The coordinated attacks on the U.S. Capitol as well as state houses and capitol buildings on January 6 came as a shock to many Americans, as did the widespread presence of members of hate groups among the rioters. But perhaps no aspect proved more troubling to the public than news that active-duty military and members of law enforcement participated in the attempted coup. To those who have long tracked white supremacist groups in the United States, however, this news came as no surprise.
Many far-right hate groups have, for decades, included infiltration of branches of the military and law enforcement agencies as part of their organizing strategy. And you don’t have to look very hard to find evidence of their success: in the short period of examination between the coup attempt and President Biden’s inauguration, investigators discovered extremist ties among at least twelve National Guard members deployed to Washington, D.C., and further evidence of infiltration continues to emerge. Unfortunately, so far, the federal departments and agencies responsible for identifying and rooting out these hate groups—the Department of Defense, the FBI, and Congress—have not risen to the challenge and worked in a sustained, coordinated way to confront this national security threat.
The lack of violence during Biden’s inauguration should not cause Americans to relax their guard. As former FBI special agent Tom O’Connor told Reuters, for far-right extremists, January 6 marks not the failure of an insurrection attempt, but rather, the “first shot” in a broader war. It is high time for concerted bipartisan efforts from political leadership, civil society, and the full participation of law enforcement agencies as well as all branches of the military establishment.
The Scope of the Threat
The threat of far-right extremism in the ranks of the security establishment—particularly white supremacists’ recruitment and infiltration efforts—is by no means new or unknown, as hate groups have long sought to recruit former or active members of the military and law enforcement.
The emphasis placed on recruitment of active-duty military personnel among just one transnational neo-Nazi organization—the National Socialist Order (NSO, formerly Atomwaffen Division), founded by a member of the Florida National Guard—presents staggering cause for concern. In the five short years of NSO’s existence, the group has accumulated bomb-making expertise, organized military training camps, attempted to acquire WMDs, targeted a nuclear power plant, and committed numerous murders, with many other plots—including the attempted assassination of a sitting Cabinet official as well as numerous journalists. A single investigation into the organization confirmed at least six military personnel among some sixty affiliates, with many more suspected.
Quantifying the scope of infiltration and the threat it poses remains an urgent priority. However, currently, it is impossible to accurately gauge the scope of white supremacist infiltration, in large part due to government obstruction of such efforts, including the Pentagon’s refusal to grant interviews to investigative journalists or share data on personnel flagged for ties to white supremacy, as well as lack of responsiveness to watchdog groups’ calls to investigate suspected threats. Further complicating efforts to assess severity, the Pentagon lacks a centralized mechanism for tracking and reporting identified cases. Strong indicators, however, point to a pervasive problem with white supremacist organizational infiltration and ideological sympathies. As early as 2006, leaked internal documents identify shared white supremacist sentiments as an active and growing threat to law enforcement itself, as well as the general public—who was never informed.
Despite the lack of statistics on cases of infiltration identified by law enforcement and the Department of Defense, a significant percentage of military personnel view white supremacists as a greater threat than North Korea, Afghanistan, immigration, Iraq, and American domestic protest movements. According to alarming data obtained by the Institute for Veterans and Military Families, one-third of active-duty personnel reported signs of white supremacists within the ranks—with two-thirds of minority service members characterizing the issue as particularly acute. Clearly, military personnel know something the general public doesn’t.
A significant percentage of military personnel view white supremacists as a greater threat than North Korea, Afghanistan, immigration, Iraq, and American domestic protest movements.
Numerous cases over the past decade, especially in recent years, establish a troubling pattern of inaction and lack of transparency that belies repeated assurances from law enforcement and the military that white supremacist elements constitute a target of in-depth preventative measures and active investigation.
