April 15, 2010

Janet Napolitano is probably getting some satisfaction from the fact that reality has proven the bulletin issued by her Homeland Security department last year -- warning that the nation was about to be hit by a fresh wave of right-wing extremism and its attendant violence -- all too prescient.

Especially the part where it warned that these extremists were working hard to recruit military veterans:

Returning veterans possess combat skills and experience that are attractive to rightwing extremists. DHS/I&A is concerned that rightwing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to boost their violent capabilities.

At the time the bulletin was issued, the right-wing media put up a hue and cry claiming that DHS was smearing veterans as potential terrorist threats, and demanding Napolitano's head. And even though Napolitano rebutted their nonsense, the conventional-wisdom talking point out of the affair was that DHS had unfairly smeared folks in the military.

Now it's clear that the Pentagon is aware that it has a problem: From Stars and Stripes:

The Pentagon is cracking down on extremism in its ranks with a new set of rules restricting servicemembers from participating on the Web sites of supremacist groups.

A new Defense Department directive on dissident and political activity issued on November 27 — the first since 1996 — says servicemembers “must not actively advocate supremacist doctrine, ideology, or causes.” This includes writing blogs or posting on Web sites.

... Last July, Stars and Stripes reported that 130 members of newsaxon.org, a social networking Web site affiliated with the National Socialist Movement, had listed “military” as their job in “Facebook”-style user profiles. Swatsikas, Nazi symbolism and militant imagery emblazon the site.


Army and Defense Department officials said at the time that extremist activity was not considered “an Army-wide issue.” And there was confusion, Potok said, about what defined “active participation.” Previously, membership alone in an extremist group was not enough for disciplinary action, though banned activities included distributing materials and demonstrating.

“The one worry here is that enforcement of these regulations may be very uneven. It leaves the decision up to local commanders and we’ve really yet to see how that’s going to work,” Potok said. “The hope is that this clarifies that even advocacy of these kinds of ideas is not consistent with being in the military.”

The arrests of the Hutaree militia made clear that the concern was full grounded in reality. As Newsweek observed in its report on the rise of right-wing extremists:

The rambling rants of the Hutaree might seem funny, in a sick sort of way, but they are far from harmless. The FBI busted nine members last month for allegedly plotting to trigger an "uprising" against the government by assassinating a local police officer and then ambushing colleagues who attended the funeral by blowing up improvised explosive devices. They may have had some professional instruction: one of the men in the group, Michael Meeks, is a Persian Gulf War veteran who served four years in the Marines and was a decorated rifle expert, according to Marine Corps records. Another member, Kristopher Sickles, is an Army vet (discharged "under other than honorable conditions," according to prosecutors).

After all, as we explained at the time, the DHS report's assessment of the situation vis a vis veterans was if anything understated:

This is, in fact, precisely accurate -- and as we pointed out from the get-go, this is the view not merely of DHS, but of the FBI. A July 2008 assessment of the situation by the FBI (titled White Supremacist Recruitment of Military Personnel Since 9/11) found that the numbers of identifiable neo-Nazis within the ranks was quite small (only a little over 200), but warned:

Military experience—ranging from failure at basic training to success in special operations forces—is found throughout the white supremacist extremist movement. FBI reporting indicates extremist leaders have historically favored recruiting active and former military personnel for their knowledge of firearms, explosives, and tactical skills and their access to weapons and intelligence in preparation for an anticipated war against the federal government, Jews, and people of color.

... The prestige which the extremist movement bestows upon members with military experience grants them the potential for influence beyond their numbers. Most extremist groups have some members with military experience, and those with military experience often hold positions of authority within the groups to which they belong.

... Military experience—often regardless of its length or type—distinguishes one within the extremist movement. While those with military backgrounds constitute a small percentage of white supremacist extremists, FBI investigations indicate they frequently have higher profiles within the movement, including recruitment and leadership roles.

... New groups led or significantly populated by military veterans could very likely pursue more operationally minded agendas with greater tactical confidence. In addition, the military training veterans bring to the movement and their potential to pass this training on to others can increase the ability of lone offenders to carry out violence from the movement’s fringes.

This is underscored by a Wall Street Journal story today outlining the FBI work that both produced this assessment and the operation that followed:

The FBI said in the memo that its conclusion about a surge in such activities was based on confidential sources, undercover operations, reporting from other law-enforcement agencies and publicly available information. The memo said the main goal of the multipronged operation was to get a better handle on "the scope of this emerging threat." The operation also seeks to identify gaps in intelligence efforts surrounding these groups and their leaders.

