Wade Michael Page, who officials say shot and killed six people in a shooting at a Sikh temple Sunday in Wisconsin, was a decorated Army veteran psychological warfare specialist and white supremacist who has been watched with concern by anti-hate groups for more than 10 years.
A member of a racist skinhead punk band, Mr. Page, who was killed in a shootout with police, had also tried to make purchases from the National Alliance, a neo-Nazi organization, according to Heidi Beirich, director of the the Intelligence Program at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).
"We've been tracking him for more than a decade," says Ms. Beirich.
The SPLC has long warned of the dangerous ties between white supremacist groups and the US military. "We know there have been a lot of white supremacists in the military," Beirich adds.
The problem was a source of particular concern for the SPLC in the mid-2000s, when the civil rights group warned the US military about a spate of extremist activity among US forces in 2006. At that time, the Pentagon "steadfastly denied that a problem existed and insisted that its ‘zero tolerance’ policy was sufficient to keep organized racists out of its ranks,” according to the SPLC.
The problem was that while the US military had banned “active participation” in extremist groups, it did not specify prohibitions against, for example, posting to white supremacist social media pages.
In November 2009, the US military changed its policy to specify that service members “must not actively advocate supremacist doctrine, ideology or causes” or “otherwise advance efforts to deprive individuals of their civil rights.”
The new rules further specified, according to the SPLC, that active participation included recruiting, fundraising, training, or distributing supremacist material, including online posts.
Three years earlier, in 2006, the SPLC had published “A Few Bad Men,” a report noting that “large numbers” of neo-Nazi skinheads were joining the armed forces “to acquire combat and weapons training – skills that could be used to commit terrorist acts against targets in the US.”
As evidence of the danger these groups pose, the SPLC noted in a report that Matt Buschbacher, a Navy SEAL, attended a 2002 conference of the National Alliance. The group’s late leader was the author of the Turner Diaries, the race war novel used by Timothy McVeigh as the blueprint for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
Though the SPLC alerted military officials to Mr. Buschbacher’s activities, “he was allowed to complete his tour of duty in Iraq and even given an honorable discharge,” according to the SPLC.
Page served as a psychological operations specialist in the US Army from April 1992 to October 1998. Before he left the Army at the rank of specialist, he had received five Army Achievement Medals, two Army Good Conduct medals, and an Army Commendation Medal.
White supremacist groups including the National Alliance continue to have active “outreach programs” to recruit members of the US military into their organizations, says Beirich.
“They have literally reached out to people from the military to come work for them,” Beirich adds, noting that the groups prize the fighting and training expertise that potential recruits develop in the US military.
“It is a really scary problem,” she says. “We know this stuff goes on.”