NEWSMAKER INTERVIEW WITH TOGO WEST
DECEMBER 12, 1995
Secretary of the Army, Togo West, talks about racial extremists in the U.S. military, with Margaret Warner.
MARGARET WARNER: Last Friday, three soldiers stationed at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, were charged with shooting a black man and a black woman in the nearby town of Fayetteville. Both were killed. Police later found white supremacist literature in the room of one of the soldiers charged with murder, though they said they've found no evidence so far that the soldiers were members of any national racist or skinhead groups. The murders prompted a statement today from Defense Sec. William Perry that extremism has no place in the American military. Also today, Army Sec. Togo West announced the service was launching an investigation into how many soldiers might be participating in extremist organizations. I spoke with Sec. West earlier today.
MARGARET WARNER: Welcome, Mr. Secretary. What are you hoping to achieve with this review that you announced today?
TOGO WEST, JR., Secretary of the Army: We hope to find out about the climate in our army, and what our soldiers are thinking about ourselves and each other, rather, in fact, there's reason to be concerned about the existence of extremist groups or of potential participation by our soldiers in them.
MARGARET WARNER: What is the state of the regulation now? What are soldiers permitted to do vis-a- vis groups like this?
SEC. WEST: Extremist groups and active participation in them are inconsistent with what we require for a good and ordered fighting force. For that reason, what's prohibited is active participation in the group.
MARGARET WARNER: Which is what?
SEC. WEST: That could be attending meetings in uniform. It could be recruiting for others to be part of the organization. It could be espousing their views both on post and off, fund-raising, activities that actively identify them with a group and the group's aims.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay. But could a soldier go to meetings off base, without his uniform on?
SEC. WEST: Meetings, attendance at meetings without more, not a ground for action against him, not prohibited, but even that activity, even membership in such groups is strongly disapproved of by the army. And that means that our soldiers who are peers are non- commissioned officers and our commanders will actively discourage even that.
MARGARET WARNER: But as a practical matter, what does a soldier do to have--what does a soldier have to do to be discharged?
SEC. WEST: For punitive action to be considered against a soldier under those circumstances, we would be looking at active participation, participation in violation of some order of the commander, much of the authority and responsibility for enforcing these regulations rests with commanders and non-commissioned officers at unit level. So a soldier who against a commander's order attended a meeting at an off-limits location, a soldier who persisted in espousing actively the views of the organization and attempting to recruit on post and a number of like activities.
MARGARET WARNER: How aggressive do you think your commanders at that level are in pursuing these, these senses, or these suspicions?
SEC. WEST: Well, they should be very aggressive. What we advise commanders, and what I advised them in some earlier messages in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing was once you have reason to believe that a soldier's a member, because a soldier openly says it, you or your non-commissioned officers have a responsibility to counsel them, to remind them of the consequences if they engage in active participation. Our preference in the army is that they not even be members of such groups.
MARGARET WARNER: But they are permitted, and they could go--for instance, one or two suspects in this case, it is said, went to local skinhead bars, white supremacist bars essentially in the area.
SEC. WEST: A commander's equipment at that time is that he or she has the authority to place such places off limits. If their operation and their effect on our soldiers interferes with the discipline or the morale of the unit, that would prohibit the soldier from going and make him or her vulnerable to administrative or disciplinary action.
MARGARET WARNER: Why is not membership just in and of itself prohibited, membership in a white Nazi party or some such party?
SEC. WEST: Well, (a) it's strongly discouraged as incompatible with army membership, but (b) we learned in the aftermath of the cases involving Communist Party membership and the lists of disapproved organizations in the civilian society, that prohibiting membership, the right of association, a First Amendment freedom, is a very tricky thing to do, and, therefore, we don't prohibit the membership, itself. We wait for the act that makes it part of something that is contrary to discipline in the unit.
MARGARET WARNER: So was this a decision that the military took in and of itself, not to prohibit membership, or this something that the courts have also stepped in on?
SEC. WEST: No. It's a longstanding Department of Defense policy, taken with an awareness of what court decisions have said and realizing that by and large we'd not like to be in the business of identifying and listing suspected groups. That reminds us too much of a previous era.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you about in real world terms. You talked about unit cohesion, and today in your press conference, you talked about the importance of that. If you have a unit that is integrated, as all these units are, and certain soldiers are known--and it sounds like all their colleagues know about their off--off-duty membership and activities--black soldiers know that the white soldiers serving next to them go to some punk skinhead bar, how can that not affect unit cohesion?
