Pentagon Clamps Down on Extremism & White Supremacy


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Source: Democracy Now!

The Pentagon has announced new rules to slow the spread of extremism in the military, one of which will discipline soldiers for liking or resharing white nationalist and other extremist content on social media. The Pentagon announcement comes just two weeks before the first anniversary of the January 6 insurrection, where more than 80 of the 700 individuals charged with the attack had ties to the U.S. military. Director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project Susan Corke says these rule changes are welcomed by her organization but don’t go far enough to stop extremism in the armed forces. “It shouldn’t have taken January 6 to rouse us to really address the problem of extremism in the military,” says Corke.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

The Pentagon has announced new rules aimed at slowing the spread of extremism and white supremacy in the military’s ranks. Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said Monday that, among other rule changes, soldiers may now be disciplined for “liking” white nationalist and other extremist content on social media.

JOHN KIRBY: The vast majority of men and women in our armed forces, as of course you know, serve honorably. While extremist activity in the force is rare, any instance can have an outsized effect.

AMY GOODMAN: The Pentagon announcement comes just two weeks before the first anniversary of the January 6th insurrection. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, more than 80 of the 700 individuals charged by the Justice Department in connection with the Capitol riot have ties to the U.S. military. Dozens of former and active-duty military personnel have also been linked to far-right and white nationalist groups, including the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division, The Base and the boogaloo movement.

We’re joined now by Susan Corke. She’s the director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project. She’s also co-author of the report titled “The Democracy Playbook,” a resource to fight authoritarianism and strengthen democratic resilience.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Susan. So, can you talk about exactly what the military has decided? It’s also interesting that the Pentagon has made this decision, issued these guidelines, under the first African American secretary of defense, Austin.

SUSAN CORKE: Thank you so much for having me here today, Amy. And I’m happy to talk about this.

I mean, one, we were pleased to see that Secretary Austin has made this a real priority. Southern Poverty Law Center has been tracking and reporting on extremism in the military since the mid-1980s as part of our work monitoring the activities of domestic hate groups and extremists. And we’ve been alerting the Defense Department since then. So, you know, with Secretary Austin making it a priority — and they did reach out to experts in civil society, civil rights organizations, like ours, academia, veterans’ rights groups, so we did feel like we were consulted in the course of this process. But, you know, it’s important to note, though, that it shouldn’t have taken January 6th to rouse us to really address the problem of extremism in the military. There has been a dangerous and disturbing trend for many years. And it’s not unique to the military, of course. This is a part of a problem in society at large.

And you’re right: We did track that more than 80 of the 700 individuals charged by the Justice Department do have ties to the U.S. military. Most of those are veterans. Some are active-duty personnel. And that came as actually no surprise to us, because for the hate and extremist groups we track, veterans and servicemembers are incredibly valuable recruits. They bring legitimacy to those groups. They bring specialized training. They bring an increased capacity for violence.

So, you know, a couple of things that came up when Secretary Austin first launched the review and then set up the Countering Extremism Working Group, they concluded that there’s not enough data and that they didn’t really have an understanding of the full scope of the problem and that they needed to more clearly define the terms “extremist activities” and “active participation.” So, this report did that. It did provide a definition, that doesn’t change exactly what’s prohibited, except it does go into more detail.

So I would say the devil will be in the details of the implementation, that this is a serious step forward, but there — and it will make it more transparent, and they’re implementing a number of important steps; however, there are more things that we think they need to do, and we will be monitoring to see how the implementation moves forward.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to a Pentagon press briefing this week with the Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby, who was questioned about exactly how the new rules will be implemented.

REPORTER: Does that mean that they are authorized to — will they be monitoring social media 24/7 of their unit members or any recruits?

JOHN KIRBY: No.

REPORTER: I mean, how does the monitoring —

JOHN KIRBY: There’s no monitoring. This is not — it’s not about monitoring. There’s no methodology in here. There’s no intent. We don’t even — there’s no ability for the Department of Defense to monitor the personal social media content of every member of the Armed Forces. And even if there was, that’s not the intent here. What we’re talking about is a case where, for instance, it came to light that an individual on social media openly advocated, forwarded, encouraged the dissemination of prohibited extremist material. That would have to come to light through a various — various streams of reporting. It wouldn’t be something that the command or the department is going to be actively fishing for.

REPORTER: So, if a member of the U.S. military “likes” a post that says that Joe Biden is not the president, is that considered extremist behavior and punishable?

JOHN KIRBY: I’m not going to get into specific hypotheticals, Jen. I just won’t do that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s John Kirby. And if you can explain more? I mean, he also said that, you know, if you’re a known member of the Ku Klux Klan, you won’t be fired. It’s if you act on that. What exactly does that mean?

