Update, March 10, 2022: In January, American Oversight obtained more records related to reports of white supremacy within the Coast Guard between 2017 and 2021. Details are below.
American Oversight has obtained records from the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard that provide further insight into how military branches have responded to incidents of white supremacy within their ranks. The documents include new details about a 2008 investigation of a group of white supremacist Marines as well as other, more-recent incidents of racist extremism, and add to previous reporting on the military’s inadequate tracking and quiet handling of such occurrences.
In April of this year, USA Today reported on records released by the Navy to American Oversight that showed “a pattern in which military leaders chose to deal with personnel involved in extremism by dismissing them in ways that would not attract public attention.” The documents detailed 13 investigations into acts of racist extremism committed by Navy and Marine Corps members between 1997 and 2020, including incidents of stalking, harassment, and overt racism. One of the investigations revealed the past existence of a white supremacist gang called the “RRR,” formed by members of the Marine Corps in 2008. None of the 13 investigations resulted in a court-martial, which is the only way members of the military can face punitive discharge.
American Oversight had also filed Freedom of Information Act requests with other branches of the military, and received responses that further illustrate the military’s shortcomings when it comes to tracking and studying the prevalence of far-right activity or ideology within its ranks. On Wednesday, American Oversight filed a lawsuit against the National Guard Bureau and the Coast Guard to compel the release of other requested documents, including any reports or database entries on white supremacy among personnel from 2017 through present day.
The latest records uncovered by American Oversight provide additional information about the “RRR” investigation and include reports about seven incidents within the Coast Guard between 2018 and 2020.
Navy documents newly obtained by American Oversight include a report on the preliminary inquiry into the “RRR,” which contains a timeline of incidents that were reported with increasing frequency between March and November 2008. The records also include a summary of interviews with members of the “RRR” and other Marines in the same unit, as well as members’ written statements and the inquiry’s initial recommendations for discipline.
The investigation into the “RRR” — the name of which was an apparent nod to the Ku Klux Klan — was opened on Nov. 24, 2008, after the unit’s platoon sergeant was alerted about the gang’s activity, according to the timeline. The previous month, weeks before Barack Obama’s election, members of the “RRR” had been branding each other and saying they would not serve a Black president. Over the first three weeks of November, members picked fights with African-American Marines and tried to sow division among troops, using racial slurs and even saying they were at “war” with Black people.
According to the preliminary inquiry, one “RRR” member had joined the gang “for friendship and camaraderie but does not have racist beliefs,” and “was unable to separate himself from the RRR due to his youth, lack of knowledge, and negative peer pressure.” The investigation also found an African-American Marine in the same unit to be “partially responsible” for racist incidents, having provoked the “RRR” members by “taunting” and calling them names like “hick” and “redneck.” The inquiry stated that the Marine had been “a leadership challenge to the Platoon for some time,” adding that “RRR” members “perceived the Command was hesitant to appropriately discipline [the Marine] because he was African-American.”
The records also show that the “RRR” members’ matching brands were reportedly “acknowledged by members of the group to represent ‘white power’ and a hateful view towards African-Americans.” But the preliminary inquiry said that the evidence was “unclear” as to whether the brandings were received with racist intent and that there would be “evidentiary challenges” in proving the future intent of the Marines who had declared they would not serve under a Black president. Thus the report concluded that pursuing the matter at a court-martial was not recommended.
The Navy’s inquiry ultimately recommended processing the six members of the “RRR” for administrative separation for the commission of a serious offense related to participation in a supremacist organization, a violation of the Marine Corps Separation and Retirement Manual’s rules on misconduct. The inquiry recommended that one gang member’s separation be “suspended” for a year and that a seventh Marine who was not a member of the “RRR” — likely the same Marine accused of “provoking” — be transferred out of the unit and face expedited separation from the Marine Corps.
Branches of the military are governed by the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which authorizes commanding officers to first investigate reports of misconduct in their unit and determine whether to take further action. Unlike courts-martial, which are military court trials, administrative separations are non-punitive releases that cannot result in a “dishonorable” or “bad conduct” discharge, which usually carry more severe ongoing consequences, according to VetVerify.org.
Members who are processed for administrative separation are effectively fired from their positions under “honorable,” “general,” or “other than honorable” conditions based on their quality of service, which influences a member’s ability to reenlist or claim military benefits but is significantly less serious than a bad conduct or dishonorable discharge. According to USA Today’s April article, all six members of the “RRR” were discharged “under honorable conditions.”
The Coast Guard documents released to American Oversight detail reports of Guardsmen displaying and espousing white supremacist ideology with hand symbols, in internet chat rooms, and even in “abusive outburts” toward other members. While many details were redacted, including about subsequent punishments issued by the Coast Guard, the documents do contain new information about a few of the cases.
Among the investigations in the records was an incident that took place in 2018, when a member of the Coast Guard stationed in North Carolina to assist with Hurricane Florence response displayed a white power hand symbol during a televised news interview. The records indicate that the Guardsman, who was later reported to have been relieved of his hurricane-response duties, had proposed and was warned against displaying the hand sign before appearing on the broadcast. Details about any further resolution of the matter were redacted.
Other reports show that some Guardsmen used government computers to visit Nazi and white supremacist websites. One investigation was closed in February 2020, seemingly without punishment, after a Guardsman agreed to “discontinue visiting pro-Russian, Iranian, and white supremacy sites.” The details of punishments given to another member who viewed white supremacist websites on government computers were redacted from the documents.
A 2019 Military Times poll found that a third of all active-duty military members reported having witnessed “examples of white nationalism or ideological-driven racism” in their ranks. The issue of white supremacy in the military has garnered significant national attention over the last year, in part because of the high number of current and former service members who participated in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. In April, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin — the first Black man to serve as Pentagon chief — convened a Defense Department working group on countering extremism, which is expected to release a progress report soon that could provide more details on the Pentagon’s plans, including potentially reviewing the Uniform Code of Military Justice and updating screening measures. In October, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told Military Times that the report “will include a new definition set of what extremist activity comprises.”
American Oversight has long been investigating the U.S. military’s pattern of failing to confront white supremacy among service members. Wednesday’s lawsuit is a continuation of that investigation, as are the records from the Marine Corps and Coast Guard outlined above. You can read more about our previous reporting here.
In January, American Oversight obtained more records related to reports of white supremacy within the Coast Guard between 2017 and 2021.
The documents add to the understanding of how incidents have historically been identified, reported, and addressed within the military branch.
The records come from the Coast Guard’s Anti-Harassment and Hate Incident database and include four charts of data related to incidents of white supremacy within the branch from Oct. 27, 2017, to July 16, 2021. Records previously obtained by American Oversight detailed seven incidents of reported white supremacist behavior between 2018 and 2020, and the new documents include information about 43 reported incidents, 21 of which were found to be “substantiated.”
Three of the substantiated instances of white supremacy were not punished by the Coast Guard, according to the records. All of the substantiated cases that went unpunished were committed by “unknown” guardsmen, the documents show.
The records also contain 19 reports of white supremacy that were found to be “unsubstantiated,” including reports of hateful written remarks and symbols, as well as references to the Ku Klux Klan made on social media and in personal displays.
Two 2021 reports of “inappropriate displays” of white nationalist symbolism at a base in Ketchikan, Alaska, were reported to the Coast Guard Investigative Service and were not labeled as “substantiated” or “unsubstantiated” in the documents. Another report involving the display of a Confederate flag in Traverse City, Mich., in July 2021 was labeled “pending.”
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