A Year On, Pentagon Struggles to Weed Out Extremists

Identifying white nationalists and others remains a challenge.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Law enforcement officers push Trump supporters out of the U.S. Capitol.
Law enforcement officers push Trump supporters out of the U.S. Capitol.
Law enforcement officers from the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives push out supporters of outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump inside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Brent Stirton/Getty Images

The most famous insurrectionist to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, was a 14-year Air Force veteran, Ashli Babbitt. Police shot her dead as she attempted to breach a door to the Speaker’s Lobby. 

Since then, Babbitt has become a martyr for many supporters of former President Donald Trump, including some military veterans and—Pentagon officials fear—young people interested in joining the ranks of the armed services. And yet, a year later, the Defense Department is still struggling to figure out the best way to identify these potential extremists and prevent them from signing up.

The month after the insurrection, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin directed every U.S. military unit to take time to study the problem. 

The most famous insurrectionist to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, was a 14-year Air Force veteran, Ashli Babbitt. Police shot her dead as she attempted to breach a door to the Speaker’s Lobby. 

Since then, Babbitt has become a martyr for many supporters of former President Donald Trump, including some military veterans and—Pentagon officials fear—young people interested in joining the ranks of the armed services. And yet, a year later, the Defense Department is still struggling to figure out the best way to identify these potential extremists and prevent them from signing up.

The month after the insurrection, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin directed every U.S. military unit to take time to study the problem. 

Since then, the Pentagon has updated its screening forms to weed out recruits involved in racially biased or extremist groups. It has also updated lists of prohibited symbols, like gang tattoos, that date back to the 1990s, when gang violence was a leading concern. And it has encouraged recruiting commanders to maintain contact with local law enforcement and the FBI regarding possible draftees. 

But experts say many young extremists hoping to sign up won’t necessarily have external identifiers or police records. 

“It’s always been detrimental to someone who’s trying to enlist if they have a swastika tattoo,” said Katherine Kuzminski, a senior fellow and director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank. 

“But there hasn’t necessarily been the same level of awareness of all of the kinds of domestic extremist groups,” she said, adding that young recruits vulnerable to extremist views might not use similarly well-known hate symbols. 

Concerns about extremists infiltrating the military—including white nationalists and white supremacists emboldened by the Trump presidency—predated last year’s insurrection at the Capitol. 

In 2020, the Pentagon established new procedures to incorporate FBI reviews of tattoos and branding through the law enforcement agency’s cryptology and racketeering records unit in the recruiting process. Other steps for checking suitability include a personal interview, a Pentagon investigation, and an FBI criminal background check. Recruits who have a criminal history that includes affiliation with extremist groups are disqualified from service.

The Pentagon does not formally vet applicants’ social media profiles, according to an Air Force recruiting service spokesperson, though military officials have hinted that is likely coming soon. But an updated Pentagon policy released this past December bans liking, posting, or re-sharing extremist content on social media. 

The policy does little to define which specific messages are banned, giving military units latitude to make the determination.

Across the U.S. military branches, recruits must undergo a fingerprint test and an FBI name check, which is shared with city, county, and state law enforcement agencies. The Pentagon can also track possible extremist activity within the ranks through databases belonging to the inspector general’s office and military justice systems.

Defense officials have insisted that the number of troops who sympathize with extremist groups is miniscule. Lt. Cmdr. Devin Arneson, a Navy spokesperson, told Foreign Policy that fewer than 100 service members faced official action over the past year.

Still, there are concerns that the number of extremists on active duty could be going up. “[E]ven a small number of cases can be a significant problem, and the number may be increasing given recent data and evidence of spikes in domestic violent extremism, particularly among Veterans, which may serve as a precursor for similar increases within the Armed Forces,” Arneson said.

Some lawmakers have suggested the Pentagon is going too far and should focus on its primary mission of keeping the country safe. Others have raised freedom of speech concerns, arguing that one misplaced Facebook like by 18-year-old recruits should not determine their future.

“This is a particularly hairy problem,” said James Marrone, an associate economist at the Rand Corp. who studies extremism in the U.S. military. “You inevitably butt your head against freedom of speech.” 

The problem of balancing freedom of speech with security risks gets even trickier with veterans. Some 12 percent of the people arrested after the Jan. 6 insurrection had military experience, according to a joint George Washington University and West Point study published in April 2021. The Army and Navy have both added steps to pre-separation procedures to address the issue, instructing soon-to-be veterans to continue to follow their oaths to defend the Constitution, and providing a list of FBI and state and local police tip lines. 

But ultimately, identifying extremists in the military will fall on commanders at the lowest ranks—at a time when American politics is increasingly polarized.

“I think the real challenge is going to lie with the unit commander,” Kuzminski said. “We know that a swastika tattoo is outside the realm, but what about a Confederate flag bumper stick on your truck? You go to most posts in the United States and that’s a reality, at least sometimes. So where is that line?”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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