The Military Surveyed Troops on Extremist Activity Decades Ago. Here's What it Found

Soldiers of the 1st Theater Sustainment Command stand in formation during an in-ranks inspection.
Soldiers of the 1st Theater Sustainment Command stand in formation at parade rest during an in-ranks inspection at the Sadowski Field House at Fort Knox, Kentucky, March 06, 2020. (Bianka Lathan/U.S. Army)

U.S. troops will soon see a new question on routine workplace surveys: one asking whether respondents have ever "experienced or witnessed extremist activity in the workplace [or] reported such activity."

The addition is the result of a mandate from Congress in the fiscal 2020 defense policy bill. But it's not the first time the military has attempted such a survey in an effort to crack down on hate in the ranks. And documents obtained from earlier reports raise key questions about whether this method of monitoring the problem is reliable and effective.

The presence -- and possible surge -- of hate group, nationalist and racial supremacist behavior and thinking in the ranks was recently spotlighted by a rash of social media incidents and a high-profile Coast Guard criminal case.

After Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Hasson was arrested on drug and gun possession charges in February 2019, investigators reported an astonishing discovery at the officer's home: a draft letter to a "known American neo-Nazi leader" in which Hasson identified himself as a white nationalist; documents appearing to target a number of high-profile lawmakers; and lengthy missives to friends in which he said he was "dreaming of a way to kill almost every last person on the earth."

Related: Coast Guard Officer Christopher Hasson Sentenced to More than 13 Years in Alleged Plot

In March 2019, military officials launched multiple investigations after the Huffington Post linked five troops and two Reserve Officers' Training Corps cadets with the white supremacist group Identity Evropa. That June, procedures were started to kick a Marine lance corporal out of the service after he was found to have shared a number of racist social media posts, including a picture of a swastika.

Last month, Military Times published an eye-popping poll of 1,630 subscribers in which more than one-third said they had "personally witnessed examples of white nationalism or ideologically-driven racism" within their services in recent months.

According to testimony presented to lawmakers the same month by criminal investigative unit leaders from the services, there does appear to be wider cause for concern.

The head of the Army's Criminal Intelligence Division, Joe Ethridge, testified that the unit had seen in early 2019 "a small increase" in criminal investigations involving soldier participation in extremist activities: seven, compared with an average of 2.4 from the four previous years. FBI officials, he said, had also noted that domestic terrorism organizations are now actively seeking veterans for their skills.

Christopher McMahon, the executive assistant director of the National Security Directorate for Naval Criminal Investigative Service, cited a similar increase in the Navy.

The last major military reckoning on hate group activity came following a 1995 incident in which three white soldiers were charged with killing a black man and woman outside Fort Bragg, North Carolina. One of the soldiers had proudly displayed a Nazi flag above his bed on base.

After the murders, the military commissioned multiple force surveys, including one within the Air National Guard and another within the active-component Army. Both were led and staffed by minority service members. Air Force Lt. Gen. Russell Davis, one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, led the ANG effort, while Togo West, the second-ever African American Army secretary, oversaw the Army one. obtained copies of both, completed in 1999 and 1996, respectively.

The First Extremism Surveys

The now-retired Lt. Col. Terry Davis, deputy team chief for the ANG survey, told that that service component was included because extremist groups were considered a militia issue -- and the National Guard elements were seen as the U.S. military's militia force.

The 99-page ANG report -- completed after visiting all 50 states and surveying nearly 8,800 personnel in person or on paper -- was remarkably sanguine. While "community sightings of the Ku Klux Klan and skinheads were commonplace" as the survey team traveled, they reported no incidents of ANG members participating in extremist groups or activity.

Despite that, the survey authors reported an uncanny depth of knowledge among Air Guard members regarding regional hate groups and their symbolism. Davis showed a thick binder of symbols, markings and information about these groups -- all compiled, he said, from the regional knowledge of the airmen.

Included is an encyclopedia of elaborate gang hand signs; pages of graffiti tags and supremacist symbolism, ranging from swastikas to the less-recognizable logos for groups like American Front and the crosstar of the Nationalist Movement; and a detailed lexicon of insider terms used by these groups.

