Military commanders disavow notion of extremists in their ranks

Assertions seem to run counter to what is publicly known about the proliferation of white supremacism within the military

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Posted April 20, 2021 at 5:52pm

Two top military officers on Tuesday told senators there are “zero” white supremacists under their command, despite evidence of a long-simmering problem within the ranks that came to the forefront following the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol involving some currently serving military personnel and veterans.

“I am very confident that the number of extremists in my forces is zero,” said Adm. Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, which includes some 150,000 military and civilian personnel overseeing the nation's nuclear arsenal. “Every person in my organization has to have a security clearance, for starters, right? And when you fill that form out, and I’ve been filling it out for 40 years, there is an extensive battery of questions designed to get after that very point.”

Investigators look into the background of every applicant, and check their references as well as social media accounts, he said. At Strategic Command, there are a personnel reliability program and peer monitoring, added Richard, who has been in the post since November 2019.

“So if there are any extremists in my organization, one, they hide it very well, and two, it’s just a matter of time before I get them,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Gen. James Dickinson, commander of Space Command, also estimated the number of extremists under his command to be "zero" and suggested he hasn't seen it as a problem during his time in the military. 

“In the formations that I’ve had throughout my career, I have not seen that," Dickinson said.

The assertions of the two commanders seem to run counter to what is publicly known about the proliferation of white supremacism within the military, which is trying to get a handle on the full extent of the problem following the Jan. 6 pro-Trump mob. Veterans and servicemembers have been disproportionately represented in those charged with crimes in the insurrection.

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin has told the military that it is "not an insignificant problem" and has labeled it a leadership issue, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby has said.

In one of his first official acts following his confirmation, Austin ordered all units to conduct a one-day training to discuss extremism within the ranks.

The commanders' comments Tuesday came in response to questions about the number of extremists in the ranks by Alaska Republican Dan Sullivan.

Sullivan took exception to comments made by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., at a hearing last week in which Blumenthal categorized the potential number of military personnel who espouse white supremacist or extremist ideas as “a small percentage, under 10 percent, but that’s a large percentage in terms of its potential impact.”

Sullivan, a colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve, decried the suggestion that 10 percent of servicemembers could be described as extremist.

“That number is absurdly high, it wasn’t based on any data,” and would translate to 200,000 to 250,000 members of the military fitting within that category, Sullivan said Tuesday. “Which, I think, is a disparagement of our men and women in the military.”

Past problems

Security screening notwithstanding, Strategic Command, headquartered at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, has seen its share of scandals. In 2018, the Associated Press reported on a group of security forces at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming accused of using the hallucinogen LSD. Earlier this year, airmen from the same force, which guards sites housing ICBMs, were reportedly under investigation for marijuana use.

In 2014, dozens of Air Force officers responsible for launching weapons from their silos were implicated in cheating on proficiency tests at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. The cheating came to light during another investigation into illegal drug use.

White supremacy in the ranks predates the Jan. 6 insurrection. In 2018, ProPublica reported that an active-duty Marine who was also a member of the white supremacist group Atomwaffen Division participated in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. In 2019, a Coast Guard lieutenant who had also served in the Marines and the Army National Guard was arrested and accused of stockpiling weapons he hoped to use to incite a race war.