Despite one Atomwaffen defector’s taped confession in a 2017 murder investigation, and request for FBI involvement to prevent further plots, it is unclear what follow-up measures—if any—were taken by authorities, and the FBI refused to comment. What is clear, however, is that the suspects had military training, and the spree of violence continued unabated. Disturbingly, following the murder arrest of one of the suspects, Brandon Russell, a Florida National Guard investigation into the Atomwaffen Division’s founder concluded that he “did not present consistent characteristics that would have led a reasonable person to suspect Russell held such radical beliefs.” This determination was made after a three week investigation that turned up crime scene evidence including SS military insignia, copies of the infamous Turner Diaries, and a framed portrait of Timothy McVeigh.
No “reasonable person,” indeed. Such a finding is deeply troubling, and boldly contradicts Pentagon official’s repeated assertions that suspected white supremacists face decisive consequences. Something is deeply and disturbingly amiss.
More recently, to cite one example from January 6, Timothy Louis Hale-Cusanelli currently faces five charges related to the Capitol siege. According to the Department of Justice, Hale-Cusanelli is an active duty member of the U.S. Army Reserves, as well as an “avowed white supremacist and Nazi sympathizer” who “also works as a contractor at Naval Weapons Station Earle where he maintains a ‘Secret’ security clearance and has access to a variety of munitions.” Hale-Cusanelli was apprehended after bragging about his participation to a Naval Criminal Investigative Services confidential informant, with whom he shared footage recorded during the Capitol assault. Hale-Cusanelli exhibited a remarkable level of comfort in openly sharing his participation in the January 6 events, as did many others, including active duty police officers—a troubling display of confidence about a lack of consequences.
The Capitol assault is not the only political protest movement that revealed far-right infiltration of the security establishment. Increasing public concern over systemic racism among law enforcement catalyzed this summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and grew as reports of police affiliations to far-right extremist groups emerged at an alarmingly steady pace. In an eerie preview of the leadup to Biden’s inauguration, Ohio governor was forced to recall a member of the National Guard deployed to Washington, D.C. over the summer, after evidence emerged of the guardsman’s active participation in neo-Nazi online forums, including his own YouTube channel. Largely as a response to the ongoing protests, in September 2020, white supremacist ties to law enforcement agencies formed the subject of Congressional Hearings before the Committee on Oversight and Reform, and resulted in a release of the declassified 2006 FBI memo warning of police infiltration. Curiously for an agency publicly claiming great concern over the threat of white supremacist violence, the Federal Bureau of Investigation refused to participate.
A host of other incidents across the past decade alone underscore continued failures by military leaders and law enforcement to adequately address the issue. In 2019, the thirty-year military career of covert white supremacist Christopher Hasson came to an end after with the discovery of an assassination plot targeting Democratic leaders, journalists, and civilians in response to Hasson’s anger over Trump’s impeachment. That same year, ProPublica identified a number of active-duty servicemen affiliated with now-defunct neo-Nazi terror group Atomwaffen Division, and was only able to confirm the court martial and expulsion of a single member. A Pentagon spokeswoman approached by ProPublica for comment, declined to provide details on individual cases, issuing the statement: “our standards are clear; participation in extremist activities has never been tolerated and is punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.” The Department of Defense refused to grant ProPublica any interviews.
A Lack of Urgency
Tellingly, according to Chair of the House Armed Services Committee Representative Jackie Speier, the military learned “about these particular supremacists’ presence through media reporting and not their own investigation,” through a Bellingcat investigation of data leaks from Iron March, a defunct white supremacist Internet recruitment forum. Such systemic lack of transparency casts doubt on government officials’ claims to engage in proactive measures aimed at countering the white supremacist threat within—particularly when coupled with a steady stream of hate crime perpetrators with ties to the military or law enforcement.
As far back as 2006, a redacted FBI bulletin warned of white supremacist infiltration of law enforcement, a document prepared in the aftermath of revelations that officers formed and operated a neo-Nazi gang out of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office.
