WASHINGTON — THE US Army is looking into how many of its 510,000 soldiers are members of racial hate groups - but it is unlikely to find the force riddled with such extremists.
Civil rights activists and academics who monitor the white-supremacy movement say that as far as they can determine, the percentage of organized bigots in the Army - and the military as a whole - is no different from that of the general US population. Citing the all-volunteer Army's success at integration, some say the percentage could even be lower.
But independent experts and Defense Department officials say the numbers are not as important as the fact that there are any hate-group members in the military at all. Such soldiers not only damage the Army's image and endanger their units' cohesion and morale but also have access to weapons, ammunition, and training.
''It only took a few people to blow up the [federal] building in Oklahoma City,'' says Mary Maumey, research director at the Center for Democratic Renewal in Atlanta. ''It's important for the military not only to investigate, but to take a pro-active approach.''
Secretary of the Army Togo West announced last week that the Army would investigate hate-group membership among its troops in the wake of the Dec. 7 slayings of a black man and woman in Fayetteville, N.C. Three white soldiers of the elite 82nd Airborne Division, based at nearby Fort Bragg, were charged in connection with the murders, assessed by police as random and race-motivated.
Maj. Gen. Larry Jordan, the Army's deputy inspector general, is conducting the investigation and is to submit his findings by March 1.
Police say the three suspects in the Fayetteville murders were self-styled neo-Nazis. A search of a private room rented off base by one suspect, Pvt. James Norman Burmeister II, found racist literature, a Nazi flag, a bombmaking manual, and weapons, police say. Newspaper reports quoted one of Private Burmeister's former barrack-mates as saying he had pinned the flag above his bed at Fort Bragg before he moved off base.
Infiltration by hate groups
The slayings focused fresh attention on the question of infiltration of the military by hate groups. The issue was last raised after the Oklahoma City bombing. The suspects in the April 19 attack that killed some 200 people, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, served together in the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kan., and reportedly shared right-wing views and had links to antigovernment militias.
Army regulations prohibit soldiers from ''active'' membership in racist groups. Such participation is defined as demonstrating, fund-raising, recruiting, or training. Defense Department officials say they cannot legally bar troops from ''passive'' participation, such as receiving racist literature.
Defense Department officials insist there is no evidence of extensive hate-group membership among service personnel.
Rafe Ezekiel, a Harvard University sociologist who studies the white-supremacist movement, says that the high recruitment standards of the all-volunteer Army help ''squeeze out'' potential hate-group adherents.
In addition, he says, ''The Army is not a climate conducive to hate-group membership. It's not so easy to be obscure in the military, and also there are an awful lot of noncommissioned officers who are blacks, so that gets in the way. It's really an integrated society.''
Ms. Maumey, whose organization tracks racist groups, estimates there are about 25,000 ''hard-core'' white supremacists and 200,000 sympathizers in the US population of 260 million. She believes the same ratio applies to the armed forces.
History of links
Still, she says that the Army investigation is warranted because there has been a ''history'' of links between soldiers and white-supremacist groups, especially in the case of the 82nd Airborne Division.
The Army discharged Glenn Miller, a sergeant with the 82nd Airborne Division, for distributing racist literature in 1979. He went on to form the White Patriots Party (WPP), a now-defunct paramilitary group that allegedly espoused a takeover of the country involving the mass slayings of government officials and minorities.
A former WPP member who testified against Mr. Miller at a 1986 trial, James Holder, had also been with the 82nd Airborne Division. Another prosecution witness, former marine Robert Norman Jones, reportedly testified in the same trial that the WPP obtained stolen arms from sources at Fort Bragg and that active-duty soldiers helped him train party members in the use of the weapons.
In a related 1986 case, the Klanwatch Project in Montgomery, Ala., said it identified 10 active-duty marines as WPP members and demanded a Defense Department investigation. Three marines were eventually identified as being involved with the group and discharged.
Hate groups ''target'' active-duty soldiers for recruitment for several reasons, including gaining access to arms, says Laurie Wood, a field researcher at the Klanwatch Project. Groups that can boast soldiers as members also are more attractive to new civilian recruits, she explains.