With images of the violent insurgency in Washington still fresh in Americans’ minds, newly confirmed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin took the unprecedented step of signing a memo directing commanding officers across the military to implement a one-day stand-down to address extremism within the nation’s armed forces in February.
The stand-down came in response to the participation and subsequent arrests of several veterans and at least one active duty service member who, along with thousands of supporters of former President Donald Trump, stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in a melee that sent lawmakers fleeing for safety, resulted in one person being fatally shot by Capitol Police, and caused millions of dollars in damage to the building largely seen as a symbol of American democracy.
Austin’s order, which came at a time when the United States was grappling with how to address systemic racism, was the latest in a series of decades-long efforts by the military to purge its ranks of extremists and white supremacists. In response to the order, the military issued new rules to combat extremism last week, including updates to social media usage policies that stated that liking and reposting white nationalist and extremist content could result in disciplinary action. The Department of Defense has also updated its recruit screening procedures and is considering how to protect troops who are retiring from being targeted by extremist organizations.
However, an investigation discovered that, despite the new rules, racism and extremism continue to be a problem in the military.
According to the investigation, the new guidelines do not address persistent disparities in military justice under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the legal code that governs the United States armed forces. Numerous studies, including a report released by the Government Accountability Office last year, show that Black and Hispanic service members are disproportionately investigated and court-martialed. According to a recent Naval Postgraduate School study, Black Marines were convicted and punished at courts-martial at a five-fold higher rate than other races in the Marine Corps.
The investigation also reveals that the military’s judicial system lacks an explicit category for bias-motivated crimes, which the federal government, at least 46 states, and the District of Columbia all have, making it difficult to quantify crimes motivated by prejudice.
As a result, investigative agencies such as the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the Army Criminal Investigative Division lack a specific hate crime category, affecting how they investigate cases.
“While it is possible that hate crimes have occurred, our investigations have not been labeled as such,” the NCIS stated in an email. “For example, an assault on a person, regardless of the reason for the assault, would still be categorized as an assault…regardless of what motivated the crime.”
The new National Defense Authorization Act, which President Biden signed into law on Monday, directs the Secretary of Defense to make a recommendation to Congress within 180 days if a new statute is required to address violent extremism, but it does not address hate crimes or racial disparities in military law.
The new Pentagon rules do not explicitly prohibit service members from joining extremist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, Oath Keepers, or other right-wing and white nationalist organizations. The new regulations, like the previous ones, only prohibit “active participation” in such groups, a nebulous policy that civil rights organizations have been raising concerns about for years. Active participation is defined by the military as “publicly demonstrating or rallying, fundraising, recruiting and training members,” as well as organizing or leading organizations.
According to experts interviewed, there is also ongoing concern about the military commander’s ability to enact a wide range of administrative and disciplinary actions against military personnel who engage in prohibited activities, including administrative separation or appropriate criminal action.
Commanders essentially have complete discretion in determining how to address situations as they arise, which experts say has resulted in non-uniform, scattershot enforcement, with some commanders instituting a zero-tolerance policy and others enforcing the rules laxly.
The investigation also discovered that, while the DOD claims racism and extremism within the military are a “security concern,” it lacks funding to support efforts to combat extremism. Instead, military officials stated that the Pentagon uses personnel vetting programs, training and education programs, and the Insider Threat Program to “help counter extremism within the force.”