As far back as 2006, a redacted FBI bulletin warned of white supremacist infiltration of law enforcement, a document prepared in the aftermath of revelations that officers formed and operated a neo-Nazi gang out of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office. Reportedly, additional FBI investigations at the time exposed “entire agencies with hate group ties in Illinois, Ohio, and Texas.” Clearly, not much has changed since 2006, and if anything, recent years have contributed to a further mainstreaming of white supremacist actors.
The FBI Counterterrorism Division’s 2015 Counterterrorism Policy Directive and Policy Guide, an internal memo not intended for public disclosure, included warnings for agents involved in monitoring domestic terrorism cases of white supremacists’ “active links” to law enforcement. Internal communications described the phenomenon of “ghost skins,” the name used for white supremacists who join law enforcement yet keep their views and affiliations secret:
This infiltration includes covert supremacist operatives called “ghost skins” who the FBI guide states are encouraged and trained to “blend in” to regular society without displaying their real views while advancing the goals of supremacists and also that they have implemented a strategy of protecting these investigations from discovery by specific officers who actually been added to the terrorist watch list by hiding that information within the NCIC and other national crime databases from them.
Portrayals of the white supremacist movement as “resurgent” obscure a disturbing reality: the white supremacist movement never went away, but merely embarked on remarkably effective strategic program of dissimulation, cooptation, and infiltration. A direct lineage runs from the architects of this white supremacist strategy in the late 1970s to participants in the Capitol attacks themselves. Among the perpetrators of January 6 violence at the state level was Kyle Brewster, convicted with two other neo-Nazi skinheads of beating an Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw in 1988. This case, in fact, resulted in lawsuits responsible for bankrupting notorious white supremacist leader Tom Metzger, and dismantled his organization, White Aryan Resistance.
Although Metzger himself died in November 2020, his legacy and influence is evident in the Capitol attacks and beyond, most notably his programmatic embrace of infiltration as a white supremacist political strategy. According to former neo-Nazi and ex-Metzger disciple Chuck Leek, Metzger influenced the recent wave of violent hate groups like Atomwaffen Division and the Base:
He played a large part in the way they are operating right now. Recruiting on college campuses. He was actively telling us if you don’t have felonies, don’t get felonies. Grow your hair out. Stop getting tattoos. Become lawyers, get in the military and get rank. Become police and get rank. He was telling us to do these things and they’re being done now.
Against the backdrop of disturbingly systemic inaction and lack of transparency, the announcement of law enforcement investigations into personnel participation in the Capitol attacks, as well as Department of Defense inquiries about preparedness are, stated simply, not enough. Time and time again, law enforcement and military officials have operated without transparency, issuing internal memos warning of potential white supremacists in their midst, refusing to act on credible reports from hate group monitors, and neglecting to inform the public—even, in recent years, going so far as to order employees to actively downplay such threats in favor of political partisanship.
Time to Act
While Biden’s assumption of the presidency alone will not suffice to quell extremist hate, his refreshing candor about it—including calling out white supremacy as a threat to confront and defeat—suggests a new willingness to tackle the problem.
What is critical now is defining how the nation will defend against this threat to national security. A “domestic terrorism” sequel of the War on Terror will not solve the increasingly clear problem of far-right extremism. Instead of a domestic reboot of the post-9/11 campaign, sure to result in further substantial erosion of civil liberties, the response to the January 6 Capitol Siege must instead focus on security threats already identified and long ignored.
A “domestic terrorism” sequel of the War on Terror will not solve the increasingly clear problem of far-right extremism.
Executive action can go a long way to beginning to root out the problem. The president can set policies that emphasize the severity of the threat. He can order the Department of Justice to collect information about infiltration of the FBI and local law enforcement agencies. And he can push the Department of Defense to finally prioritize the the threat from within posed by white supremacist and other domestic extremists.