"Members occasionally offered altruistic views of the Klan and neo-Nazis," the report states. "At practically every installation the team found knowledgeable persons on the various extremist groups recognized by DoD. ... [At] times the reason for high levels of awareness was not apparent."

A man has a swastika tattoo covered up.
In this Aug. 21, 2018, photo, a man who wished not to be identified has a swastika tattoo covered up on his elbow by Justin Fleetwood, a tattoo artist at Queen City Tattoo Company in Springfield, Mo. Fleetwood is offering to cover up people's hate-tattoos at no cost. (Andrew Jansen/The Springfield News-Leader via AP) --

Elsewhere, the report appeared to gloss over what would later be recognized as major military-wide problems, raising questions about the completeness of reporting.

"While reported instances of sexual harassment were few in number, it was quite apparent that ANG men and women do not believe the playing field is level for women," the survey found, concluding that "the human relations climate must continually be a command emphasis item."

The survey also suffered from a lack of specificity. Respondent gender and demographic data was not recorded, and answers to the 15 questions specific to extremist activity were condensed in the report to give a general sense of responses.

"Less than 10% of the respondents think that hate crimes are a great or very great problem," the report's authors write. "Of this 10%, it is difficult to truly assess the magnitude of this problem because all of the hate crimes cited may have been against a family member, or occurred in a community or place that is outside the ANG's responsibilities.

Despite the optimism in the survey, Davis, the project's deputy team chief, said it provided a cold wake-up call to military brass about the prevalence of hate groups and supremacist thinking in the communities of their troops; the depth of knowledge those in uniform had about these groups; and the lack of education provided about how to respond to the issue.

'Head in the Sand'

"At the command level, it was absolutely head in the sand in terms of action being taken or education being done without the survey being put in front of them," Davis said. "I just want to believe the commanders ... had more knowledge than they were willing to share about what they knew."

For Davis, another major concern was what the service did with the insights from the limited data it had managed to collect. From his perspective, the effort was lost to history after the survey team turned in the report.

Today, the report appears not to exist online, although Davis keeps his own hard copy of the findings in a thick binder.

"The ANG needs to make a firm determination on where it will maintain the data gathered in the assessment so that it may be used as a baseline for future initiatives on extremist activities or of the overall human relations environment," the survey's authors wrote in one of their five recommendations.

The other recommendations included: Develop an Air National Guard policy on extremism; issue a policy statement incorporating dignity and respect for others as an ANG core virtue; foster a climate where units will take appropriate actions to ensure personnel are well informed of extremist activities in the surrounding areas; and release the findings of the survey on extremism to units for their awareness and education.

A spokesman for the Air National Guard, Lt. Col. Devin Robinson, said he was unable to turn up any information specific to the 1999 survey and actions taken on its findings. However, he did note that, over the years, the National Guard Bureau has implemented a number of policies that address the concerns the survey found.

They include, he said, multiple policy instructions on diversity and inclusion, with the most recent, published in 2018, authorizing adjutant generals in all states and territories to develop their own initiatives and procedures in support of the goal of an inclusive force. And like the rest of the military, guardsmen participate in regular climate surveys administered by the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute.

"Each of the 90 Wings across the Air National Guard also have Human Resource Advisors who are considered the 'Diversity Practitioners' for the Wings," he said. "The ANG Diversity and Inclusion Directorate has developed an orientation course to train the HRAs and empower them to provide additional training at the local level."

Discipline, Not Data

The 87-page survey completed by the Secretary of the Army's Task Force on Extremist Activities, which does exist online, involved interviews with 5,957 soldiers at 28 different bases. It turned up 26 soldiers with ties to extremist activity and even noted a few common characteristics they seemed to share: "very short 'high and tight' haircuts," a taste for wearing "blue jeans, boots, suspenders" and "interest in the punk rock culture."

