Veterans and troops are under investigation for their part in the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, and as troops pour into Washington, D.C. ahead of the inauguration of the 46th president of the United States, Pentagon officials promised that each was subject to screening for extremism.
Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy authorized at least 25,000 National Guard troops to support local law enforcement and provide security in and around the Capitol. Some active-duty troops have also joined them. A senior defense official told reporters last week that the Department of Defense is working to root out extremism in the ranks and that included screening those sent to D.C.
On Tuesday, at least a dozen Army National Guard members were removed from security duty for Joe Biden's inauguration, as first reported by the Associated Press. The Guard members were removed "after they were found to have ties with right-wing militia groups," AP reported. But the 12 troops were not all necessarily removed because of ties to extremism, according to Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, and Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman.
“If there’s any indication that any of our soldiers or airmen are expressing things that are extremist views, it’s either handed over to law enforcement or dealt with the chain of command immediately,” Hokanson said in a statement over the weekend.
Last week, Pentagon officials said they were aware of the threat of white supremacy within the ranks and were working to combat it.
"We clearly recognize the threat from domestic extremists, particularly those who espouse white supremacist or white nationalist ideologies," the senior defense official told reporters Thursday. "Private studies express between 2001 and today right-wing extremists are responsible for more deaths in this country than any other extremist group."
Each military branch completes background checks for its recruits, including for extremism -- interviewing family, friends, acquaintances and more, Defense officials said. If evidence is found, the recruit is ineligible. But that hasn't stopped extremist groups from searching out those with military experience, or those interested in joining the ranks.
"We know that some groups actively attempt to recruit our personnel into their cause, or actually encourage their members to join the military for purpose of acquiring skills and experience," the senior defense official said. "It brings legitimacy, in their minds, to their cause, the fact that they can say they have former military personnel that align with their extremist and violent extremist views."
But because the American military is a volunteer force, it is in many ways representative of American culture -- including extremism.
"All those issues that exist in society have the potential to exist within the military," the official said.
Federal investigations of crimes committed by current and former service members are increasing, including reports of criminal extremist activity, the official said, but Pentagon officials declined to provide additional details, including how many cases of extremism are being investigated.
In the case of the inauguration, a U.S. Army spokesman said the service "is working with the FBI to vet all service members supporting the Inauguration National Special Security Event."
The D.C. National Guard is also providing additional training for troops as they arrive in D.C. "that if they see or hear something that is not appropriate, they should report it to their chain of command. There is no place for extremism in the military and we will investigate each report individually and take appropriate action," according to a statement from the Guard. "Any type of activity that involves violence, civil disobedience, or a breach of peace may be punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice or under state or federal law."
While all troops are subject to screening, including background checks, Defense, FBI and Secret Service officials said that any Guard members expected to be close to Biden or Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would undergo additional screening to root out potential insider threats -- a standard procedure.
Gary Reed, director of defense intelligence and counterintelligence, law enforcement and security, said last week that extremism has no place in the military.
"We will not tolerate extremism of any sort in DoD," he told reporters.
FBI officials have said that though their investigation of the attack on the Capitol is still in its early stages, has identified several potential suspects with military ties among the more than 100 people taken into federal custody or the others currently under investigation since then.
As more evidence arises suggesting some veterans or troops linked to the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol may have been influenced by online disinformation, conspiracy theories or other tactics, Defense officials said last week the Pentagon is weighing increasing its social media monitoring for troops. Social media evidence led to the arrests of several veterans connected to the Capitol riots, and others are under investigation.
Ashli Babbitt, the Air Force veteran shot and killed inside the Capitol, had social media accounts full of disinformation and conspiracy theories including QAnon. Retired Air Force officer Larry Brock was accused by federal prosecutors of intending to take hostages during the storming of the Capitol. Social media evidence prompted the arrests of former Marine Donovan Crowl and Army veteran Jessica Watkins. Reservist Timothy Hale-Cusanelli, who works at a naval weapons station, has been accused of being a white supremacist and neo-Nazi. Army Capt. Emily Rainey is under investigation for allegedly transporting people to D.C. ahead of the riots. She resigned her commission in 2020 and was expected to leave service later this year.
Following the assault on the Capitol, the Joint Chiefs sent a letter to the entire force of more than 2 million active and reserve troops, outlining service members' duty to uphold the Constitution and United States laws.
National Guard Maj. Don Cravins Jr., a command judge advocate with the D.C. National Guard Office of the Staff Judge Advocate, said over the weekend that he and other judge advocates and paralegals briefed Guard members on their mission rules and guidelines while in D.C., including "rules related to the use of force, self-defense and the defense of others and rules of conduct." Some troops will be on security detail for the inauguration and others are tasked with protecting the Capitol itself, including lawmakers.