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DoD News Briefing: Togo West, Secretary of the Army

Presenters: Togo West, Secretary of the Army
December 13, 1995 2:30 PM EDT

Tuesday, December 12, 1995, 2:30 p.m.

Capt. Doubleday: Secretary of the Army, Togo West, is here today to speak with you. But before he comes to the podium, I have a statement that I would like to read to you from Dr. Perry.

"Two recent murders in Fayetteville, North Carolina, have led to media questions about the Department of Defense policy concerning the participation of military personnel in supremacist organizations. Without commenting on the facts of this case, I want to say there is no place for racial hatred or extremism in the U.S. military. The policies of the Department of Defense and the Department of the Army clearly prohibit racial intolerance and discrimination in any form. Equal treatment, respect, and trust, are values that the men and women in the military take very seriously. These values are fundamental to a just society and they are fundamental to military effectiveness. Military training stresses these principles and leaves no room for racial intolerance of any kind. Every member of the armed forces takes an oath to `support and to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic'. The men and women in the military understand the gravity of this oath. The Department of Defense policies state that military personnel may not actively participate in organizations that espouse supremacist causes, attempt to create illegal discrimination based on race, creed, color, sex, religion, or national origin, or advocate the use of force or violence or otherwise engage in efforts to deprive individuals of their civil rights."

And now, I'd like to turn the proceedings over to Secretary of the Army, Togo West. Mr. Secretary.

Mr. West: On behalf of the Army, I extend our sincerest sympathy to the families of Mr. Michael James and Ms. Jackie Burden. Their loss -- their tragic loss, their senseless loss -- is a tragedy not just for the families and communities of Fayetteville, North Carolina, and Fort Bragg, but also throughout the Army family as well. I am personally saddened that any American would commit an act of such senseless violence and it is especially painful to me that the acts are alleged to have been involved -- to have been committed by United States soldiers.

The duty of the American soldier is to protect the American people, not to put any one or two of them in fear of their lives. The bond between soldiers and the American people is a long-standing one of more than 220 years. A bond composed of a commitment through their oath of service and their duty to the constitution. And it is this bond and this oath and this duty of service that makes active participation in extremist organizations simply inconsistent with service as a soldier.

We will not have it. It is inconsistent for at least three important reasons. First, it is at war with the basic principles of fairness and dignity that we require to perform as effective units.

Secondly, a unit that is in any way polarized by extremist views or activities is a unit that is not ready. And thirdly, as a slice of America, every unit within the Army is expected to conform, and in many ways reflect, the values of American citizens. As part of our process of continuing to see that this message is received and understood by American soldiers, just in the aftermath of the Oklahoma bombing, the Chief of Staff and I published a message that relayed the views and the positions of the Department of Defense and the Department of the Army concerning membership and active participation in extremist organizations.

But we learn that wherever we think we know the whole story, there may be more to learn. Any one incident is an incident too many if it is at war with our basic principles. And for that reason, I have, with the advice of the Chief of Staff for the Army and the support of the Secretary of Defense, informed the Deputy Inspector General, Major General Larry Jordan, that he is to form a review group -- a task force, if you will, and a disciplinary -- that will assist me and senior Army leaders in a review of the climate throughout the Army amongst America's soldiers.

We will look to see whether, in fact, this incident suggests membership in extremist organizations that is active -- participation in ways that undermine our basic values of fair play, of dignity, of treating all with respect.

I will send out a reporting date of March 1st. And at that time, we will evaluate what we have learned further about America's Army. It is important for us to remember that the face of America's soldiers is the face of America -- reflected around the world in soldiers who are helpful, who are positive, who reach out to others, and who are known for being willing to help and being there when they're needed. That is the face we intend to preserve. That is the reality we will have within America's Army. Now, I'm available for your questions.

Q: Interviews at Fort Bragg suggests that some of the people involved in this -- at least one of them had a Nazi flag in his room. It never came to... The Army officials there told me that just displaying a flag is not grounds for anything. Can you explain that? Is that what the Army regulations say? Can you display a KKK flag? Can you display pornography?

