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The Department of Defense’s Inconsistent Response to Extremists in the Ranks

By Christopher Nelson

On February 11, 2020, I attended a hearing in front of the House Subcommittee on Military Personnel regarding white supremacy in the military and how to effectively combat it. Representatives from various offices within the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) testified as to the current policies that address the broader category of extremism within the ranks and how those policies deal specifically with white supremacy. During their opening statements, both Chairwoman Jackie Speier (D- CA) and Ranking Member Trent Kelly (R- MS) alluded to or outright discussed groups like the Base, Atomwaffen Division, and recent high-profile arrests involving military members such as U.S. Coast Guard Lieutenant Christopher Hasson, U.S. Marine Corps Lance Corporal Vasillios Pistolis, and a number of other members recently outed as members of extremist and white supremacist groups. One particular member that came up repeatedly was U.S. Air Force Master Sergeant (now Technical Sergeant) Cory Reeves.

On April 8, 2019, the group Colorado Springs Anti-Fascists published the evidence they had collected on MSgt. Reeves, painting a fairly clear picture of his involvement with the group American Identity Movement (AmIM), formerly known as Identity Evropa (IE). The evidence they collected goes back as far as 2017, and shows photos of Reeves wearing IE branded shirts and handing out brochures with the IE logo clearly displayed. Their dossier also includes photos of Reeves with other known members of violent right-wing groups, and chat logs under the screen name “Argument of Perigee” which they have linked to Reeves. The evidence they collected was handed over to the relevant authorities, and to those on the outside, it seemed like an open-and-shut case. 

Late in 2019, when representatives from the U.S. Air Force were questioned about MSgt. Reeves’ status, they admitted that Reeves was still serving on active duty. At the conclusion of their investigation and disciplinary proceedings, Reeves was demoted one paygrade to the rank of Technical Sergeant and remained in service. During the congressional hearing, Representatives demanded to know how the U.S. Air Force and DoD justified that outcome. According to Robert Grabosky, Deputy Director of Law Enforcement with the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Reeves was spared further punishment because he was not an “active participant” in AmIM. 

The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) provides a mechanism by which a commanding officer can provide non-judicial punishment (NJP). NJP carries a range of sentencing options, but the most severe of them are a reduction in rank (not to exceed two paygrades) and a suspension of half a month’s pay for up to one year. The UCMJ only specifies a select few crimes that require court-martial, but the breadth of charges that can be brought under NJP proceedings is extensive. The charges brought against Reeves are unclear, but based on past proceedings against other cases involving white nationalists and extremists, the most likely charges were violations of Art. 92 (Failure to Obey a General Order), and Art. 134 (General Article – a catch-all article for anything affecting the good order and discipline of the armed forces). 

The UCMJ does not provide a specific violation for involvement with extremist groups. Instead, the DoD has provided instructions and each of the services (including the U.S. Coast Guard, though they fall under the U.S Department of Homeland Security) have issued similar instructions of their own that reference the types of activities members are prohibited from engaging in with regards to extremist groups. The relevant U.S. Air Force Instruction (Chap. 3, Para. 4) closely resembles the DoD Instruction (Para. 8). However, immediately following that section is the following subsection: “Mere membership in the type of organization enumerated is not prohibited.” 

Reeves was likely punished for violations of UCMJ Articles 92 and 134 because the evidence presented against him clearly showed that he partook in explicitly prohibited activities under the DoD and U.S. Air Force Instructions, such as demonstrating and fund raising for AmIM/IE. However, the U.S. Air Force’s follow-up subsection, stating that mere membership in an extremist group is not prohibited, points to a larger and more glaring problem: DoD does not take this issue seriously enough. Groups such as IE advocate for political ideologies that overlap heavily with those of accelerationist groups such as the Base, whose plans to fire indiscriminately into a crowd of armed civilians at a rally in Virginia so as to spark a second civil war were only interrupted in the days leading to the planned event. Involvement of military members with specialized skills and training is only going to increase the chances of one of these groups succeeding in carrying out such an attack. 

During the hearing I attended, one of the members questioned why there was no UCMJ article covering involvement in extremist groups, but the answer is that Congress has failed to create it. The U.S. Navy Equal Opportunity Instruction (Chap. 1, Para. 2(k)(2)(a)) includes language regarding extremist groups, that I would argue is the most comprehensive of any of the services. Congress should codify that Instruction in the UCMJ. Further, as part of a broader overhaul of what violations require a court-martial, violations of this new article should require trial by court-martial. Taking these cases out of the hands of local commanders and into the hands of the formal military justice system would be a significant step forward in the fight against white supremacy in the ranks. 

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