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Extremism in the ranks: Veterans and the insurrection

CBSNews
·5 min read
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Whoever coined the phrase "Once a Marine, always a Marine" did not have this in mind: A Marine Corps veteran using the Marine Corps flag to attack a Capitol police officer. Thomas Webster is one of more than 30 who have served in the military now charged with crimes at the Capitol.

Criminal Charges against Thomas Webster (pdf)

Video captured Marine veteran Thomas Webster attacking law enforcement during the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. / Credit: CBS News
Video captured Marine veteran Thomas Webster attacking law enforcement during the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. / Credit: CBS News

CBS News national security correspondent David Martin asked Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, "Were you surprised by the number of military veterans who had been arrested for storming the Capitol?"

"Very disappointed," Austin replied. "This is an issue that I think can erode the great respect that our American citizens have for our military."

In an interview soon to be broadcast, Austin told "60 Minutes" that the Pentagon is still coming to grips with extremism in the ranks.

"I don't expect to see significant numbers inside our ranks, although I think the numbers would be probably a bit larger than that we would have believed," he said. "But I will tell you that a small number of people can have an outsized effect."

A small number at the Capitol formed what law enforcement called "a stack" – a military formation used to move through crowds.

Insurrectionists form a
Insurrectionists form a

"It doesn't take an army to do what happened; it takes people with some skill set to lead those others," said former FBI Agent Tom O'Connor, who spent two decades investigating extremists.

"Extremist elements in the United States have long tried to recruit former military and former law enforcement into their ranks for their skill set."

And for the mindset of a culture trained to resort to violence when all else fails.

Army veteran Stewart Rhodes founded a group called Oath Keepers in 2009. "All you veterans out there, you've got to stand up," he said in a video on the conspiracy theory-spreading website InfoWars. "Lead your local community in watching over their own backyards, over their own neighborhoods, and over their own towns."

About extremist Elmer Stewart Rhodes (Southern Poverty Law Center)

The stack moving through the mob and up into the Capitol during the January 6th insurrection is made up of Oath Keepers – at least three of them are military veterans.

"The benefit of the mob is it provides a little bit of cover," said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University's Program on Extremism. He calls the military veterans at the Capitol the tip of the spear: "These are the folks that had some level of planning prior to January 6th, right? It wasn't just a spur of the moment, right? They saw an opportunity and they seized it."

They executed what the military would call a multi-pronged attack forcing Capitol police to defend different fronts simultaneously.

O'Connor said, "The approach by the rioter is from several different angles, so they're separating the law enforcement that was there to thin them out."

And they had the means to do it.

Prosecutors allege Jessica Watkins, an Oath Keeper who once served in the Army, used a walkie talkie app on her cell phone to communicate. "We have 30 to 40 of us," she said.

"Everything we f***ing trained for," came a response.

The Zello Tapes: The Walkie-Talkie App Used During the Insurrection (WNYC)

Jessica Watkins and Donovan Crowl, two veterans who are members of the Oath Keepers, are among those indicted for their roles in the insurrection.  / Credit: CBS News
Jessica Watkins and Donovan Crowl, two veterans who are members of the Oath Keepers, are among those indicted for their roles in the insurrection. / Credit: CBS News

"Even a basic infantry soldier has the skill set of tactics, of movement to an objective," O'Connor said. "They use that and, I think, others followed. Once you breach that doorway or those windows, then it's like water flowing into the building. It's very difficult to stop."

So far, nine Oath Keepers have been indicted for their role in breaching the Capitol.

Grand jury indictment against nine Oath Keepers for conspiracy, destruction of government property, et al (pdf)Alleged Oath Keepers leader in Capitol riot held top-secret security clearance for decades, lawyer says

Martin asked, "Does that gut the Oath Keepers?"

"No, not by any means," said Hughes. "You're talking about an organization that's much larger than nine, right?"

Law enforcement doesn't know many extremists are out there, in part because it doesn't always recognize their secret codes. O'Connor said, "The average person that doesn't know that code, it's gonna be right in front of your face and you don't know it. If I say, 'When the RaHoWa takes place,' to you, does that mean anything to you?"

Martin replied, "Nope."

"It's the 'Racial Holy War.'"

A Pentagon report published photographs of skinhead tattoos to help commanders spots extremists in their ranks. The report warned, "Military members are highly-prized by these groups as they bring legitimacy to their causes and enhance their ability to carry out their attacks."

Martin asked Austin, "Do you have any ideas for how you prevent military people taking their military training and using it for extremist purposes?"

"I think we need to do counseling throughout to make sure that they're aware of the fact that there are organizations that will try to recruit them because of the skills that they have."

Secretary Austin has ordered a one-day stand down for the entire force to focus on the threat of extremism, but he knows there is no one-day solution.

"This is not something that we can fix and put on a shelf; this is something, I think, we have to stay with for a long, long time," he said.

For more info:

Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinSeamus Hughes, deputy director, George Washington University's Program on Extremism

Story produced by Mary Walsh. Editor: George Pozderec.

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