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Watchdog group asks Rumsfeld probe of hate groups in military

An organization that tracks racist hate groups claims there has been an increase in the number of neo-Nazis and skinheads in the military during recruiting for the Iraq war.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, in its report Friday, claims the Pentagon is violating its own decade-old zero-tolerance policy against racist hate groups and called on Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to put a stop to it.

Pentagon officials said in response that efforts have continued to weed out supremacists and those who advocate racial and other forms of illegal discrimination.

“This is a serious issue, but we don’t see an increasing trend,” said Army spokesman Paul Boyce at the Pentagon.

The report, posted on the Montgomery center’s Web site, says recruiting shortfalls caused by the Iraq war have allowed “large numbers of neo-Nazis and skinhead extremists” to infiltrate the military.

“We don’t know the real number,” Mark Potok, SPLC’s Intelligence Project director in Montgomery who tracks hate crimes, said. He estimated it could be “thousands” based on the center’s investigation that found racist Web sites giving advice on how to engage in white supremacist activity in the military while avoiding detection.

Potok contends there’s been a relaxation of the recruitment rules amid pressures to sign up recruits during the Iraq war. “Recruiters are saying that,” he said Friday.

Army recruiter Capt. Brian Bettis of Mobile said he screens recruits with police background checks and looks at tattoos for any sign of racist leanings.

“I’ve become an expert at tattoos. We take it very seriously,” Bettis said Friday.

He said he couldn’t comment on any claims about lax enforcement of the military’s policy on extremists. “We try our best to identify them,” he said.

At the Pentagon, Boyce said the Army sponsors gang-identification and gang prevention classes for its members worldwide.

“Last year our Criminal Investigation Command investigated 11 cases involving gang activity and we continue to conduct annual surveys of our soldiers and family members,” he said in a statement. “Gang activity is contrary to good order and discipline in the Armed Forces.”

He said soldiers and families are taught to look for potential signs of gang activity, including “use of narcotics, new clothing styles and colored bandanas, slang talk, gangster music hand-sign flashing and graffiti.”

Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke said Defense Department policy requires that “military personnel must reject participation in organizations that espouse supremacist causes; attempt to create illegal discrimination based on race, creed, color, sex, religion or national origin; advocate the use of force or violence; or otherwise engage in efforts to deprive individuals of their civil rights.”

She said commanders have the authority “to employ the full range of administrative procedures, including separation or appropriate disciplinary action, against military personnel who actively participate in such groups.”

In a letter to Rumsfeld, SPLC President Richard Cohen urged the defense secretary to put a stop to extremists in the military and enforce the zero-tolerance policy, warning that any one of them could turn out to be the next Timothy McVeigh.

Oklahoma City bomber McVeigh, executed in 2001, had advocated far-right ideology when he was in the Army and recruited two fellow soldiers to aid his 1995 bomb plot.

In 1996, then-Defense Secretary William Perry imposed a crackdown on extremists in the military.

Despite Perry’s intentions, Cohen claims members of neo-Nazi and other extremist groups are still infiltrating the ranks of the armed forces.

“Even when their activities are exposed, they often are allowed to continue in uniform,” his letter says.

Cohen recommended that Rumsfeld clear up the “ambiguities” in the current zero-tolerance policy. The Army’s recent revision to its regulations on the distribution of extremist literature is a step in the right direction, his four-page letter says.

On the Net:

http://www.splcenter.org