In the aftermath of the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray vowed to muster the full investigative powers of his agency to bring “violent agitators and extremists” to justice.
The ensuing investigation, billed as “unprecedented” in its scale and scope, has led to the prosecution of more than 70 people, who could face sedition charges punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
The investigation has also shed light on a chilling reality: A striking number of law enforcement officers, active-duty military members and veterans took part in the Jan. 6 pro-Trump rally that turned violent.
The radicalization of law enforcement forces and the military signals how deeply extremism — steeped in racism and anti-government convictions — has penetrated the institutions that are supposed to protect Americans.
Federal prosecutors have indicted two Virginia police officers and two military veterans from Alabama and Texas for their roles in the riot, which resulted in the deaths of five people — including U.S. Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick.
Sicknick was fatally struck in the head with a fire extinguisher as the mob stormed and vandalized the Capitol, beat police officers, and — as egged on by President Donald Trump — hunted lawmakers to stop them from voting to certify Joe Biden’s win in the November election.
Ashli Babbitt, an Air Force veteran-turned-QAnon follower, was also killed in the melee — from a gunshot wound sustained while trying to force her way into the House chamber.
The two Virginia police officers were arrested this week, days after their selfie taken inside the Capitol was posted on social media and went viral.
The two military veterans were arrested earlier. The Alabama man was taken into custody hours after allegedly driving his truck to the Capitol carrying 11 molotov cocktails and an assortment of loaded weapons. The Texas man was indicted three days after being photographed on the Senate floor wearing combat gear and carrying zip-tie handcuffs, commonly used by law enforcement officers.
Across the country, more than a dozen law enforcement agencies have been investigating whether their own members took part in the riot, leading to swift consequences in some cases, according to news accounts and official statements reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity.
The Capitol Police said it has suspended “several” of its officers — including one seen taking a selfie with rioters and another wearing a Make America Great Again cap while directing rioters at the Capitol — and placed more than a dozen others under investigation.
In Troy, New Hampshire, calls for resignation have been growing louder for the town’s police chief, who attended the Jan. 6 rally — though he condemned the storming of the Capitol, telling New York Magazine that it’s “not going to solve a thing.”
The Pentagon is also investigating the roles any active-duty military members may have played in the riot. This includes the case of an Army officer who led a group of about 100 Trump supporters from North Carolina to the Jan. 6 rally.
According to Military Times, Capt. Emily Rainey resigned her commission before making her trip to Washington, D.C., though she remains on active-duty status. “I was a private citizen and doing everything right and within my rights,” she told The Associated Press.
The mounting reports of rioters in law enforcement and military ranks have alarmed congressional leaders, who are calling for a crackdown on extremists.
In a letter to Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller on Monday, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, asked the Pentagon to work with the FBI and the Capitol Police to investigate whether any active-duty military member or veteran “engaged in insurrection or participated in a seditious conspiracy” against the country last week.
“Upholding good order and discipline demands that the U.S. Armed Forces root out extremists that infiltrate the military and threaten our national security,” wrote Duckworth, a combat veteran who served in Iraq.
To be sure, the threat of extremism embedded in law enforcement and the military is nothing new. A number of prominent extremist groups — such as the Oath Keepers, founded in 2009 by an Army veteran — have made recruiting from law enforcement and military ranks central to their mission.
Last year, a survey by Military Times found extremist views were rampant within the military, with more than one-third of all active-duty members saying they had recently witnessed examples of white nationalism and/or racism.
The need to address the threat has taken on urgency this week, in light of the FBI’s warning about armed right-wing demonstrations, ahead of Biden’s inauguration, at all 50 state capitols and in Washington, D.C.
This week, the U.S. Secret Service began taking command of security preparations at the Capitol and other federal buildings, backed by as many as 20,000 members of the National Guard and thousands of police officers.
On Tuesday, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the uniformed leaders of the military branches, took the rare step of issuing a memo to troops condemning the riot at the Capitol and warning them to follow the law.
“The rights of freedom of speech and assembly do not give anyone the right to resort to violence, sedition and insurrection,” the memo said. “We support and defend the Constitution. Any act to disrupt the constitutional process is not only against our traditions, values, and oath; it is against the law.”
But it will require a more sustained effort, fueled by community pressure, to root out extremism in law enforcement and the military, said Devin Burghart, executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, a Seattle-based group monitoring far-right groups.
Burghart said the riot at the Capitol was “a vivid reminder that both law enforcement and the military have severe problems on their hands that need to be addressed.”
“That should be a wake-up call to all Americans about how deeply the efforts by far-right groups to infiltrate into law enforcement and the military have taken root,” Burghart said. “It’s going to require a lot of work to reverse that.”
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