Civil rights group warns of neo-Nazis in the US military

Their numbers are small, but unit morale, cohesion, and discipline could be harmed.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The appearance of 40 active-duty US soldiers on a social networking site known as the "fascist Facebook" appears to add credibility to a controversial government report released in April about extremism in the military.

Presented to congressional committees Friday, the revelations by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) – covered in depth by the military-oriented newspaper, Stars and Stripes – also raises new questions about how serious the Army is about rooting out rank-and-file neo-Nazis – and their potential impact on morale and military discipline.

In contrast to the 12,500 gay service members discharged in the last 15 years because of potential impact on unit morale, SPLC spokeswoman Heidi Beirich says: "There are many people in the military using new technology to put up racist profiles, racist music and ... books that they love that are racist, and as the regulations stand today that's not grounds for being tossed out of the military."

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The SPLC, a civil rights organization based in Montgomery, Ala., delivered its report to the House and Senate Armed Services and Homeland Security Committees today. The organization says it found 40 profiles on NewSaxon.org, a white supremacist site, that could be confirmed as active-duty military members.

"I love and will do anything to keep our master race marching," writes "WhitePride85," who claims on the site to be a 24-year-old staff sergeant from Madison, Wis.

Undersecretary of Defense David Chu has repeatedly told the SPLC that the Army has zero tolerance for racists in the ranks. A 1996 Army directive says soldiers "must reject participation in ... supremacist causes."

Jeffrey Castro, a spokesman for the Army's Criminal Investigation Command at Fort Belvoir, Va., says his command investigates supremacist leanings only in relation to felony accusations. "Being a gang member, for instance," he says, "is not a felony-level crime."

In the end, says Mr. Castro, it's the unit commander who investigates gang and neo-Nazi affiliations and determines whether a soldier who has, for example, participated in a neo-Nazi rally should be punished.

Army policy states that commanders can take disciplinary actions, including reclassification of soldiers who are active white supremacists. They cannot, however, dismiss them. The heaviest penalty a commander could impose is to bar reenlistment.

But former assistant defense secretary Lawrence Korb says unit commanders, especially in war time, feel pressure to hold onto even marginal soldiers.

"The problem is that in many instances, recruiters and commanding officers are looking the other way," Rep. Alcee Hastings (D) of Florida wrote in a statement accompanying a proposed amendment to the defense authorization bill that would bar recruitment or retention of anyone affiliated with extremist groups.

The new report comes amid growing concerns about returning soldiers, especially those disaffected by the war and combat, being recruited by white supremacist organizations. Such groups hope to utilize their combat skills in "a coming race war," says former marine TJ Leyden, an ex-white supremacist and author of "Skinhead Confessions."

But unit cohesion and morale – the mainstays of an effective Army – are also at stake if the Army allows skinheads to stay in the service, critics say.

(The racial makeup of the Army is 62.7 percent white, 19.8 percent black, 10.9 percent Hispanic, and 3.4 percent Asian.)

"It's not good for morale," says Mr. Leyden. "The question becomes: Are they going to watch my back? It could get people killed and injured."

In 2007, the FBI reported on concern about white supremacists recruiting soldiers, saying "hundreds" of neo-Nazis were in the active military. But in April, a Department of Homeland Security report on extremism that reiterated much the same point was widely criticized by veterans groups and some conservative politicians as being unpatriotic, leading the Justice Department to retract the DHS report.

Critics acknowledge that extremism in the Army is a touchy political subject.

"Yes, it's a very small minority [of white supremacists] in the armed forces, but it's the one small minority that you really don't want in there," says the SPLC's Ms. Beirich.

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