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After The Capitol Riot, Officials Promise To Crack Down On Extremism In The Military

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Two weeks after a violent mob carried racist symbols into the Capitol, Army General Lloyd Austin, now the first Black Secretary of Defense, was on Capitol Hill for his confirmation hearing. Austin told senators he is aware that some in the mob had connections to the military, and he promised to crack down.

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LLOYD AUSTIN: 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.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports, the military has been making similar promises for years, with so far little to show.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Dozens of vets or still-serving military took part in the January 6 attack on Congress. Another dozen members of the National Guard were removed from the detail of guarding President Joe Biden's inauguration, at least two for extremist connections. With a million people in the military, that's a small number, less than 1%, but still significant.

CARTER SMITH: If I say, hey, less than 1% of that drink that you've got is cyanide, are you sipping another time?

LAWRENCE: Carter Smith worked Army criminal investigations for 22 years.

SMITH: Or less than 1% of your sandwich is dog crap. Are you taking another bite, or are you going to get you another sandwich?

LAWRENCE: Smith is skeptical of Pentagon promises after spending decades trying to root out gangs and white supremacists from the military. Just last month, a Pentagon report admitted there is still no standardized data about the numbers and suggested further research is needed. Earlier this month, a senior defense official told NPR there's been an increase in extremist activity in 2020, but that official had no figures on recruits disqualified or troops facing discipline or criminal charges. Troops who are radicalized aren't always easy to spot, Smith says, since many lay low while in service with the aim of picking up military skills.

SMITH: They're just good at keeping hidden because they're a small fraction of the military. But when you loose that on a civilian society that doesn't have the ability to track it down or identify it, it's literally like poison.

LAWRENCE: He says it's important to focus on active duty troops because there's much less that can be done once they become veterans. It's not easy, but there are mechanisms for active duty troops to be punished for hate group activity. Once troops become civilians, veterans, they can join whatever group they choose, and even hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. But even when the military kicks out a Klansman or militia member, unless there's a crime, they have no system to tell the local police or FBI.

HEIDI BEIRICH: If somebody is thrown out of the military for white supremacist activities, you need to let the FBI know about it.

LAWRENCE: Heidi Beirich is with the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. She says the military has some good regulations on the books. Sharing data with federal authorities, for example, has been the law since 1990. But the military just doesn't do it. And she suggests more vetting, looking at recruits' social media accounts and keeping a tattoo database of hate group insignia. Beirich is encouraged by one thing, though.

BEIRICH: One of the big problems of the last four years is we didn't have somebody in the White House who would unequivocally denounce white supremacy and anti-government extremism. And doing that is actually a big deal.

LAWRENCE: What the commander in chief says matters in the military.

BEIRICH: And so it makes a big difference when public figures and elected officials take a stand against white supremacy. And, hopefully, we're going to return to that. That was the norm, no matter who was in office, Republican or Democrat, for some time until these past four years.

LAWRENCE: She watched the Senate confirmation hearings for General Lloyd Austin. And while he didn't offer many specifics, she was encouraged that he clearly stated extremists will not be tolerated inside the military. And having a Black man lead the Pentagon for the first time will also send a message from the new commander in chief. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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