The aim of the FBI's effort with the Defense Department, which was rolled into the Vigilant Eagle program, is to "share information regarding Iraqi and Afghanistan war veterans whose involvement in white supremacy and/or militia sovereign citizen extremist groups poses a domestic terrorism threat," according to the Feb. 23 FBI memo.

Michael Ward, FBI deputy assistant director for counterterrorism, said in an interview Thursday that the portion of the operation focusing on the military related only to veterans who draw the attention of Defense Department officials for joining white-supremacist or other extremist groups.

"We're not doing an investigation into the military, we're not looking at former military members," he said. "It would have to be something they were concerned about, or someone they're concerned is involved" with extremist groups.

It's important to understand how FBI investigations into these kinds of activities take place: The FBI is constrained by DOJ guidelines that do not allow them to investigate organizations merely because of incendiary rhetoric or politically worrisome beliefs. They only open investigations into the activities of members of such groups when there is evidence of actual criminal activity.

And it's at that time that the presence of an extremist with a military background becomes not merely relevant, but potentially important. This is especially so considering one of the realities of the extremist right -- namely, that the vast majority of its members are incapable of anything remotely resembling a terrorist act; what they actually specialize in is the Verbose Bellyache. Yet simultaneously they have developed over recent years a decidedly militaristic culture that prizes actual military background.

So when investigators begin dealing with potential criminal or terrorist activity by right-wing extremists, the presence and involvement of people with military backgrounds -- particularly with skill at armaments -- is a huge red flag. Because these kinds of people transform these groups from Verbose Bellyachers to potentially competent -- lethally competent -- extremist cells.

The most famous example of this, of course, is Timothy McVeigh. But -- contrary to what the right-wing talkers have been saying this week -- McVeigh is hardly the only example of what happens when an alienated veteran is radicalized by these kinds of belief systems -- he's just the most famous. There have, in fact, been a number of veterans who have played significant roles in the radical right in recent years, including acting as terrorists. Besides McVeigh, for instance, there is also Eric Rudolph, who spent two years in the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell in Kentucky, attending the Air Assault School there, and earning the rank of Specialist/E-4.

Then there was our old friend Col. James "Bo" Gritz, ex-Green Beret and Special Forces veteran:


Though he adamantly denied harboring such beliefs much of the time he was promoting militias back in the 1990s, Gritz is now a full-fledged adherent of Christian Identity.

More recently -- and certainly more relevant to the point here -- there's the case of Kody Brittingham, recently of the U.S. Marines:

Brittingham, 20, was with Headquarters and Support Battalion, 2nd Tank Battalion, when he allegedly made the threats against Obama, president-elect at the time. Brittingham was administratively separated from the Corps on Jan. 3.


Brittingham’s legal troubles began in mid-December, when he and three other Lejeune Marines were arrested by Jacksonville police in connection with attempted robbery. He was charged Dec. 16 with attempted robbery, breaking and entering, and conspiracy. His bond was set at that time.

After his arrest, Naval investigators found a journal allegedly written by Brittingham in his barracks room, containing plans on how to kill the president and white supremacist material, a federal law enforcement official told The Daily News of Jacksonville.

This points to a significant dimension of the problem: The recruitment of young men into the military who already harbor white-supremacist beliefs.

It's been long reported that hate groups and other extremists, including neo-Nazis, have been making actual inroads into the ranks of the military in recent years. A July 2006 report by the SPLC found this infiltration occurring at an alarming rate. Neo-Nazis "stretch across all branches of service, they are linking up across the branches once they're inside, and they are hard-core," Department of Defense gang detective Scott Barfield told the SPLC. "We've got Aryan Nations graffiti in Baghdad," he added. "That's a problem."

The source of the problem, as the report explained, was the extreme pressure military recruiters were under to fill their recruitment quotas. "Recruiters are knowingly allowing neo-Nazis and white supremacists to join the armed forces," said Barfield, "and commanders don’t remove them . . . even after we positively identify them as extremists or gang members." The military downplayed a neo-Nazi presence in the ranks, Barfield added, "because then parents who are already worried about their kids signing up and dying in Iraq are going to be even more reluctant about their kids enlisting if they feel they’ll be exposed to gangs and white supremacists."

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