The watchdog organization American Oversight filed two lawsuits Thursday to unearth incidents of white supremacist activity across the U.S. military during the past six years.
The suits were filed in district court against the Department of Defense, the Army, Navy, Air Force, Department of Homeland Security and the National Guard Bureau, as well as the state National Guards of Florida, Georgia, South Dakota and Texas. American Oversight first requested the information from the agencies and service branches in March through a Freedom of Information Act request, but was stymied, Heather Sawyer, the organization’s director, said in an email to Military Times.
“Unfortunately, the military’s consistent failure to respond to our [FOIA] requests in a timely fashion put us in a position where we needed to sue to enforce the public’s rights to documents and transparency,” Sawyer said. “The bottom line is that the American people have the right to know how their military has responded to racist and extremist incidents within its ranks.”
Regarding the lawsuits, Department of Defense spokesperson Nicole Schwegman said Friday it was inappropriate for the agency to comment on ongoing litigation.
American Oversight is a nonprofit created by a group of lawyers during former President Donald Trump’s administration to fight for government records and expose wrongdoing. The group has made previous requests to the DOD to understand specific instances of white supremacist, white nationalist and neo-Nazi beliefs in the armed forces and how military leadership handles those cases. So far, the records show a pattern of the military failing to adequately track incidents of those ideologies, Sawyer said.
While the group has received some records in response to its previous requests, it is now seeking a comprehensive set of documents that could illustrate the full scope of white supremacist activity and ideology among service members — and whether the Pentagon has implemented methods to keep tabs on those extremist views.
This time, American Oversight asked for any reports or memos detailing incidents of white supremacist, white nationalist, white separatist, far-right, alt-right or pro-Nazi activities or ideologies among service members. The group also requested any studies the military might have done concerning incidents of those ideologies.
American Oversight made its first request for the records March 14 and gave the agencies and service branches until June 4 to respond. Some of the requests went unanswered, while other agencies responded that there were no records available meeting the criteria, according to the complaints.
“We sued for these records because the public deserves full transparency into this threat’s scope and what steps the military has taken to address it,” Sawyer said.
The Defense Department had not responded to the lawsuits as of Friday, the group said. The agency, as well as the other plaintiffs listed in the lawsuits, have until July 9 to respond, according to court documents. The case was assigned to U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly.
In addition to American Oversight, other groups have inquired recently about the Pentagon’s ongoing efforts to root out extremism. Following the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol — during which multiple service members joined rioters to enter the building — the Defense Department conducted a military-wide training on the potential signs and dangers of extremist ideology, and it later established a Countering Extremism Working Group. However, those efforts have faced political pressure. Since the working group dissolved, only one of its six recommendations had been implemented, Pentagon Deputy Press Secretary Sabrina Singh said in May.
The Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, an anti-extremism advocacy group, sent a letter to the DOD this spring, asking the agency about any continued attempts to address the problem. The group offered a handful of ideas, including one for the Pentagon to establish a rigorous and uniform procedure to report and collect data regarding extremism in the ranks.
“It is absolutely ridiculous that of the six recommendations the now fizzled working group made at the end of 2021, only one has begun to be implemented across the Defense Department,” Heidi Beirich, the co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, said in an email. “Ignoring a problem does not make it go away.”
Nikki Wentling covers disinformation and extremism for Military Times. She's reported on veterans and military communities for eight years and has also covered technology, politics, health care and crime. Her work has earned multiple honors from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, the Arkansas Associated Press Managing Editors and others.