US military recruiters consistently fail to ask enlistees about potential extremist or gang ties, regularly bungle applications, and routinely turn a blind eye to red flags that could root out troubling recruits, according to a Pentagon report released last week.
The lax oversight has likely allowed avowed extremists and gang members to enlist in the military without scrutiny. And some may currently serve within the armed forces with access to firearms and classified intelligence, which increases “the potential for future security risks and disruptions to good order, morale, and discipline,” the Defense Department’s inspector general found.
The audit — which analyzed 224 applications out of 193,702 from July 2021 to January 2022 — discovered instances where screening mechanisms, including interviews, questionnaires, tattoo reviews, fingerprint checks, and background investigations, were performed haphazardly, or not at all.
In 41 percent of those cases, recruiters didn’t report asking the recruit about potential extremist affiliations, according to the report, which was published on the Pentagon’s website.
“Honestly I’m shocked by this. If you told me the rate was 10 percent, it still wouldn’t be acceptable but you could justify it given the sheer number of recruits the department sees each year,” said Bishop Garrison, an Army veteran and former Biden official once charged with combating extremism in the military. “But we’re talking almost half of recruits [who] don’t get asked this basic question.”
These screening lapses can have dire consequences. A recent Globe investigation revealed that at least 82 current and former military service members with far-right, antigovernment, or neo-Nazi views were arrested in the last five years. Perhaps the most well known among them is 21-year-old National Guardsman Jack Teixeira, of Dighton, charged with leaking troves of classified information to an online chatroom. The actual number is undoubtedly much higher since this analysis draws only from what has been made public in court documents and media reports.
Even if the percentage of extremist service members is relatively minuscule, they can still have an outsized and disastrous effect, experts warn.
Amid mounting criticism in recent years, the Pentagon has proclaimed a commitment to eradicating extremism within the department. About 14 percent of the rioters charged in the Jan. 6 insurrection were veterans or service members, according to George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. In the wake of that attack, the Defense Department instituted a series of recruiting safeguards. But experts told the Globe that the audit still suggests there is an environment of apathy across the department when it comes to actually addressing the issue.
“I’ve always used recruitment as a barometer for how serious the military is about the [extremism] issue. And the reality is there can be greater awareness and discussions at the top level, but if there isn’t a cultural shift then the effects will be minimal,” said Pete Simi, a sociology and extremism professor at Chapman University in Orange, Calif.
As a result of the audit, the inspector general’s office called on the Pentagon to issue a new memo to recruiters, reiterating the importance of screening for ties to extremist groups and gangs. “The Department of Defense takes extremist activity seriously and continues to make progress toward implementing the actions approved by the secretary in December 2021,” wrote a Pentagon official in response to questions from the Globe.
The Defense Department created in 2021 a standard screening questionnaire meant to solicit information from recruits about their current or former affiliations with extremist ideologies. For example, an Army recruit should be asked: “Have you ever had, or currently have, any association with an extremist/hate organization or gang?” The recruit would then have to answer yes or no. The audit found that recruiters did not report asking the question in 41 percent of interviews.
The finding, in some ways, feels like déjà vu. In another internal Defense Department report from 2005, auditors investigated screening mechanisms for recruits and summarized that “effectively the military has a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy pertaining to extremism.”
Even today, a recruit is not immediately ineligible for service if they hold membership in an extremist organization or criminal gang, according to Pentagon protocol. Rather, that application is supposed to move on to a more senior official who reviews the file and decides whether the applicant is eligible for a waiver.
However, the audit revealed that 20 separate Air Force recruiters from across the nation mistakenly checked the box denoting extremist ties in about a third of all applications. The report did not make clear why the mistake was repeatedly made, just that it was widespread and not localized to any particular recruitment center. The faulty applications exposed an even more troubling issue with the Air Force recruitment system. Each was allowed to continue onward in the recruitment process without further review. There was no automated mechanism in the Air Force system to halt, flag, and evaluate such applications with noted extremist ties.
The report does not address whether anyone investigated if any other Air Force applicants who actually answered “yes” to the extremism question were allowed into service. The Pentagon declined to comment.
A Globe analysis of court documents, publicly leaked chat logs, and media reports has identified several cases where avowed white supremacists joined various branches of the United States military in the last decade, despite being deeply — and sometimes publicly — entwined with far-right extremist groups.
For example, in 2015, 18-year-old Brandon Russell founded the Atomwaffen Division, a self-proclaimed terrorist organization with an emphasis on military tactics. He had conceived the idea on the public Iron March forum, an incubator of far-right, neo-fascist, and neo-Nazi views. Russell spoke openly of Atomwaffen’s violent goals in its chats. A year later, in 2016, Russell was allowed to enlist in the Florida National Guard.
Atomwaffen metastasized in the years to come and was later linked by authorities to numerous terror plots and at least five murders, including the stabbing of a gay Jewish student. Another member, David Cole Tarkington, joined the Navy without issue in July 2019. He was revered by Atomwaffen leadership for his recruitment ability, according to leaked Iron March chat logs.
Tarkington’s links to Atomwaffen were only made public after news outlet Gizmodo combed through chat logs and identified the airman apprentice in 2020. The Navy opened an investigation, and Tarkington was discharged a month later.
In another case, Ethan Melzer discovered the Order of Nine Angles group while perusing the internet as a 15-year-old budding fascist in Louisville, Ky. The Satanic, neo-Nazi group instructs its followers to infiltrate various organizations, including the military, to gain training and experience in violent tactics. Melzer enlisted in the Army in 2018 and prepared for a jihadist attack on his unit. The plan was thwarted by the FBI and Melzer was sentenced to 45 years in prison.
“Because we do so little on the front end we really have no idea how many Melzers are running around in the ranks,” said Simi, who was an expert witness on the Melzer case. “Even if it is a very small number, they can still do a lot of damage.”
The Defense Department’s screening process largely relies on self-reporting and it is not clear if the new protocols would have exposed Russell’s, Tarkington’s, and Melzer’s extremist ties. But experts say there are also simple steps that rely on tangible evidence, such as screening for extremist tattoos or running fingerprints to check for possible criminal histories.
The audit found that military recruiters didn’t complete the mandated tattoo screenings or fingerprint checks for 9 percent of applicants. In 1 percent of cases, recruiters didn’t initiate a background investigation.
“If recruiters aren’t doing basic things like checking tattoos . . . then we know they aren’t taking more intensive measures,” said Simi.
If the rates persisted across all applications from July 2021 to January 2022, it would mean 17,433 applicants to the military weren’t screened for extremist tattoos and nearly 2,000 did not undergo background checks.
“Given the IG’s report, I would imagine the leadership and department are rightfully as concerned as anyone outside of the Department of Defense would be reviewing the information that the report holds,” said Garrison, the former Biden official who currently serves as a fellow with the National Security Institute at George Mason Law. “I hope the department will move swiftly to understand more about how this has taken place.”