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Keeping the Military Free of Hate Groups

Stars and Stripes published a story originating with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which states that SPLC found dozens of members of a hate-group website who claimed to be members of the military. 

The Raw Story asks "Gays not welcome; White Supremacists 'OK'"?  The truth is the opposite of that, though the Stripes article is written in a way that may be confusing.

[M]ilitary officials gave conflicting answers this week when asked how policies governing racist behavior are being enforced.

A spokesman for the Department of the Army said the service takes seriously any allegations of membership in racist, extremist or hate groups. But he said such allegations are dealt with on a case-by-case basis at the unit disciplinary level or in the military justice system, and are not being addressed as an Army-wide problem.

The Army spokesman then referred Stripes to the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command for more information. But that office refused to comment on Army policy on hate groups, saying that the issue of extremists infiltrating the ranks was “an Army-wide issue” that should be addressed at the service command level.

“If a sergeant is assigned to Fort Bragg,” said Army spokesman Wayne Hall, “the Fort Bragg office of Criminal Investigation Command is going to investigate that individual, not the Department of the Army at this level.”

If, for example, a soldier is found to have participated in a neo-Nazi rally, “Then it comes down to the unit commander,” Hall said. “It’s a violation of good order and discipline.”

I don't share Stripes' view that this is conflicting information; I suspect, rather, that the people they interviewed thought they were answering different questions. 

If a particular servicemember is suspected of active membership in an extremist group, his commander has authority to punish him.  The base or unit investigative services can be brought to bear to help uncover the truth about the matter.  This is the opposite of the situation with homosexuals:  under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the commander is only supposed to react to open claims or unavoidable demonstrations of homosexuality, not to investigate suspicions.

The unit is the normal place for most disciplinary actions to be located, so there is nothing surprising in this.  It's just what you'd expect to be true.

The Army's Criminal Investigation Command appears to have thought that it was answering a different question from the one everyone else thought they were answering.  It is speaking not to the question of "What should be done if an individual servicemember is thought to be a member of a racist organization?", but "What should be done if there is a plot by racist organizations to infiltrate the military?"  Such a plot would be -- as the spokesman said -- a service-wide issue. 

Indeed, if the Army thought it was being targeted for organized infiltration, it might well look even to the interagency level, asking the FBI or others to help them disrupt the plot.  The FBI would have authority over the non-military members of the racist organization, which the Army would not. 

This is, however, not a military problem, but a civilian problem.  The military has clear rules prohibiting active membership in an extremist group by soldiers.  Does the civilian world have similarly clear laws banning extremist groups from organizing efforts to join the military?  I am no lawyer, but I would think that would be very hard to prosecute.  (E.g.:  Perhaps you could do something if you could prove they were suggesting their members commit fraud, by instructing them to lie when asked about membership in racist groups.  Certainly you could do something if you were able to prove an actual plot to overthrow the government or something similar.  However, mere advocacy that 'people who feel as we do' might want to 'join the military' would be protected free speech.) 

Regardless of the difficulties, though, it's civilian law and civilian agencies that would need to be brought to bear.

To recap:  if a particular servicemember is thought to be a member of a racist organization, that is a question for his unit, just as disciplinary measures normally are.  If it is suspected that a racist organization has a plot to infiltrate the ranks, that is a service-wide issue that needs to be handled at higher levels, because both military and civilian law may need to be brought to bear.