While it found most soldiers' views aligned with the Army's on intolerance and discrimination, it also called for clearer policies regarding active and passive participation in extremist groups; a new reporting process for information-sharing on extremism among law enforcement, judge advocates and equal opportunity officials. The Army, the report found, should "develop a process to evaluate soldiers' behaviors, adaptability and sensitivity to human relations issues during recruitment and initial entry training, and screen for extremist views and participation during recruitment and initial entry training."

Air Force Sgt. Cory Reeves, shown in this image pulled from social media, remains employed after the military completed its investigation into his ties with Identity Evropa, a white nationalist group. Twitter photo
Air Force Sgt. Cory Reeves, shown in this image pulled from social media, remains employed after the military completed its investigation into his ties with Identity Evropa, a white nationalist group. Twitter photo

Dr. Carter F. Smith, a retired Army CID special agent, was stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, when the Army's survey on extremism was completed. The findings, he said, were pretty sound, but the task force fell short of defining extremism, leaving that decision to individual unit commanders -- a move he said made effective discipline of extremist behavior nearly impossible.

"You can't function that way in our society," said Smith, now a recognized gang expert and professor at Middle Tennessee University. "You have to have bright-lined laws."

Where the U.S. military as a whole lost the thread on discipline problems in the ranks, including extremism and gang activity, he said, was in 2001 following the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks.

"On Sept. 10, 2001, you could call just about any gang cop and they would tell you about gang stuff," he said. "On the 12th, they were part of a joint task force ... terrorism was the new flavor of the month."

Issues like these don't fade and resurface so much as lawmakers and military leaders shift their focus to different priorities, he added.

Rather than asking troops about their subjective experiences with extremism and hate-motivated behavior, the military should focus efforts on working with law to pinpoint problems and discipline them consistently, he said -- something that in his experience has been lacking.

Policing Extremism

"Decide what it is we want to police and be consistent with that," he said. "If you act on your biases, and that action is contrary to the good order and discipline of the Army, you should be punished. And if you're not, everyone else will notice."

Discipline and its limits is an issue that grabbed lawmakers' attention at a February hearing before the House Armed Services Committee on white supremacist behavior in the military.

Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, expressed frustration that in some services, including the Air Force, membership in a nationalist or racial supremacist group isn't enough to get a service member investigated; the member would have to demonstrate "active participation," such as fund-raising for the group or helping to lead it.

"Active participation does not equal being a member of one of these extremist organizations. And I find that astonishing," Speier said.

Rep. Debra Haaland, D-New Mexico, raised the case of an Air Force master sergeant found to be an active, fundraising member of Identity Evropa, which she described as "one of the most visible neo-Nazi and white supremacist organizations in Colorado." He was disciplined administratively, but procedures to dismiss him from the ranks were not initiated until the service faced intense public scrutiny as a result of media reports, she said.

Assessing the Units

While Smith, the retired CID agent, believes surveys are not what's needed to fix the military's extremism problem, the lawmaker who introduced the measure to restart an extremism survey process maintains the data has value.

Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Maryland, vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told earlier this year that he'd like to see a more specific question added to climate surveys -- one that specifically references white nationalism and racism, rather than just extremism. He said he hopes the process will encourage more candid responses and give an accurate sense of what's happening unit to unit.

"Direct dialogue between commanders and their service members is critical to fostering an inclusive environment," Christian Unkenholz, Brown's press secretary, told in a statement. "Congressman Brown's hope is that the inclusion of these questions in the command climate survey will continue to improve it as a mechanism for addressing unacceptable behavior within a unit."

Unkenholz added that Brown wants to evaluate initial survey data and then assess what steps might need to be taken to improve the survey and responses.

Davis, the retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who helped to lead one of the first survey efforts, believes the presence of extremist ideology and activities inside the military services may be even worse now than it was in the late 1990s, due to what he perceives as a permissive current political atmosphere and mixed messaging around concepts like nationalism.

Davis said he believes surveys are still a valuable way to collect information for commanders, but noted that he found the most insightful questions were the ones that got a sense of troops' attitude toward hate groups and racist ideologies, as those highlight areas vulnerable to division and discipline issues.

"You can't maintain a military force if you've got that kind of disarray and disagreement going on within the services," he said. "It just won't happen."

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

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