It's no surprise that a person who allegedly hoped to kill President Barack Obama has white supremacist leanings. But the fact that the threat allegedly came from a U.S. Marine has again raised the issue of extremists in the military.
Marine Lance Cpl. Kody Brittingham, stationed at Camp Lejuene, N.C., was arrested in mid-December on an unrelated armed robbery charge and, as a result, separated from the service on Jan. 3. But a search of Brittingham's barracks also turned up a journal containing white supremacist material and a plan to kill Obama, according to a newspaper account. That reportedly prompted a Secret Service investigation of his alleged threats against the president that is ongoing.
The incident is the latest disturbing account that suggests extremists are infiltrating the military -- even as officials deny there's a problem. Yesterday, Southern Poverty Law Center President Richard Cohen wrote to the Pentagon expressing his disappointment that military officials have taken no action on evidence of white supremacist activity in the military provided as early as 2006 by the SPLC.
"To be frank, it appears that we're not getting anywhere," Cohen wrote to Under Secretary of Defense David Chu in his Feb. 11 letter. "We provide evidence from multiple sources about the problem of extremists in the military, and you continue to claim that the military already has a zero-tolerance policy. You tell us that we should bring any information we have about extremist activity by specific Service members to the attention of appropriate Service authorities. But, as we have explained in our reports and in previous letters to you and the Secretary, we have done so, and the authorities have not taken action."
The SPLC first brought the problem of extremists in the military to the attention of Pentagon officials in 1995, when three neo-Nazi soldiers stationed at Fort Bragg murdered two black North Carolinians. Then-Defense Secretary William Perry responded forcefully, saying there was "no room for racist and extremist activities within military." A major investigation and crackdown followed in 1996.
But a decade later, military recruiters, under intense pressure to meet quotas for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, began to unofficially lower entrance standards. As a result, in 2006, the SPLC issued a major report, "A Few Bad Men," that revealed that large numbers of neo-Nazi skinheads and other white supremacists were joining the armed forces to acquire combat training and access to weapons and explosives.
The SPLC report was sent to then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld along with a letter from Cohen urging the military to adopt a zero tolerance policy with regard to extremists in the ranks. Forty members of Congress wrote a similar letter, as did Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). But in his letters of reply, Chu dismissed all their concerns as exaggerated. The military took no remedial action.
Two years later, in 2008, the SPLC reported on new evidence -- including an unclassified FBI report -- that supported its initial findings. After that report, Cohen wrote Chu, again asking that the military adopt a zero tolerance policy. Chu replied on Dec. 28, saying the military already had such a policy in place and needed nothing more. "We are committed to sustaining a culture in which all personnel from diverse backgrounds serve together in defense of our great nation," Chu wrote.
But numerous cases suggest otherwise.
One example of the military's failure to act was cited in SPLC's original 2006 report -- the case of Matt Buschbacher, a Navy SEAL who attended the 2002 leadership conference of the neo-Nazi National Alliance while on active duty. This group's leader has espoused murdering America's Jews in abandoned coal mines and was the author of The Turner Diaries, the race war novel Timothy McVeigh used as a blueprint for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. The SPLC alerted military officials to the fact that Buschbacher was producing neo-Nazi recruitment fliers via his Racialpride.com website while on active duty. But Buschbacher was allowed to complete his tour of duty in Iraq and given an honorable discharge.
Also mentioned in the 2006 report was the case of Robert Lee West, then an active duty member of the Air Force. When the SPLC informed officials of West's activities, which included posing in front of a swastika flag with two assault rifles and ranting about the "Zionist Occupied Government," they said no action would be taken unless he recruited fellow extremists or committed a crime.
Extremist infiltration of the military was also detailed in a much more recent report from the FBI, "White Supremacist Recruitment of Military Personnel Since 9/11," which was released last summer to law enforcement officials. "The military training veterans bring to the [white supremacist] movement and their potential to pass this training on to others can increase the ability of lone offenders to carry out violence from the movement's fringes," the FBI report said.
Also in 2008, a new report by the SPLC revealed that 46 members of the white supremacist social networking website Newsaxon.com then identified themselves as active-duty military personnel. Six of these individuals were members of the "White Military Men" subgroup on the site. The report also quoted a racist skinhead who last year posted a comment to a neo-Nazi online forum, excitedly saying that he'd joined the Army and specifically requested an assignment where he would learn how to make an explosive device. "I have my own reasons for wanting this training but in fear of the government tracing me and me loosing [sic] my clearance I can't share them here," the poster, "Sobibor's SS," wrote. Sobibor's SS provided enough biographical information that military officials should have been able to identify him. The SPLC reported this information to the military, but no action seems to have been taken.
In this week's letter, the SPLC's Cohen asked Chu not to again ignore the warning signs. "In our view, the continued presence of racial extremists in the military is a recipe for disaster," Cohen wrote. "The recent case of Marine Lance Cpl. Kody Brittingham illustrates the point. ... We urge you to take action."