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1 in 5 Capitol Insurrectionists Tied to U.S. Military; Soldiers “Targets” for Extremist Recruitment

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Nearly one in five people facing charges related to the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol had some connection to the military, including at least two active-duty troops, prompting Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to order a 60-day stand-down across the services to address extremism. Ahead of the first deadline on April 6, the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing Wednesday on extremism in the U.S. military. We speak with one of the experts who testified. “People who are connected with the military are prime targets for extremists,” says Lecia Brooks, chief of staff at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Despite the decades of inaction, she says, “the conversation is moving forward” in Washington, as lawmakers are finally speaking openly about white supremacy and white nationalism.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

The Armed Services Committee of the House held a hearing Wednesday on extremism in the U.S. military, to look at how nearly one in five people who are facing charges related to the deadly January 6th insurrection at the Capitol had served or are serving in the military, including at least two active-duty troops. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in January ordered a 60-day stand-down across the force to address extremism. The first deadline is coming up on April 6th.

But Republicans on the committee used their time to cast doubt on the need for the hearing. This is Texas Congressman Pat Fallon.

REP. PAT FALLON: Let’s look at the data we do have. Our office reached out to all four branches of the service and asked one simple question: How many members of your branch were separated last year due to extremist activities? The Marine Corps gave us the data: Out of 222,000 current and active-duty reservists and active-duty marines, a total of four were separated last year for extremist activity, leaving us, once again, with an infinitesimally tiny figure of one out of 55,475. This isn’t a hearing about the readiness of our Armed Forces; it’s nothing more, unfortunately, than political theater.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Republican Congressmember Fallon. He drew this response from the committee chair, Adam Smith.

REP. ADAM SMITH: Well, I’ll just point out a couple of simple little math issues. Twenty percent of the people that have been arrested from the Capitol Hill riots had a history of serving in the military, one way or the other. To then say that, “Well, those are the only people in the military that could possibly be involved in extremism,” is simply logically absurd. And I’m sure the gentleman would recognize that. We don’t know for sure how large the problem is. That’s why we’re having the hearing.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the experts asked to testify at Wednesday’s hearing was Lecia Brooks, chief of staff at the Southern Poverty Law Center, who said the military has long failed to adequately address far-right extremism in the ranks.

LECIA BROOKS: Let me begin with two distinct points. First, the vast majority of those who serve in our Armed Forces have no connection to white supremacy or extremism, and strive always to uphold the best traditions of our nation’s democratic ideals. Second, the military has a growing problem with white supremacy and extremism, because our country does. The white nationalist movement in the United States is surging and presents a serious danger to our country and its cherished institutions, threatening the morale and good order of those serving in our Armed Forces.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Lecia Brooks, chief of staff of the Southern Poverty Law Center, testifying at yesterday’s Armed Services Committee hearing on extremism in the Armed Forces. She joins us now for more.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Lecia. Can you talk about this critical issue? I mean, one in five of those charged have served or are serving in the military, not to mention the police and in those intelligence, this part of the January 6th insurrection. The significance of this, an issue you’ve been covering for years?

LECIA BROOKS: That is correct. The Southern Poverty Law Center has really been looking at this issue for decades, dating back to 1986, when we first wrote Secretary Weinberger. And it’s important to note that people who are connected with the military are prime targets for extremists. They have leadership skills that are valuable. They have intelligence that is valuable. They are actively recruited prior to joining the military. They’re recruited while they’re in the military. And we take great risk in not looking at their connections to extremism as they separate from the military.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Lecia, could you lay out the recommendations that you presented to Congress yesterday?

LECIA BROOKS: Yes. Thank you. And we just really want to commend Chairman Smith for holding the hearings. And as we understand it, they’ve never held a full hearing ever on this topic. And as was brought up a lot yesterday, there’s a lack of data. And as we know, data drives policy. There are inconsistent — inconsistent policies across our military forces. We’re calling for data collection, additional training and — I’m sorry — and support services in terms of building resilience for those that separate and are reentering civilian life.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Lecia, I’d like to turn to the first Black secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, speaking to 60 Minutes earlier this month during an interview about extremism in the ranks.