A: My inclination is that is wrong. What a soldier or a person might display in a private resident to which others don't have access is one matter. But if that is a flag displayed in the barracks or a space within an Army facility, it is the duty of the commander under our regulation... In fact, the very one that I was referring to that contains the other provisions concerning organizational memberships and active participations. It's up to the commander to make an assessment of the effect of any display on the good order and discipline and ability to work together within that unit.

It is difficult for me to conclude that a commander seeing a swastika displayed in a barracks or Army facility would not conclude that that is injurious to the good order of that unit.

Q: Do you know what happened in this case?

A: I think that banner was found in private quarters, not on the post.

Q: That was found in private quarters. But there are also some platoon members who say that he displayed a Nazi flag in barracks.

A: There may well be and now you're asking me to speculate that was what happened. Was that he was asked to remove it and therefore, he took it to his private location. I just don't know.

Q: Are you looking into --

A: But in answer to your question, the answer is that should not be displayed there and it should not be tolerated by a commander or an NCO.

Q: Mr. Secretary, is the Army having a problem in that the difference between an active participation and passive participation? Is that very clearly defined for the commanders? And if it is, what would the Army do to address that?

A: I think we have considered that question. It has frankly occurred to me as well. But as we read through the provision and rearticulate it, I don't get the impression that either our commanders or our NCO's misunderstand it. There may be occasions as happens in any organizations when they don't completely apply it or apply it as accurately as we who can look at it after the fact would think they should. The distinction is this: ever since the cases involved membership of the Communist Party were decided in the courts, we had basically taken the rule that we will not decide on when membership in an organization is good or bad. But rather, we would look to the actions of our soldiers. And therefore, active participation... And, in fact, in answer to your question, there is a list of activities included in our Army regulation that demonstrate what could be active participation. Distributing membership materials, giving speeches, attending in uniform, recruiting, and the like. Active participation is what's forbidden and it is a standard that has worked very well for our soldiers thus far.

Q: Mr. Secretary, three years ago, didn't the Criminal Investigation Division do an investigation with regard to this and produced a handbook called the "Gang Information Handbook" -- about half an inch thick document in which they were able to document that there were soldiers in hate groups in [inaudible], Germany, and Fort Carson, Colorado, and Orlando, Florida? Don't you already know to some extent the parameters of this membership?

A: Well, we know some things. We don't know the parameters of membership as it were. We do know that, as far back as then, the Army CID was alerted to the question that it had been raised and was attempting to get the information. We know also that they did try to carry out a survey and then put it into what you're referring to as a training manual -- a manual that helps the CID to train and prepare for such things. I don't think it adds up to a report of a period now some five years ago. And I think that it's not clear that the incidents to which you are eluding referred to sizeable incidents. I've seen some reports that say there were no more than two involved in one incident and a small number in the other.


But I do think the thrust of your question is a good one and that is this: so each of the three incidents to which you refer only involve one person. That's three. That's three too many.

Q: Mr. Secretary, following up on that question. Knowing what was put out in that booklet, does it not indicate a failure on the part of the Army in following up earlier to do an investigation as to how widespread this problem is?

A: No, in fact, at least part of the results you're seeing was an effort by the Army to get a handle through the CID channels on some of this. The fact is that it is the Army's sense that when we talk about membership in extremist organizations as opposed to the forbidden thing, active participation... When we talk about membership, that it is not a widespread phenomena in any of the military services. Even so, the issue of how widespread it is, is of far less importance to us than the very fact that there is membership, that there is participation, in an isolated case or in any case. We bring in soldiers at an extremely tender age, essentially right out of high school. We separate them from their communities and from their families. We put them in an environment in which their family should be the Army and in which their mentors are the non-commissioned officers and officers. And we say to them now that we have put soldiers -- youngsters -- in this situation, that it is our obligation to be there with them, to counsel them, to mentor them. If we do that properly, we have a pretty good sense of where they go. And we also know that the family they will ally with is not the family of the streets, not the family of the underground restaurants, [but] the family of the United States Army. When, on occasion, that fails, we believe we failed the soldier and that's why we're doing this review.

Q: I'm wondering if you can separate individuals who might display flags or go to bars from people who are members in groups? What do you do about individuals whose views aren't in line with what you think they should be?