SEC. WEST: Well, that's one reason that we strongly disapprove of any such membership and actively advise our commanders and NCO's to counsel these soldiers against it. Secondly, let's remember that we're not talking, we believe, about a very large part of our currently 500,000- person army.
MARGARET WARNER: How large do you think this phenomenon is, i.e., membership in or, or just social contacts in this kind of fringe culture?
SEC. WEST: In two years of serving as Secretary of the Army and traveling around the world to visit our troops, talking with commanders, talking with NCO's, talking with the chief of staff and the sergeant major of the army, their view is that it is not a very large percentage, indeed, that such membership is not typical of the army soldier. The problem is today it's time for us to find out whether that's true or not. That's what this review is about.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me just quote you something that a bar owner in Fayetteville, owner of the Purgatory Bar, which is apparently a skinhead bar, said, "There is a large skinhead presence in this town because of the types of people stationed at Fort Bragg. This is not a normal town." Also, the Southern Poverty Law Center had warned or has said that Fort Bragg is, in fact, a fertile recruiting ground for white supremacist organizations. I mean, where are people involved in this--they're getting this impression clearly.
SEC. WEST: Yes, they are. I think one of the reasons for the impression is that any number of membership in an extremist group has a powerful impact on us all. One is too many; two is too many. A collection of more than that is too many. Secondly, I have to rely for the moment on what my commanders and NCO's there tell me, which is that the vast majority of our soldiers, soldiers stationed at that post, are not participating in such activities, they are part of the army's notion of fair play and a consideration of the worth of all. Nonetheless, reports like that viewed in the aftermath of recent incidents are recent enough for us to undertake our review.
MARGARET WARNER: Have you--has the army had a similar investigation before? Have you looked into this problem before?
SEC. WEST: Periodically, we try to assess the climates in our units around the world. We do it for different reasons. We did them a while back for purposes of understanding something better about the racial climate, about the climate with respect to the sex presence of two sexes in units, so we've done it before, yes. This assessment for this purpose is probably one of the few times we've wanted to focus specifically on these kind of groups. We've also done different assessments for different purposes. We did take a look for law enforcement purposes a year or so ago.
MARGARET WARNER: What, after the Oklahoma bombing?
SEC. WEST: Yes.
MARGARET WARNER: Because in that case, it seemed as if the suspects also had formed their ties and some of their views while stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas.
SEC. WEST: At that time, our reports were that this kind of a concern that for some reason we might have numbers of soldiers who were getting involved in militias or other kinds of extremist groups, the conclusion from that review was that that was not a big concern. To put it another way, that by and large, even though we bring in a host of young Americans every year, between sixty-five thousand and seventy thousand, and some come with those involvements unbeknownst to us, that by and large, our army was free of any particular numbers of those. We expect that that will still be the case.
MARGARET WARNER: And what do you do to screen out people who either come with those views or because they're very young come with a receptivity to those views?
SEC. WEST: Well, in terms of screening out, we, of course, rely on our recruiters to be careful of the kinds of people they recruit. We now require 95 percent of our incoming recruits to be high school graduates. That higher earning educational level makes a difference in the kind of folks we get. Secondly, as they apply for the security clearances that are necessary and during their work, one of the questions we ask is about membership in such groups, and we see what the answers are.
MARGARET WARNER: But do you try to probe their attitudes? I mean, they might be smart enough-- one, they may not belong to them, and two, they're probably smart enough--as you said, they're smart--not to say so. But do you do any sort of psychological questioning?
SEC. WEST: I wouldn't say we do psychological questioning as a, as a routine part. We certainly do do some review as part of the entrance examination. We don't--we don't want to bring in people who are unstable. But by and large, the way we test who we have gotten into the service is to rely on our talented non-commissioned officers to remember that we have separated youngsters from their families and their communities at an early age, 18, 19, and that when we bring them in, they need mentoring and counseling to make sure they choose the army family over the family of the streets.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, Mr. Secretary, thank you for being with us.
SEC. WEST: Thank you.