On Wednesday, the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing with expert testimony on extremism in the U.S. military after dozens of veterans and at least two active duty troops were involved in the Jan. 6 Capitol riots. Republicans on the panel seemed more interested in debunking the need for such a hearing at all, with one apparently hoodwinked by a military satire site.
The George Washington Program on Extremism has identified at least 33 of the Capitol insurrectionists as having a military background, including 31 veterans, one current member of the National Guard, and one Army reservist. The GOP has a long tradition of downplaying the terror threat posed by violent far-right extremists—perhaps out of wariness that the ideological trail could lead back to the party’s positions or rhetoric, or just as a reflexive response to any criticism of conservatives whatsoever. Per Politico, Republicans on the committee, including ranking member Mike Rogers, shot down the idea the armed forces aren’t doing enough to root out white supremacists, fascists, neo-Nazis, and other extremists.
“We lack any concrete evidence that violent extremism is as ripe in the military as some commentators claim,” Rogers said during the hearing, according to Politico. “While I agree with my colleagues that these numbers should be zero, this is far from the largest military justice issue facing our armed services.”
Wisconsin Rep. Mike Gallagher said there was an “absence of data” and the subject of the hearing was “wild suppositions based on our ideological priors.” Georgia Rep. Austin Scott digressed toward the GOP obsession with so-called “cancel culture,” fretting that some may “lose their jobs and other things simply because of a Facebook post or some other post that was made when somebody was mad.” And Texas Rep. Pat Fallon challenged witness Lecia Brooks, the chief of staff for the Southern Poverty Law Center, with a completely falsified claim that the anti-racist organization had classified the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion as hate groups.
“Yes or no question, has your organization named the American Legion as a hate group?” Fallon asked Brooks.
“I don’t believe so,” she replied.
“I found it, and it did,” Fallon replied. “Were you aware they named the VFW as a hate group?”
“Not in our current census, no,” Brooks answered.
The SPLC maintains a database of racist and bigoted hate groups, which has sparked ire among Republicans who consider some of those groups to merely be cultural conservatives (uh huh). However, the SPLC has never classified the VFW or American Legion, nationwide groups of former service members that organize veterans’ support and other charitable work, as hate groups or anything else. Fallon instead appears to have gotten that idea from a site called Duffel Blog that runs military-themed joke articles, such as one claiming Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is rooting out “weak-ass posers who lack the extreme ideologies of Iran’s ‘totally radical’ warfighters” and another titled “Retired general on Pepsi board vows to win War on Thirst.”
In 2017, Duffel Blog ran an obviously made-up article alleging that SPLC President J. Richard Cohen had declared the two veterans’ organizations to be hate groups because they hold “radical, extreme-right-wing ideals such as freedom, safety, and family values.” Said article also mentioned that Cohen wrote the declaration from a “corporate think-tank steam room, where Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Moscow) was seen relaxing in the nude.”
The byline on the article was “Dick Scuttlebutt,” who can be safely assumed is not a real person.
The post, which was re-upped on the Duffel Blog site on Wednesday, wasn’t exactly cutting-edge satire. But it was at least fairly obvious satire, particularly if one read past the headline. Duffel Blog is also well-known in the military community as sort of heavily armed counterpart to The Onion, so mistaking it for reality is an especially embarrassing blunder for a Republican on the Armed Services Committee. (Previous feathers in Duffel Blog’s hat have included punking Politifact into reporting the military had offered seven Guantanamo Bay detainees to anyone with information on the location of captive troop Bowe Bergdahl and Gizmodo into believing the Army was replacing bayonets with tomahawks.)
Extremism in the military, despite Republicans’ protestations to the contrary, is a very real and well-evidenced threat. Polling by the Military Times in 2020 of 1,630 active-duty subscribers found more than 36% of respondents, and more than half of minority service members, reported witnessing examples of white nationalism/supremacy or ideologically-motivated racism in the military. Those numbers had increased significantly in recent years. Internal Pentagon surveys from 2017 released earlier this year found nearly a third of Black service members had experienced racial discrimination, harassment, or both in the preceding 12 months. These issues appear to be exacerbated by a command structure disproportionately composed of white males.
In 2018, a Coast Guard officer with prior Marine Corps service was arrested for allegedly stockpiling weapons in a plot to kill Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats. In 2020, three veterans in Nevada were charged with felony conspiracy and terrorism over an alleged plot to attack Black Lives Matter protesters in Las Vegas, while a U.S. Army private was charged for providing information on his unit and its defenses to neo-Nazis he believed would coordinate an attack with al-Qaeda. The same year, Gizmodo reported on a former recruiter for terroristic neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen that had joined the Navy, resulting in his administrative separation.
The Pentagon has acknowledged far-right extremists with military experience are a “threat” due to their “proven ability to execute high-impact events,” and it’s begun implementing programs to screen recruits for any involvement. The Defense Department has also begun assembling databases of domestic extremist groups it believes are trying to recruit current or former troops. According to the Military Times, some troops haven’t been impressed by efforts so far, reporting recent stand-downs with officers on the topic of extremism weren’t being taken seriously by trainers or were cursory at best—though others said their commanders held substantive sessions.
“DoD officials repeatedly claim that the number is small, [yet] no one truly knows,” Audrey Kurth Cronin, director of American University’s Center for Security, Innovation, and New Technology, said during the hearing, according to Politico. “No serious plan can be built without defining the scope of the problem.”
Fallon’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment by Gizmodo on this story, but we’ll update this post if we hear back.