Lawmaker Wants More Tools to Confront White Supremacy in the Military

U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown speaks with a Special Tactics Airman at Hurlburt Field
U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown, Vice Chair of the House Armed Services Committee, speaks with a Special Tactics Airman at Hurlburt Field, Florida, Nov. 5, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo/Lynette M. Rolen)

Amid a recent trend in the military of service members being discovered with links to white supremacist or neo-Nazi ideology and activity, one lawmaker is pushing for the services to take a more interventionist stance, stepping in with action and education as problems emerge.

Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Maryland, vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, submitted language in the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act requiring a question on routine command-climate surveys regarding troops’ experience of these behaviors in their work environment. A version of his amendment did make it into the final policy bill, but the language was, to him, disappointingly watered down. 

“My amendment said, ‘Hey, let's ask some specific questions about whether or not you've experienced or observed or been … the target of racism, white nationalism and white supremacy. And it got watered down to ... just extremism,” Brown told during an interview this month at his Capitol Hill office.

The enacted text of the bill requires troops to be asked in Defense Department-administered surveys whether they have “experienced or witnessed extremist activity in the workplace” or “reported such activity.”

Related: Congress Wants the Military to Report Extremism in the Ranks. Why that Will Be Tough

That term, he added, was broad enough to invite misinterpretation or confusion for the troops taking the surveys.

“You ask soldiers about racism, they understand what racism is. You ask them about white nationalism, white supremacy, they know what that means,” Brown said. “You know, they've seen that someone has left a noose at their workstation or where someone is putting, you know, an anti-semitic swastika on their desk or something like that. So, I'd like to go back and I will take another run at it.”

Brown, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and a retired colonel in the Army Reserve, was, while lieutenant governor of Maryland from 2007 to 2015, the most senior U.S. elected official to have served a tour in Iraq.

The issue of racist and supremacist ideology cropping up within the military ranks is drawing growing scrutiny from Congress. Next week, the House Armed Services Committee plans to hold a two-panel hearing on the matter, with testimony from military criminal investigation officials, as well as outside experts.

On Thursday, Military Times published the results of a reader survey that found more than half of minority troops and more than one-third of active-duty troops overall said they had “personally witnessed examples of white nationalism or ideological-driven racism within the ranks.” The poll was conducted between Oct. 23 and Dec. 2, 2019.

While military leaders have emphasized that racial extremism and white supremacist behavior is not tolerated in the ranks and is a disqualifier for service at the entry level, few internal initiatives have been announced to better police this behavior.

In a recent sampling of events, one Marine was investigated and separated last year after sharing Nazi-sympathizing materials on social media; a report emerged linking five service members to white nationalist organization Identity Evropa, prompting an investigation; and Coast Guard officer Christopher Hasson was sentenced to more than 13 years’ confinement on drug and firearm charges after a cache of materials was found linking him to supremacist ideology and an alleged terror plot.

Brown said he again plans to submit language pushing not only for more clarity in command-climate survey questions to diagnose white supremacism and racial hatred, but also for intervention and education when concerns do come to light.

“These climate surveys are to give a commander a broad sense of what's happening in their unit,” he said. “I [can] see that, ‘Hey, there's an uptick over last year in concerns or claims about racism in my unit. Let me bring the interventions in; I can bring the experts in that can educate and do the outreach into my unit to address it across the whole unit. So I think it's important that we do that, and I'm going to take another run at it next year.”

A White House budget request for the Defense Department is expected to roll out Feb. 10; Brown said lawmakers will be submitting their priorities for the fiscal 2021 defense budget this month and next.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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