Lloyd Austin, President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for defense secretary, said Tuesday during his confirmation hearing that he would work to rid the military of “racists and extremists.”
During his opening remarks, Lloyd Austin stated:
We also owe our people a working environment free of discrimination, hate and harassment. If confirmed, I will fight hard to stamp out sexual assault, to rid our ranks of racists and extremists, and to create a climate where everyone fit and willing has the opportunity to serve this country with dignity. The job of the Department of Defense is to keep America safe from our enemies. But we can’t do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks.
Democrats in recent days have sounded the alarm over the prospect of extremists in the military, after veterans and active-duty members of the military were identified attending a pro-Trump protest at the Capitol on January 6, with some breaching the Capitol building.
Some Democrats have suggested that members of the National Guard posed an insider threat to the inauguration on Tuesday. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) said Monday on CNN that he predicted that 75 percent of white male National Guard members protecting the event were an insider threat.
The Associated Press reported on Tuesday that 12 Army National Guard members — out of the approximately 25,000 National Guard members in D.C. — were removed from the mission to protect the inauguration after they were found to have ties with right-wing militia groups or had posted extremist views online, according to two officials. The report said there was “no threat to President-elect Joe Biden,” however.
During the hearing, which was for the purpose of vetting Austin for the position, multiple Senate Democrats pressed Austin — who would become the first black defense secretary if confirmed — on what he would do to root out extremists in the military.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said, “I have been deeply alarmed, as have many of my colleagues by the rise of white supremacists and extremist ideology in the military,” adding that he and 13 senators had sent a letter to the Pentagon inspector general last week asking for an “immediate and intensive investigation” of the prevalence of white supremacy and extremist ideology in the ranks.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) quoted former President Ulysses S. Grant from 1875 on the prospect of another civil war: “If we are to have another contest in the near future of our national existence, I predict that the dividing line will not be Masons and Dixons but between patriotism and intelligence on the one side, and superstition, ambition and ignorance on the other.”
Kaine added, “Those words are very chilling, as we contemplate what we saw in this Capitol on the 6th of January. We saw ambition, we saw superstition.”
He said that a 2019 Military Times analysis found that 36 percent of active duty service members have seen evidence of white supremacist and racist ideologies in the military and asked Austin what kind of training he would suggest for service members to lead to a military “immune from superstition and not so gullible as to fall for these false ideologies.”
Austin said leaders need to be trained to be in touch with their troops to understand “who they are, what they are doing, what they are reading,” and be aware of signs that could indicate something is going in the wrong direction.
“I think our leaders need to be able to talk to their subordinates and instill in them the right types of values — the values our military and country embraces, and failure to adhere to those values means you should not be a part of our formation,” he said.
Kaine, whose son was arrested for disrupting a pro-Trump rally in Minneapolis in 2017, called the “enemy within” the “most destructive in terms of the ability to defend ourselves.”
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) also said he is concerned “now more so than ever before” about extremists being recruited into the military.
Austin said having potential racist or extremist behavior in the military is “absolutely unacceptable” and said he would work to make sure it is “absolutely clear” that that behavior does not fit military values.
“I will want the leaders of all the services and all of the departments to make sure that they’re doing the right things to set the right example and to create the right climate that discourages and eliminates that type of behavior,” he said.
“And this is not something we can be passive on. This is something I think we have to be active on and we have to lean into it and make sure we’re doing the right things to create the right climate,” he said.