SUSAN CORKE: Sure. I mean, first, I heard that interview he did, too. And so, you know, it’s notable that they have gone into the level of prohibiting the use of social media to distribute or support extremist activities and that that would include posting, liking, sharing, retweeting, distributing content, and by stating that military personnel are responsible for the content they publish on all personal and public domains, including their social media sites, blogs, because one thing we were tracking at SPLC was the way that extremists were, and those that were within the military, they were even using their military email addresses. So all of the planning was happening right out in the open on major platforms.

The devil will be in the details on the implementation. And, you know, as you can see from that clip, he doesn’t really have a good answer on what the plans are for implementation. So, the rules are clear, and what falls outside of the guidelines is clear, but, yeah, he says that they won’t be monitoring, and it would have to be reported in and/or coming to light through another way.

So that’s why, you know, there’s a couple of things that we think need to be added in as recommendations and next steps. And one is, you know, beyond this voluntary reporting if you see something, which within the command structure of the military would be incredibly hard to do — so one thing we’ve recommended is expanded protections for whistleblowers and paths to be able to report things you see outside of your chain of command, and then, second, doing mandatory, anonymous climate surveys that are — results are made transparently available, so that it’s not just — the social media extremist activity doesn’t just come to light by virtue of reporting or through another investigation, that there is this other baseline data and these chains for people to be reporting outside of their commanding structure.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to also ask you about something else in your new report, that you were disappointed that what came out of the military does not call for 10 U.S. Army bases named for Confederate leaders to be immediately renamed.

SUSAN CORKE: Yeah, we see that as something that could be a really important step that could happen relatively quickly. I know there is a committee that’s set up to consider it over three years or so, but having Army bases named after the lost cause of the Confederacy, which is essentially the perpetuation of white supremacist beliefs, that are in line with the problem of extremism in the military, sends an incredibly dangerous signal to people of color who are within the military, that those Army bases are celebrating a cause that wanted to keep them in slavery. So, we see that as a step that could be taken immediately and is overdue.

AMY GOODMAN: I also wanted to ask you about the latest news, and this involves the insurrection and what the Southern Poverty Law Center is saying about it. So, in our headlines today, the New York man who joined the far-right Proud Boys at the January 6th Capitol insurrection, pleading guilty to charges of obstructing justice and conspiring to obstruct law enforcement. As part of the deal, 34-year-old Matthew Greene of Syracuse has disavowed the Proud Boys and will help the FBI in its investigation. He told investigators he helped program handheld radios used by Proud Boys to coordinate their assault on the Capitol. He’s the first of the Proud Boys to plead guilty to the conspiracy charge. Can you talk about the significance of the Proud Boys and the involvement of these different white supremacist groups in the insurrection?

SUSAN CORKE: Yeah. The Proud Boys have really grown in prominence during the Trump administration. So they went from, you know, kind of relatively fringe extremist ideas, and the dangerous legacy of the Trump administration is that those dangerous, fringe white supremacist ideas have been mainstreamed into the Republican Party. And so, the Proud Boys had a direct line into the White House and into the halls of Congress. And they were, you know, “providing security” at Republican events. So, you know, they are a frightening presence, and they are — they have not been standing down since January 6th. They are now expanding into grassroots politics and stirring up trouble. And, you know, many in the GOP have not disavowed them. So, they are a force that we continue to be worried about.

They have had problems, including with their leader, that there — there’s trouble within their ranks, though, right? And so, you know, one of the things the Southern Poverty Law Center and my team does is to find out what’s going on beneath the surface and be exposing it. So, the fact that, you know, people within the Proud Boys are starting to turn to the FBI and share their information, that’s very help. It creates distrust and turmoil within.

You mentioned The Base is another group, similarly. We had received this tranche of secretly recorded recruitment videos from The Base. And that enabled us to expose what was going on and bring awareness to that group, violent activities they were planning, that has led to their dismantling. So, that is one of our key strategies with the Proud Boys, with the Oath Keepers, The Base, to be monitoring and exposing and pushing for accountability for the individuals and groups that are engaging in this extremist activity.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you also talk about white supremacists in the military, not only in this country but around the world, and what that means?

SUSAN CORKE: White supremacists in the U.S. military.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes.

SUSAN CORKE: Yeah. I mean, I’ve talked to a lot of veterans about this, too, and, you know, they see this as a threat that is on par with having members of al-Qaeda or ISIS within the military, that this is a threat within, that we have — when there are white supremacists within the military, there is a threat within, that these people are subverting the oath to the Constitution that servicemembers have aligned with. And it creates an incredibly corrosive environment for the military, which is, you know, perhaps the most diverse institution of an American democracy. So, I remember in a Military Times

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

SUSAN CORKE: Hello?

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

SUSAN CORKE: In Military Times, about half of military members think that the number one threat is racism and white supremacy within their ranks, as a national security threat.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Susan Corke, I want to thank you for being with us, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project.

And a clarification from our headlines: House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, the number-three Democrat in House leadership, reported he is asymptomatic for COVID-19, after he tested positive for a coronavirus infection.

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