Extremist Groups Are Actively Trying to Recruit Military Members, Defense Officials Say

white nationalist demonstrators Lee Park in Charlottesville
In this Aug. 12, 2017, file photo, white nationalist demonstrators use shields as they guard the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

The U.S. military is facing a real threat from domestic extremists, particularly those pushing white supremacist views who want to add service members -- and their tactical skills -- to their ranks, a senior defense official told reporters Thursday.

The Pentagon is reviewing how best to crack down on extremist views in the ranks, with a report due back to the defense secretary in about 60 days, an official said. The U.S. has seen a resurgence of white-supremacist and extreme nationalist views in the last several years, and the problems are seeping into the military, too.

"This is clearly of great concern to the department because as a volunteer force, as a slice of our society, all those issues that exist in society have the potential to exist within the military," a senior defense official said. Defense officials briefed reporters on some of the efforts underway to address the problems, but did so on the condition of anonymity.

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Federal investigations into criminal behavior among troops and veterans are on the rise, one official said, including reports of extremism. Officials declined to provide specifics on the number of cases they're seeing compared to years past, but one cited about 200 notifications of current and former service members falling under examination for possible criminal or intelligence issues.

The Defense Department is facing renewed questions about how it's dealing with troops' racist or extreme beliefs in the wake of the deadly Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. Several military veterans and service members were allegedly involved, including a corporal currently serving in the Virginia National Guard.

Fourteen senators sent a letter Thursday to the DoD's acting inspector general, calling for action.

"The issue of white supremacy and extremist ideology is not new, but the attack on the Capitol makes clear this alarming trend must be immediately addressed," the letter states. "Although the Pentagon has acknowledged this issue, it has failed to implement a comprehensive action plan to address it."

The DoD inspector general's office announced the same day that it will begin evaluating the matter this month.

"Our objective is to determine the extent to which the DoD and the Military Services have implemented policy and procedures that prohibit active advocacy and active participation related to supremacist, extremist, or criminal gang doctrine, ideology, or causes by active duty military personnel, as required by DoD Instruction 1325.06," the office's notice states.

Several reports have detailed the ways in which far-right extremist groups are trying to recruit military members and veterans, including the Boogaloo Bois, a Hawaiian-shirt-wearing anti-government group. Kathleen Belew, a professor at the University of Chicago and author of "Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America," told Vice News in June that active-duty service members and veterans can "dramatically escalate the impact of fringe activism, pass on explosives expertise, urban warfare expertise."

"This is not a problem we should take lightly," Belew told the news site.

After the attack on the U.S. Capitol, the Joint Chiefs sent a letter to the entire force, reminding troops to uphold the law and Constitution. Gary Reed, the director for defense intelligence and counterintelligence, law enforcement and security, stressed this week that extremism has no place in the ranks.

All military personnel, he said, including members of the National Guard and Reserve, have undergone a background investigation and are subject to continuous evaluation.

"Simply put, we will not tolerate extremism of any sort in DoD," Reed said.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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