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Hispanic lawmakers press Pentagon on extremism in the military

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus is urging Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to prevent the enlistment of individuals in the military with ties to white supremacist ideologies or groups, according to a letter sent to the Pentagon on Tuesday that was exclusively obtained by CBS News. 

The group requested a meeting with Austin by the end of April to discuss the issue. 

"As members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, we write to express our concerns about extremism within the United States military, especially white supremacy, and right-wing radicalism within the ranks," the letter states.  

In a statement on Wednesday, the Defense Department said that "as with all congressional correspondence, we will respond directly to the authors of the letter."

The lawmakers point to the involvement of violent extremists during the January 6 insurrection at the U.S Capitol. A CBS News analysis found authorities connected at least 48 alleged rioters to extremist groups while at least 36 of those arrested are current and former military members.  

"Our military should not be a training ground for white supremacists to execute the goals related to their extreme violent beliefs," the group wrote.

Caucus members also said Defense Department instructions that "prohibit military personnel from actively advocating for and participating in supremacist, extremist or criminal gang doctrine" are insufficient. They cite a 2019 survey by the Military Times and Syracuse University Institute for Veterans and Military Families that found approximately one-third of active duty troops said they have "personally witnessed examples of white nationalism or ideological-driven racism within the ranks".

In the letter, the Hispanic Caucus applauded Austin's recent service-wide order to "stand down" over a 60-day period to allow leaders within each branch of the armed forces to hold discussions on extremism. Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby called it an "initial step" to address the issue.

"The events of January 6 served as a wake-up call for this Department. It certainly served as such for the Secretary" Kirby told reporters last month. 

Austin, who is the first African-American Defense Secretary in U.S history, has made combating extremism a priority. During his confirmation hearing in January, the retired four-star general told the Senate Armed Services Committee he would work with service leaders to set the "right climate".

"The activity that we have seen recently in terms of potential racist or extremist behavior within our ranks is in my view unacceptable," Austin testified. "This is not something we can be passive on."

The caucus touted provisions in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act to track and report white supremacist and extremist activities by service members and said it hoped to work with Austin and the White House to restore other measures that were stripped from the legislation in the last Congress.

The letter was signed by caucus leaders including Chair Raul Ruiz and Representatives Nanette Diaz Barragán, Adriano Espaillat, Darren Soto and Teresa Leger Fernández.

Eleanor Watson contributed to this report.

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