When Members of Congress don’t understand the danger of extremism in the military nor object to white nationalists in the ranks, we have a serious problem. While some lawmakers have backtracked on comments making light of white nationalism, they still serve as a timely reality check: most Americans do not understand the nature of this threat.
Extremism rooted in hate is affecting every facet of our society — the military included.
And that extremism is often expressed through the tenets of white nationalism. It is a term that originated among white supremacists as a euphemism for white supremacy. Some even distinguish it further by using it to refer to a form of white supremacy that emphasizes defining a country or region by white racial identity and which seeks to promote the interests of whites exclusively, typically at the expense of people of other backgrounds. It’s an ideology grounded in racism, antisemitism and intolerance. This isn’t an opinion. It’s a fact. This, and any other form of hate, does not belong in our armed forces.
To be clear, cases of extremism within the military are not representative of most military personnel, who are committed to upholding the values of their respective services and their oath to the Constitution. But even a small number of extremists in the ranks can cause harm far disproportionate to their number, as has been demonstrated numerous times over the past decades.
And as Anti-Defamation League research shows, extremism and hate are on the rise in America, threatening all of our communities and our national security. In many ways, the U.S. military reflects our broader society — just as we are seeing antisemitism, hate and extremism rise across the country, we see those same dynamics threatening our armed forces.
It is critical that Congress capitalizes on the opportunity of the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, to stop the harms extremism and hate posed to America’s national security. The House bill includes only a few provisions that begin to address the problem, failing to include amendments that more robustly mitigate the threat. The House only included language requesting a report on Defense security clearance procedures to identify extremists, and language requiring reporting on training to address extremism. The Senate now has the opportunity to do what the House would not: protect our armed forces, our civilians, and our country from hate and extremism.
Even a cursory review of recent extremist incidents tells us the time to act is now.
There have been numerous arrests in recent years of military members related to their ties to a range of extremist ideologies, including white supremacy. A Department of Defense inspector general recently reported 92 cases of punishments for extremist activity.
In our review and analysis of a leaked Oath Keepers membership database, ADL identified 117 individuals whom it believes currently serve in the U.S. military, an additional 11 people who serve in the reserves, and 31 individuals who hold civilian positions or are military contractors.
Many incidents of extremist violence involving service members have been linked to ideologies or groups rooted in white nationalism, antisemitism, and/or racism. From Brandon Russell in 2017 and Lt. Christopher Hasson in 2020, from Matthew Belanger and Killian Ryan in 2022, to Jack Teixeira in 2023, white nationalism and other forms of extremism and hate within the ranks have caused great harm to our military service, to civilians, and to our country.
The danger extremism poses to our military’s effectiveness is clear. ADL documented in 2021 that unchecked extremism in the ranks can cause physical harm to service members and civilians, security breaches, and harm to morale, unit cohesion, personnel retention, recruiting efforts, and mission success.
Despite all of this and other evidence, there has been a growing retreat — even undermining of — programs to counter extremism within the Department of Defense. Temporary offices and programs stood up in the beginning of the Biden Administration with small mandates have closed shop and new ones have not been stood up, despite the continued issue of extremism in the military.
The Secretary of Defense’s much-talked about “stand down” should be a beginning, not the end, of robust department efforts to root out extremism in the ranks. Only one of the six recommendations made in the department’s Countering Extremist Activity Working Group report has been implemented. Much more can and must be done to protect our troops and reinforce national security.
Fortunately, there is a way to get us back on the path towards stemming extremist threats to our service members and institutions. ADL will continue to urge Congress to ensure several key provisions are in the final defense bill that will protect our country from these persistent threats. These include: clarity about department efforts to mitigate extremism and antisemitism undermining the service and our national security, support for training and improved processes to detect and respond to these threats, and ensuring the administration is effectively implementing the Biden administration’s National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism. Congress must include these provisions in the defense bill and ensure the Department of Defense is protecting our military.
Congress must not get lost in misguided efforts to undermine the Department of Defense’s ability to face these threats head-on. Our leaders must instead utilize the opportunity NDAA poses to make real and lasting changes at the Defense Department that protect our military from extremism and hate.
Lauren Wolman is the Anti-Defamation League’s Director of Government Relations, specializing in combating extremism and protecting civil rights.
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