risk is that the recruiting process, which brings more than 200,000 young people into the services every year, could be inadvertently welcoming extremists who could fuel the problem inside the military and, at the same time, gain valuable military training that could be used later in life to support extremist activities.
In the age of social media, the Pentagon is trying to create a “multitiered screening process” that will enable “a holistic view of each applicant,” according to Stephanie Miller, who was the Pentagon’s director of accessions last year.
In 2020, the Pentagon launched a centralized screening capability that vets all new recruits to identify and resolve “indicators of questionable allegiance,’' Miller said during a February 2020 House Armed Services Committee hearing.
“We believe we have 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,” Miller said.
At the same hearing, Garry Reid, the Pentagon’s then-director for defense intelligence, said the department was still developing the tools to review social media information during every background investigation, but warned that there are a number of pitfalls to such an approach.
A 65-page report by the defense under secretary for personnel and readiness sent to Congress in October laid out ways in which the Pentagon could incorporate FBI data and resources to do deeper screenings of military recruits when they join.
Report authors recommended the FBI share information in its tattoo and symbols database, develop an unclassified version of their ethnically-motivated violent extremist training and provide services to research tattoos and symbols not easily identifiable with the database.
The report also recommends adding clearer questions to the background screening form, such as whether the applicant had provided money to groups, attended extremist group meetings, received training or other prohibited activities.
The Pentagon noted in the report that it had already begun to implement six of the seven recommendations. The final item involved adding a separation program designator to a military discharge that indicated domestic extremism was involved in the discharge.
Currently only the Navy requires such a designator on the DD 214.
While current service members spouting hate-filled rants online or participating in the Capitol riot or other plots is troubling, the bulk of those found with a military connection in extremist causes are veterans.
For military leaders, those veterans are out of reach of military discipline of the UCMJ, unless they are retired, in which case the military can pursue a court-martial and go after their benefits.
Nevertheless, veterans create both an image problem for the services and a real danger to the larger community with their tactical know-how and outsized influence among extremist groups.
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America CEO Jeremy Butler told Military Times there’s no doubt extremism and racism are problems within military and veteran communities.
But for too long the problems of extremist behavior both in the ranks and among veterans has been overlooked or diminished by those veterans group leaders, Butler, a Navy reservist, said.
“Too often veterans groups are reluctant to do that. They don’t want to anger some of their membership,” he said. “We as leaders of veterans groups can’t be shy about speaking out, condemning veterans or military who take part in those things.”
Chris Purdy, an Army veteran and project manager for Veterans for American Ideals, echoed concerns.
The VFAI aims to have its members and other veterans serve beyond their time in uniform, he said. And part of that is holding other veterans accountable.
“The only people veterans are going to listen to are other veterans,” Purdy said.
VFAI recently formed two task forces to fight the problem, one to track online hate among purported veterans and another to make recommendations to counter extremism among veterans.
Even though numbers of extremists might be small when compared to the vast majority of service members and veterans, Butler said that calling it out will make a difference.
“You have to be open about acknowledging those problems if you’re going to fix those problems,” Butler said.
Additional reporting by Meghann Myers, Stephen Losey, Karen Jowers Kyle Rempfer, Geoff Ziezulewicz and Philip Athey.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.