The episode has only underscored the challenges the military faces in screening recruits for associations with extremist groups. That concern has gained fresh urgency since the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection, which led to the arrests of at least 32 veterans and one active-duty service member who were allegedly part of the mob.
“Shawn McCaffrey is no longer serving in the U.S. Air Force,” Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek confirmed Monday in a statement.
McCaffrey enlisted on Jan. 26, 2021, according to Stefanek. In April 2021, the Huffington Post reported that McCaffrey had deep ties to white nationalist and anti-Semitic leaders and groups.
According to the report, McCaffrey belonged to Identity Evropa and hosted a podcast that featured guests who included white supremacist Richard Spencer and Andrew Anglin, the fugitive founder of the neo-Nazi message board, The Daily Stormer.
In April 2019, the advocacy group Right Wing Watch reported that McCaffrey was booted from his volunteer role on Democrat Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign after his extremist ties came to light.
“Information brought to the attention of his command after Mr. McCaffrey’s enlistment led to an entry level separation due to erroneous enlistment,” Stefanek said.
The term “erroneous enlistment” suggests that, had the Air Force known all the facts about McCaffrey, it would not have allowed him to enlist.
Regardless, McCaffrey’s brief enlistment illustrates how far the military still has to go in tackling the issue of keeping extremists from joining its ranks.
“There has essentially been no screening process,” Heidi Beirich, an expert on American and European extremist movements, told Military.com.
“The military needs to come up with materials. They need to train the recruiters on them. They need to access databases. They haven't decided yet what to do about social media postings,” Beirich said. “In other words, that whole sort of management that needs to be in place to keep people like this Identity Evropa member out -- it doesn't exist right now.”
Stefanek said “Air Force Recruiters rely on national and local criminal background checks to help identify membership in extremist/hate organizations” and that “any military applicant that has a criminal history associated with an extremist/hate organization or gang is not qualified for entry.”
However, these screenings will miss individuals who are active members of extremist groups but who don’t have criminal records. One suggestion that has been put forward is to screen recruits’ social media profiles. Congresswoman Jackie Speier, D-Calif., called on President Biden to implement such screenings in February.
Beirich said social media screenings are more complicated to implement than they appear.
“I would say, yes, you do want to take [social media profiles] into consideration,” she said. “The second part of that is: How do you take it into consideration?”
Then there is the question of time and manpower.
A Pentagon report from February on screening recruits for extremism noted that “human analysts cannot effectively and efficiently search the Internet on the hundreds of thousands of people each year that undergo DoD background vetting.”
Both the Pentagon report and Beirich point out that there are civil liberty considerations involved, as well.
In the meantime, the problem of extremists in the ranks continues to haunt the military. Dozens of service members, including some on active duty, were arrested in connection to the Jan. 6 insurrection. The Pentagon also has acknowledged that extremist groups are actively trying to recruit military members.
One thing that has changed, though, is the attention being given to the problem.
“I've been in this game for 20 years. We finally have a president, a SECDEF [secretary of defense], leadership, all of whom are like, ‘This is a huge problem,’” Beirich said.
“We've never had that kind of seriousness.”
In April, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin released a memo that said the department plans to add new questions about current or past extremist behavior to screening questionnaires given to troops during the accession process.
But Beirich notes that despite the new attitude, changes still will come slowly.
“It's a fundamental reorganization of how the military functions on these particular issues, and it's not going to be done overnight,” she said.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.