An op-ed column published in The New York Times that linked American troops coming home from war and the growth in white supremacist groups drew sharp criticism from veterans groups.
Although writer Kathleen Belew stated in the piece that the "vast majority of veterans are neither violent nor mentally ill" and that those who turn violent are more likely to harm themselves than anyone else, veterans groups read the op-ed as an attack on military veterans.
American Legion National Commander Daniel Dellinger described the op-ed as a "poorly researched and agenda-driven piece," and that "the New York Times should be above the slanderous stereotyping of the men and women that have defended us against the racist ideology that Ms. Belew and the NY Times no doubt oppose."
Belew has not responded to Military.com's request for an interview, but the authors of reports and books examining the growth of extremists and gangs emerging from the military say law enforcement is justified in its concerns.
"I respect and honor our nation's men and women in the Armed Forces," said Daryl Johnson, a former Army and Department of Homeland Security counterterrorism analyst who now operates DT Analytics. "That said, I think it is very important to discuss, research/investigate, and strategize better ways to detect, deter and mitigate participation or affiliation with U.S. extremist groups/movements by military members because they have unique, specialized knowledge and expertise in weapons systems, paramilitary tactics [and] access to sensitive/classified information, among other skill sets."
Johnson was the author of the 2009 DHS report, "Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment," which came under fire when it was leaked to the media.
Belew's April 15 column was prompted by the recent murder of three people at Jewish community centers in Kansas by a 20-year Army veteran, a former Green Beret.
Johnson's report was cited by Belew in her op-ed where she argued that a rise in extremist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan is tied to the return of tens of thousands of veterans from a long war to a troubled economy and significant social, political and cultural changes. Johnson warned in his 2009 report that extremist groups would look to recruit from disillusioned or disgruntled vets for the combat training and experience they would bring.
"I do not believe the information used in the analysis of the 2009 DHS report was skewed or flawed," said Johnson, who in 2012 published "Right-Wing Resurgence: How a Domestic Terrorist Threat is Being Ignored."
Johnson's report was also widely criticized. Conservative media categorically dismissed it. Some lawmakers, including Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a Marine veteran of Iraq, also criticized it.
The American Legion took exception to the report's use of Timothy McVeigh, the Gulf War vet who carried out the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, as an example of a radicalized, violent veteran. In the Legion's April 2009 letter to DHS, then-National Commander David K. Rehbein pointed out that the Legion passed a resolution in 1923 calling any person or group advocating racial, religious or class strife to be "un-American."
The angry response resulted in DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano apologizing and officially withdrawing the report. Withdrawing it does not make it wrong, Johnson said.
"There were 23 rewrites of this report, which demonstrates the amount of time and effort put forth to make sure the research and analysis were sound," he said. "In addition, the report was reviewed by Intelligence Oversight officials, the Office of General Counsel, several office directors, the FBI, etc."
Johnson found the Legion's protests a bit hypocritical, later accusing the Legion of "fostering the growth of radical right-wing extremists" by permitting its halls to be gathering places for such organizations. Legion spokesman Marty Callaghan called Johnson's claim "harsh."
"Most of the time those posts are just looking to make money for their programs and expenses," Callaghan told Military.com. "They can certainly be criticized for not properly vetting their renters. But that does not mean they support such groups."
Matt Kennard, a London-based journalist and author of "Irregular Army: How the US Military Recruited Neo-Nazis, Gang Members, and Criminals to Fight the War on Terror," defended Belew's New York Times piece.
"I thought it was judicious and accurate in its conclusions. But its warnings have been sounded for nearly a decade," he told Military.com in an email.
Kennard's reporting, which is backed by Defense Department and FBI reports, reveals that some of the same groups that Belew and Johnson said will target vets for recruitment are already in uniform. When the U.S. military began to see a lag in recruiting during the Iraq War, it began taking in people it would have rejected a few years earlier, he said.
This included neo-Nazis, white supremacists and gang members, as well as recruits physically and mentally unfit to serve, he said. That the services were taking in members of extremist groups was documented in a 2005 report by the Defense Personnel Security Research Center.
"Effectively, the military has a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy pertaining to extremism," the report states.
Six years later the FBI found that gangs were encouraging members to go into the military to get the combat skills and experience they could use on the streets.
Kennard said he was also criticized for smearing the troops or veterans, the attacks largely coming from conservative groups.
"The Right have a reflect of ad hominem against anyone who raises concerns about conduct of servicemembers or veterans, it's a method used to shut down debate," said Kennard. "They hide behind ad hominem and crude nationalism. All that was tried on my book. There was no effort to refute the facts."
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.