Pentagon Extremism Probe Likely To Show 'Larger' Problem Than Expected, Lloyd Austin Says

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has warned he expects the Pentagon probe into extremism within the armed forces to uncover a "larger" problem than he would have first thought, with President Joe Biden's administration pushing ahead in its efforts to root out far-right racist ideology among troops.

Austin held a briefing call with reporters on Sunday, updating journalists on the progress of the extremism review ordered by Biden during his first weeks in office. The growing threat of right-wing extremism in the U.S. also affects the military, Austin said, though maintained it still involves a very small number of troops.

"I think this is a very important issue to us in the department," Austin said of the fight against extremism. "This tears at the very fabric of cohesion. And it's important for us to be able to trust the men and women on our left and right," he added, according to a Department of Defense transcript of the call.

The military is in the midst of a 60-day period in which all services should conduct a review of potential extremism in the ranks. At the start of this month, Austin said the order was designed to help root out "racists and extremists."

Austin said Sunday the 60-day window would help the Pentagon ensure its services are fully committed to their oaths and modern American values of tolerance and cooperation.

"I really and truly believe that 99.9 percent of our servicemen and women believe in that oath," Austin told reporters Sunday. "They believe, embrace, the values that we are focused on and they're doing the right things."

"But—and I expect for the numbers to be small, but quite frankly, they'll probably be a little bit larger than most of us would guess—I expect for them to be small," he continued. "I would just say that small numbers in this case can have an outsized impact."

"The American public has high expectations of its military, as it should," Austin added. "And the American public should know and understand that we're not afraid to take a look at ourselves, and we're not afraid to address—if there are issues—to address those issues that may be rising up in our climates and our communities."

Observers have been raising concerns about far-right extremism in the military for many years. Extremists are drawn to the services to gain useful combat training, with groups even pushing members to enlist in order to bring such skills home to reach other recruits.

American military adventurism and conflicts in the Middle East and Asia in recent decades have attracted nationalists to serve. The asymmetric and intractable nature of these conflicts may have also helped radicalize troops, aligning with white nationalist ideology of conflict between different ethnicities and religions. Researchers have also warned that returning veterans are also at high risk of radicalization by such groups.

There have been many examples of serving or former military personnel engaged in far-right extremism, from anti-government Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh to former Coast Guard lieutenant Christopher Paul Hasson, a white nationalist arrested in 2019 who drew up a kill list of politicians and so-called leftists.

America is now facing a broader reckoning with systemic racism and simmering far-right extremism, flames fanned by four years of nationalism under President Donald Trump.

Despite its sacrosanct position in American society, the military will be part of the extremism conversation. A disproportionately high number of serving military members and veterans among the crowd that stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, hoping to overturn Biden's electoral victory.

Ahead of Biden's inauguration, concerns over extremism within the ranks were serious enough to prompt additional vetting of National Guard members assigned to event security. Twelve members were removed from their assigned duties as a result.

Austin said the DoD does not yet have specific data on the size and nature of the extremist threat within the ranks. "But quite frankly, as I said earlier, small numbers can have an incredible impact on a great force," Austin explained.

Previous studies by outside groups and media organizations have revealed significant problems with racism and white supremacy within the military. But the Pentagon has been criticized for failing—or refusing—to investigate the problem.

Military Times found in a 2019 survey that 36 percent of troops who responded had seen evidence of white supremacist and racist ideologies in the military. This represented a significant rise from the year before, when 22 percent reported the same in another poll.

At the start of this month, RAND Corporation senior policy researcher Heather Williams wrote in Defense One that the "pervasiveness" of right-wing extremism "may not be evident until one goes looking." Williams added: "The military also has to tackle the underlying issues at play and do more to understand and address extremism in the service."

Boogaloo boys outside Salem Capitol extremism
Members of the Boogaloo Boys stand armed in front of the Oregon Sate Capitol building in Salem on January 17, 2021. MATHIEU LEWIS-ROLLAND/AFP via Getty Images/Getty