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Pentagon Stiffens Regulations to Ban Racist Advocacy

For years, military personnel could post bigoted messages on social networking websites without fear of repercussions.

For years, military personnel could post bigoted messages on social networking websites without fear of repercussions.

Not any more.

After long denying a problem with extremists in its ranks, the Pentagon in November quietly tightened an existing ban on supremacist activity. The old policy, in effect since 1996, prohibited "active participation" in supremacist organizations, including rallying, fundraising, recruiting and organizing. But it was often interpreted to mean that military personnel were allowed to be "mere members" of hate groups or that they could engage in unaffiliated extremist activities such as posting racist content to social networking sites and E-mail lists. The revised policy now also bans distributing such materials, including posting them online. Perhaps most importantly, the new rules say military personnel "must not actively advocate supremacist doctrine, ideology or causes."

The Southern Poverty Law Center had been urging the Pentagon to revise the regulations since 2006, when it published "A Few Bad Men," a report revealing that large numbers of neo-Nazi skinheads and other white supremacists were joining the armed forces to acquire combat and weapons training — skills that could be used to commit terrorist acts against targets in the United States. Among others, the report cited the case of Matt Buschbacher, a Navy SEAL who attended the 2002 "leadership conference" of the neo-Nazi National Alliance while on active duty. The SPLC told military officials that Buschbacher was producing neo-Nazi recruitment flyers via his website, but he was allowed to complete his tour of duty in Iraq and even given an honorable discharge.

In 2008, the SPLC told the Pentagon that it had uncovered 46 members of the white supremacist networking website who identified themselves on the site as active-duty military personnel. That same year, an unclassified FBI assessment detailed more than a dozen investigative findings and criminal cases involving Iraq and Afghanistan veterans as well as other active-duty personnel engaging in extremist activity in recent years.

In February 2009, the issue became harder to ignore when Lance Corporal Kody Brittingham, a Marine at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, was charged with threatening the president after investigators found white supremacist material and a journal containing a plot to assassinate then-president-elect Barack Obama in his belongings. Two months later, a Department of Homeland Security report worried "that right-wing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to exploit their skills and knowledge derived from military training and combat." In July, the SPLC asked Congress to investigate the problem and, in September, briefed staffers of several Senate committees on the issue.

Though the Pentagon's rule revision won't eliminate all racial extremists or potential terrorists from the military, it is a significant step forward and should make it easier for commanders to investigate and discharge or otherwise discipline the likes of Buschbacher.