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Some experts say the military's new rules on extremism miss the mark

The Marines’ probe into whether the reservist son of former San Diego County GOP leader Tony Krvaric tried to join a white nationalist group is expected to wrap up any day now. KPBS’s Amita Sharma says top brass recently changed policies to meet the moment, but some say they fall short.

The Marines’ investigation into whether reservist Victor Krvaric, son of ex-San Diego County GOP chairman Tony Krvaric, tried to join a white supremacist group is expected to wrap up any day now.

But even if military investigators confirm that the younger Krvaric applied to the neo-Nazi group the Patriot Front, experts say it’s unclear whether he would face any discipline under the military’s code of conduct, even after recent revisions.

RELATED: Marines investigate former GOP chair's son for white supremacy ties


While there is a long history of extremism and white supremacy in the armed forces, there is increased worry about the extent to which these ideologies have in recent times taken hold among active duty members as well as veterans.

Arrests of people with military links for crimes related to extremist views rose 300% over the past decade, with most of that increase coming in the last several years, according to a recent study. This is due in large part to the violence stemming from 2017’s “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.

In 2020, the FBI notified the Pentagon that nearly half of its 143 criminal investigations of current and former service members involved domestic extremism, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.

In response to all of this, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin asked members of the military’s rank and file during a speech last spring to do their part to stem extremism.

“We need your help,” said Austin, who is the nation’s first Black defense secretary. “I’m talking, of course, about extremism and extremist ideology, views and conduct that run counter to everything that we believe in and which can actually tear at the fabric of who we are as an institution.”


In December, the Department of Defense (DoD) updated its policy on radicalism to ban "active" participation in gangs or groups that advocate supremacist, extremist ideologies that discriminate based on race, religion or ethnicity.

Active participation includes fundraising, attending rallies, recruitment and training. The military’s new policies also spell out rules for what service members can do online. They cannot like or share an extremist tweet.

But some experts who study extremism argue the new rules don’t go far enough.

'Wholly insufficient'

“Those changes are wholly insufficient to address the problem,” said Devin Burghart, executive director of the Seattle-based Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights. ”What they didn't do is add a prohibition of membership in white nationalist organizations.”

Burghart calls the military’s banning of active participation while allowing membership a “distinction without a difference.”

“The act of joining an organization and making that leap to become a member is already a sign that you're deeply enmeshed inside that organization's ranks,” he said. “It also means that you may be participating in other parts of the organization.”

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said in December that the DOD did not create a list of extremist groups service members shouldn’t join on grounds that organizations can disband or reform themselves.

He also emphasized the department deliberately confines itself to prohibiting activity instead of ideology or political opinions.

FILE - In this Jan. 6, 2021 file photo, supporters of President Donald Trump, including Navy veteran Jacob Chansley, right with fur hat, are confronted by U.S. Capitol Police officers outside the Senate Chamber inside the Capitol in Washington.
Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press
FILE - In this Jan. 6, 2021 file photo, supporters of President Donald Trump, including Navy veteran Jacob Chansley, right with fur hat, are confronted by U.S. Capitol Police officers outside the Senate Chamber inside the Capitol in Washington.

“The Department has always maintained a distinction between thoughts and actions,” Kirby said. “The new definition preserves a service member’s right of expression to the extent possible while also balancing the need for good order and discipline to affect military combat and unit readiness.”

William Braniff, director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, said even with this leeway, he’s hearing complaints that service members’ First Amendment rights will be violated.

“There’s a lot of pushback, like `this is overreaching. The DOD is going to kick somebody out of the military for retweeting or reposting something. Isn’t that silly?,” Braniff said. “Well, no, not at all. I think the DOD has recognized that social media matters.”

That said, the military is still not screening the social media of service members for extremism. Braniff says the military is a large bureaucracy and policies on the topic are still evolving.

Burghart argued the military can’t afford the luxury of time.

A 2019 Military Times poll found that 36% of troops surveyed have encountered racist and white supremacist views in the military. A 2017 Defense Department survey showed 30% of Black service members said they were harassed and racially discriminated against in the military.

Personal experience

Cristine Chvala, a Black Navy vet who served in San Diego, said she experienced discrimination both overtly and in more subtle ways.

“It's masked with things like favoritism, with some manipulation in different arenas,” Chvala said. “I just think that it's definitely still there. It's just well hidden.”

Burghart called the problem endemic.

“They've got to come back and really get to the heart of the matter in terms of addressing membership, addressing ideology, and addressing how this stuff is playing out in the ranks so that people can report it and help root it out,” Burghart said.

Burghart contrasts the military’s policies on extremism with how it handles acts of infidelity by service members. Under the military’s code of conduct, proof of adultery leads to discharge, no pay, even confinement.

“Whereas with white nationalist activity, it is far less clear,” Burghart said. “Service members will tell you that not only is it unclear as to what falls in and out of those categories, but it also means that the ability to report that and how that is handled is also quite murky, and that makes it challenging to maintain the kind of discipline and morality you need inside these units.”

Spencer Sunshine, who researches far right groups, speculates that the military may be reluctant to develop clearer, tighter rules on extremism because it’s afraid of what it might find. If polls showing that between 5% and 10% of Americans hold white supremacist views are correct, then a monumental task awaits the leadership.

“Who wants to or could remove or discipline 10% of the people in the military?” Sunshine asked. “That would be even logistically a huge problem to do, and it would create lots of internal problems in the organization. So it could be that they don't want to know.”

Chvala said the number of extremist-leaning service members could be even higher and pose a much bigger logistical challenge and potential damage to the mission.

“It’s so deeply rooted into everything that they do,” Chvala said. “If they started to unravel that thread, it’s going to break apart a huge structure they’ve already built, causing them to have to rebuild it all over again.”

Regarding the investigation into Victor Kvaric, a Marine official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said at minimum the probe may present “an opportunity to counsel the person.”

Burghart said any consequence less than a discharge is reflective of yet another deficiency in updated policies.

“Reservists take the same oath that everyone in the military takes,” he said. “And they have an obligation to serve and protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. And that is to do so for everyone, not just for white folks, but for everyone.”

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