The U.S. Department of Defense said it was “a wake-up callwhen current and former members of the American military took part in storming the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., on January 6th. Since then, the military has increased efforts to identify and fight “extremism” in the armed forces. A “voluntary, confidential online survey” from Military Times last year found that “about one-third of all active-duty respondents said they saw signs of white supremacist or racist ideology in the ranks.” How serious is the problem?

According to Lecia Brooks—the chief of staff for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which has been working with the military on the issue— “the overwhelming majority of military personnel have nothing to do with extremist activity.” The situation in the U.S. is much smaller-scale than what we’re seeing in Germany, Brooks says, where a government report last year found that the country’s “security services recorded more than 1,400 cases of suspected far-right extremism among soldiers, police officers and intelligence agents” over a three-year period. In March, Brooks told Congress that “the number of extremists associated with the [U.S.] Armed Forces who engage in hate crimes and criminal extremist activity is relatively small,” but “their capabilities and specialized weapons training make them prime targets for extremist propaganda and recruitment.” She further notes that recent investigations “have identified dozens of veterans and active-duty service members who are affiliated with white-supremacist activity.” Brooks says it’s a “game-changer” to have Lloyd Austin, the first Black defense secretary in American history, focused on this issue. But the military needs better data, screening, and training. Even if there’s no plausible danger of the U.S. military being captured by white supremacists, the possibility that it’s a tactical training ground even for a relatively small number of them is a serious one. Systematic study, Brooks says, is the only way the military can turn a chilling specter into a knowable challenge.

Graham Vyse: How would you describe the phenomenon of white supremacy in the U.S. military today?

Lecia Brooks: Well, the sad truth is that there’s not enough data to fully articulate what the threat is. We’re not doing adequate data collection. We’re left to guess based on anecdotes. The Southern Poverty Law Center began to track white-supremacist activity in the military back in the 1980s. Again, it’s anecdotal, and that’s the primary problem.

This issue first came to our attention related to Ku Klux Klan activity, when it still occurred pretty regularly across the U.S. and especially across the Deep South. We weren’t surprised, though certainly we were alarmed, to discover people who belong to Klan groups who also had some connection to the military. We learned something that remains true today: The specialized training in weapons, surveillance, and tactics that military personnel are afforded makes them prime targets for white-supremacist groups or other extremist groups.

I wish I could say with more certainty what the extent of the problem is, but we can look at the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, in which 10 percent of the arrests were of people with military service in their backgrounds. That’s an outsized number in a country where only seven percent of the adult population has served in the military.

Vyse: If there isn’t good data, how do we know there’s a serious threat?

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Brooks: One data point we do have is the Military Times survey of military personnel.

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