DEFENSE SECRETARY LLOYD AUSTIN: There’s probably not a job that I had, since I was a lieutenant colonel, where some people didn’t question whether or not I was qualified to take that job. It’s the world I live in, and I’m sure that the other officers that you talk to would probably say the same thing. There’s not a day in my life, David, when I didn’t wake up and think about the fact that I was a Black man.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Lecia, your response to that, the significance of Austin being in this position, and also the steps that he’s taken so far to address the question of hate and extremism in the military?

LECIA BROOKS: Nermeen, we’re very encouraged by Secretary Austin’s ascension to the head of the Department of Defense, one, because — not simply because he’s an African American, and as he mentioned in his own words, he has faced racial discrimination for his entire life. It’s also important to note that he experienced firsthand white supremacists in the military. So he knows that it exists and that it has existed for some time.

That 60 Minutes broadcast was so, so difficult to hear. Not only did we hear from Secretary Austin, but we also heard from the head of the Air Force, who talked about similar experiences with racial discrimination. And we know that, based on Military Times surveys, they survey active-duty servicemembers, and each year, for the last three years, it goes up, where servicemembers report that they’ve seen and witnessed white nationalists or white supremacy on these and within the ranks.

So, the members yesterday who questioned the data, who questioned the prevalence of white supremacy or extremism — the Southern Poverty Law Center was certainly brought to talk about our expertise with respect to white nationalist infiltration. There is a problem with extremism, and we need to do a better job in terms of regulations enforcement across all branches of the military.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to yesterday’s hearing. Let’s go to a question to you about Confederate symbols from New Jersey Democratic Congressman Donald Norcross.

REP. DONALD NORCROSS: You speak about removing symbols across the military, in particular the Confederate flag. Why is that important? Give us a historical perspective. Here we are in 2021. Why that’s a problem?

LECIA BROOKS: As you know, the Confederacy stood against the Union. And, in addition, the Confederacy was formed to protect and prolong the inhumane institution of chattel slavery in the United States. We believe that it is wrong for a military that embraces all people to hold up as heroes those who fought to continue the enslavement of African Americans.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s our guest, Lecia Brooks of the Southern Poverty Law Center. There isn’t a question: The military pours a lot into routing out and going after, if there were foreign infiltrators in the U.S. military, you know, related to al-Qaeda or whatever. Do you see anything like that kind of — those resources going in to rout out white supremacists — clearly, in all the reports of the Pentagon and intelligence, the number one domestic terror threat in this country?

LECIA BROOKS: That’s true. No, not at all. Not at all. I mean, we are just getting at the place, Amy, where we can talk about white supremacy and white nationalism. The Southern Poverty Law Center, we presented last year to a subcommittee of the Armed Services, and they could barely say the word “white supremacy” or “white nationalism.” So, at least we are thankful that the conversation is moving forward.

And again, I think it’s extremely important that we have Secretary Austin, who recognizes that it exists. So, we are hopeful. And we’re hopeful in terms of this president and the secretary of defense. I was more hopeful, prior to yesterday’s testimony, about the committee. But they’re — again, giving credit to Chairman Smith, I do believe that they will do all that they can to ensure that we engage in robust data collection, that regulations are uniform across all branches of service, that the regulations pertaining to active participation in these extremist groups is taken seriously.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you see what happened on January 6th as an attempt of white supremacists to take over the Capitol?

LECIA BROOKS: Oh my goodness, yes. The Southern Poverty Law Center, as you know, tracks and monitors hate and extremist groups. What we saw on January 6th was a coalescing of not only traditional bad actors or white supremacist groups, but also conspiracy theorists. So, when we talk about extremists, we’re talking about groups that believe that their in-group success is dependent upon taking hostile action against an out-group. So what we’re seeing is a coming together of people who adopt a true white supremacist ideology along with others who are feeling aggrieved and feeling — advance the false narrative that there’s white displacement across the country. So, we could easily say that there are 50 million people who have been exposed to extremist ideology and have bought into a narrative of false information. And that is represented in the larger society, so of course it’s represented within the military.

AMY GOODMAN: Lecia Brooks, we want to thank you for being with us, chief of staff for the Southern Poverty Law Center, expert on extremism in the military.

When we come back, we get an update on a massive fire at a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. And then we’ll look at Yemen. Stay with us.

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