WASHINGTON — The Army announced plans Thursday to tighten its regulations for dealing with extremist activities in its ranks in order to make it easier for officers and sergeants to stop soldiers from wearing hate-group emblems and hanging Nazi flags in their barracks.
The move, part of a package of new measures ordered by Secretary of the Army Togo West Jr., followed the recommendations of an emergency panel that studied the situation after two soldiers were charged in the murder of a black couple near Ft. Bragg, N.C., in December.
Although the study found only "minimal" evidence of extremist activity in the Army, West said the service decided that it needed to "clarify" existing regulations to eliminate some apparent confusion about how far officers could go to crack down on such activities.
He said the Army also would give new officers and soldiers more training about avoiding hate groups and would consider making extremist activities a punishable offense. He also asked the Defense Department to screen recruits and reject those with such views.
Defense Secretary William J. Perry immediately welcomed West's recommendations and said that the Pentagon would review department-wide regulations on extremist activities to see if they also should be changed. Neither the study nor West named specific hate groups.
Mark Weitzman, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Task Force Against Hate, hailed the steps as a demonstration "that the Army can be part of the solution, not part of the problem." But, he said, the real test will be in how much money is allocated to do the job.
The Army study, conducted at 28 major installations, found that less than 1% of some 7,638 troops interviewed either knew of a soldier who had participated in an extremist group or had come into contact with such an organization on or near the base.
In a companion survey, involving written answers from 17,080 soldiers, 3.5% reported that they had been approached for membership by an extremist organization since joining the Army, and another 7.1% said they knew of another soldier who was a member of such a group.
The task force also surveyed law enforcement authorities in the areas around military bases and found that extremist groups do not seem to be specifically targeting soldiers for recruitment. "There is minimal evidence of extremist activity in the Army," it said.
At the same time, however, the task force found evidence that Army regulations on participation in such organizations by soldiers are "misunderstood and confusing to soldiers and junior leaders," and that training programs are inadequate.