In what was a good sign, Secretary of Defense-designate Lloyd Austin, a retired army general, began his January 19 confirmation hearing with the promise of a tireless campaign to “rid our ranks of racists and extremists.” If Austin is confirmed as secretary, Congress and the president must hold him to his word. Full-scale hearings in Congress would be a crucial step for motivating Austin, and could lead to comprehensive, bipartisan, and independent investigations of white supremacist infiltration.
Substantive action is urgently necessary, and the time for face value acceptance of reform rhetoric is long past—by decades. A desultory historical pattern of governmental lack of action on previous occasions when the alarm was sounded suggest a systemic reluctance to address the presence of far-right extremists in law enforcement and the military. Government assurances are no longer enough, given the magnitude of this threat, nor is the standard subcommittee hearing approach adequate. There are steps, however, that policy makers, political leadership, and the public can take—provided they act quickly. The window of opportunity is closing.
One critical component of any program to confront far-right extremism is the need to recognize that the groups involved are working in coordination to pursue an ideological agenda. Kathleen Belew, the foremost historian of American white power movements, attributes a widespread lack of preparedness in the face of increasing white supremacist threats to misunderstandings concerning the Oklahoma City bombing—namely, portrayals of Timothy McVeigh as a “lone wolf” actor, allegedly disconnected from any wider ideological movement. Indeed, any useful measures will demand the foregrounding of interconnections beyond overt operational ties. Successful efforts to confront this threat must take into account the ideological connections and shared strategies across white supremacist and far-right extremist groups, particularly the long-running strategies of infiltration and mainstreaming. Such a program necessitates the participation of civil society actors, members of the public and political leaders, as well as military and law enforcement leadership.
It is also essential that civil society groups, academics, watchdog networks, and public advocacy organizations undertake aggressive campaigns to raise public awareness about the longevity and gravity of the white supremacist threat. Rarely known, for example, are cases that illustrate the perils of downplaying this threat, such as that of the Utah State Guard—disbanded in 1987 by the governor upon the discovery that 400 members of the Aryan Nations had taken control. Public pressure must be brought to bear on lawmakers, with the objective of bipartisan governmental measures aimed at accountability and transparency among law enforcement agencies and all branches of the military apparatus.
Congressional hearings and independent investigations into the issue of white supremacist extremism throughout law enforcment organizations and the military are critical, and should include a wide array of participants, among others, subject matter experts, hate group watchlist teams, veterans, deradicalization organizations, “formers” (movement defectors) with ties to military and law enforcement, as well as victims of white supremacist violence. Formers’ testimonies can provide critical documentation of their own participation in strategies of infiltration and recruitment, as well as their experiences with—if any—disciplinary measures undertaken in response to their activities. Watchdog organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) should present dossiers on reported cases that went unaddressed, and compel officials to explain the process for such threat determinations and divulge specific criteria that constitutes reason for concern.
To prevent a repeat of the FBI’s fall 2020 refusal to participate in the Congressional inquiry on white supremacist ties to the police, political leadership must consider all methods of leverage to compel law enforcement and military participation in discipline, accountability, and deradicalization, including financial penalties through appropriations allocations. Further, law enforcement and military leadership must no longer allow partisan programs to dictate national security concerns. Smear campaigns launched by conservative media over the 2009 Department of Homeland Security memo warning of white supremacist infiltration, which ultimately resulted in the closure of the area’s designated office—a disastrous miscalculation with lasting impact.
The January 6 assault on the United States Capitol underscores the severe threat posed by white supremacist elements within law enforcement and military sectors, which demands comprehensive and urgent solutions. In light of governmental agencies’ previous pattern of non-responsiveness and lack of transparency, the challenge may appear daunting. However, the unprecedented Capitol attacks’ visibility also presents a window of opportunity for long overdue reform measures. Placing interconnected white supremacist threats at the center of mass mobilization across all sectors of American society provides the only potential for a successful solution—and time is ticking.
This commentary is part of Transnational Trends in Citizenship: Authoritarianism and the Emerging Global Culture of Resistance, a TCF project supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.