A: Well, we don't get to make a choice about whether their views are in line with what we think they should be. What we get to make a choice about is what they are doing actively. How they are acting. If they carry out actions that are inconsistent with their responsibilities, than we can act on that. You asked about individuals as opposed to groups. All of our soldiers are individuals, but we apply these regulations to everyone of them. We expect our NCO's and our unit commanders to be concerned about every individual soldier. The fact is that if we lose one -- and I don't know that we have -- but if we lose one to active participation in an extremist group, than there is something for us to be concerned about.

Q: General Reimer said yesterday that he found no need for any Army-wide review of this issue. That the previous report that's been referred to here today had indicated there was occasional what he called, "bloops on the screen", but he didn't see anything -- any need to go beyond what's happened at Fort Bragg. Did you need to persuade him that this was necessary today?

A: Well, no and I don't know that was his position yesterday. I accept your statement of it. General Reimer's view is best expressed this way; I may not have quite gotten all of his words correctly. But these are essentially the words that began with him, "It is always useful for us to make sure we know as much as we think we know." And I think at this point, having gotten a little warning, that both he and I agreed on the way we want to proceed.

Q: Mr. Secretary, what is your eventual goal? You're not going to eliminate any bigot from the Army. What is your goal with this?

A: Well, our goal is, one, to make sure we know what we think we know, and that is, that we have an Army that operates on the same principles as American society. An Army that perhaps holds itself even higher standards, because our soldiers have to live together and maneuver together and train together and fight together. They have a 220-year history of doing that very well indeed. But part of it is that, probably better than any other aspect of society, they work well together. That's inconsistent with acting out extremist views.

So, what do I hope to achieve? Another 220 years.

Q: Mr. Secretary, you mentioned that the Army doesn't get to make a choice as to what people believe, but that's when they're in the service. You do get to choose before they come in. What are you doing to review potential enlistees and make sure these kinds of folks don't get in the Army in the first place? Can you tell us about that? Are you making any changes in that?

A: I don't think we're making any changes yet, but part of this review may and if I didn't say it, then I should say it -- the purpose of the review is not just to `"assess and report", it is also to make recommendations as to whether -- on terms of policies, practices, or even the AR which one question indicated to me perhaps some folks might not read as well as others -- whether that needs to be clearer, whether there are changes we need to take -- to make.

So, the purpose is to help us find out whether we need to do something about that. In terms of your question of screening, we do ask questions and I think that's one of them. But, you may need to have me check on that.

Q: Mr. Secretary, you said before, I think, that when the soldier who was flying, or who had that flag on the wall, he was found to have had it on the wall of the barracks, he was asked to take it down and take it off base, basically. And he put it up in his room and in his private apartment, is that right?

A: Well, I didn't say that. I said I had heard that was one possibility that, perhaps, I offered that as a possibility. It is my instinct that no commander would have -- or sergeant would have -- permitted the flag to continue to fly in the barracks.

Q: I guess my question was, why didn't that lead to a wider investigation of this soldier's views and whatnot, without taking up for any particular cause? But for example, if you had found him with a dress in his closet, I can cite you a case or two where he had been out of the military on administrative discharge in a day-and-a-half.

A: I think that question, of what would move a particular commander to start an investigation, is a delicate one, indeed. And I would leave that to the commander's judgment. But, I will say this, it would certainly move the non-commissioned officer who was responsible for that youngster -- and, remember, these are folks, by and large, if you're talking about these specific cases with, what, two, at most, to three, years in the Army, newcomers youngsters -- it would certainly move that non-commissioned officer to find out a bit more about just how his soldier is doing. How are you getting along? What's affecting you these days? What's affecting your life? I have a sense that may have been done and they may have been satisfied with the answers. I don't know. But, certainly, part of our assessment is to get a sense of how that's working throughout that Army.

Q: Is it a survey? Are you going down to commanders and asking them to draw up papers? What? How is this going to work?

A: What I have requested, and I what I expect General Jordan to now flush out in greater detail before he begins, is an interdisciplinary team, not just members of the Inspector General's office. He is to head it. He is to have the power that he has in that position. But, I expect to see other departments -- senior Department of the Army offices contribute to it. What I expect them to do is to carry out an assessment that includes visiting some of our largest installations in the continental United States. One of the additional credentials that Major General Jordan has is that he commanded one of our largest bases, when he commanded the Armor Center. I expect them to visit, as they see fit, Europe and Korea as well. I want them to tell me, to tell the Chief of Staff, to tell all of us how our Army is doing in this arena and what our Army is doing and how we can, if we need to, make adjustments. We have great confidence, but we need to be assured that that confidence is worthwhile.

Q: Mr. Secretary, we don't know, specifically, how but, maybe, Major General Jordan will be in charge of finding this out?

A: Yes.

Q: In view of what happened in Fayetteville and because of the questions which have been raised as a result of it, and even before the reporting period of March 1, isn't there wisdom in having a service-wide standdown to train or to have a tutorial on the proper behavior and what is expected of the soldiers with regard to race relations and membership in hate organizations?

A: Standdown is your question. Whether a standdown would be a good idea. I think there are lots of useful ways in which we can approach this and I notice that the Navy has used standdowns to good effect. I don't think that is what is called for here. I am not prepared to standdown some of our Army activities for a day. We have some things underway that simply need to continue unabated. At the same time, I think we need to take this seriously, because how our soldiers are doing is a serious matter -- how they feel about themselves, how they feel about each other. So, no. I don't think a standdown is appropriate, but I don't mean that to suggest that we are taking this any less seriously as a result.

Q: Either in this investigation or, perhaps, one that might be ongoing now, whether anyone is looking at the chain of command in Fort Bragg and how they fit into all this, whether anybody, at any level, knew about these activities and actually did anything about them?

A: Well, I think -- now, when you say "knew about these activities", let's be careful that I'm not accepting precisely the premise of that question. What we know, so far, is that there is some indication that some soldiers, numbers unknown, have had membership in some groups, at least that is what we think we know. And even that awaits further investigation and explication. "Involvement" in activities, translated into "active participation" in an extremist organization or a hate group -- different matter. I don't know that and it's not clear to me that we will know that for awhile.

But your question is about the chain of command and being in touch with them. Well, I'm in touch with most of my commanders around the country and around the globe fairly much and I expect to be in touch with them. One more and then I'm done. Is that right?


Q: Could you define for us what an extremist group is? There seems to be, in the field, some confusion in that it is the command-level, when it comes to restrictions of bars and commercial activities?

A: I think that that is one of the more difficult questions in terms of my old job as a former general counsel of the Department of Defense or just sort of drawing a fine lawyerly line. I think one of the reasons that we don't prohibit membership, in the Department of Defense, is that would put us right back in the old organization rating game that used to exist when we had the old attorney generals list of prohibited organizations. I think what we are trying to do is to say that, in the military -- all of our military units -- that a determination of what is happening in the good order and discipline of those units is to be made up of lowest possible level, right there with the unit commander and the NCO. And that we expect them to look at the question of whether any activity, any involvement in any organization, extremists or otherwise, when translated into action involves a threat to the welfare and the efficiency and effectiveness of that unit. And because I use that term so often, let me translate it more directly: And to the ability of members of that unit to work together, without regard to origin or background, to preserve the interest of the United States and all of its citizens whatever their ethnicity.

Q: Mr. Secretary, could I just -- excuse me. I'm sorry. I just wanted to clear up one thing. You said earlier, or you suggested, that these people could belong to these groups as long as they didn't actively promote it. In other words, a soldier could join the American Nazi Party as long as he didn't hang a swastika in the barracks and pound the pulpit in the barracks and scream and shoot people.

A: Under the DoD directive in our regulation, you're almost right. But the degree to which you're wrong is very important to us. Membership alone in an organization is not forbidden by any policy of the Department of Defense or of the Army. Active participation in extremist activities and in the membership of those groups is forbidden. And it doesn't take a murder or a shouting to get you. It takes things such as I described earlier: passing out literature; recruiting others; going to meetings in uniform; and a whole host of things, that involve demonstration of active involvement in those activities.

Let me say one other thing. In the same Army regulation, we point out that this membership is not without its disadvantages, membership alone. For example, membership in an extremist organization, even without active participation, can be noted when being considered for promotion, can be noted when being considered for career advancement, can be noted on the efficiency reports of officers and enlisted, can be a factor in everyday judgments by superiors about how that soldier is doing and how well that soldier is doing his or her job.

Thank you all.

Press: Thank you.

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