The Republican-controlled Senate quietly cut the phrase “white nationalist” from a measure in the National Defense Authorization Act, which was intended to explicitly address the threat of white nationalists in the military, altering the language of a House-passed amendment before passing the massive military spending bill Tuesday.
The House amendment, which was passed in July, was drafted to explicitly study the feasibility of screening for white nationalist beliefs in military enlistees.
But the final version of the bill passed by the Senate and sent to President Donald Trump for his signature now only requires the Department of Defense to monitor for “extremist and gang-related activity,” rather than specifically referencing white nationalism.
“We know that white nationalist extremists are actively trying to enlist in our military, and we know they are doing so to acquire combat and weapons training,” Rep. Pete Aguilar, the congressman who introduced the House amendment, said in a statement to CNN.
“I introduced my amendment because keeping this hateful ideology out of our military is crucial to our national security and to the safety of our service members. We can’t address the problem if we won’t acknowledge there is one, which is why I was disappointed by the Senate Republicans’ decision to strike this language,” the California Democrat said.
A Senate Armed Services Committee spokesperson said Aguilar’s complaint was “absurd.”
“The language from the amendment, which was agreed to in a bipartisan vote by both House and Senate, was expanded beyond Rep. Aguilar’s amendment to include extremist organizations of all kinds: white nationalists, radical Muslims, gang members and others who aren’t suitable to join the military,” the spokesperson said.
The news comes days after the US military and naval academies launched internal investigations after cadets and midshipmen were captured on ESPN’s pre-game show for the Army-Navy game making a hand gesture that some interpreted as white nationalist and others interpreted as innocent.
In a statement Sunday night, the US Military Academy – commonly known as West Point – said its investigation is looking into the “use of hand gestures by a few Cadets” during the broadcast before Saturday’s game.
“The United States Military Academy is fully committed to developing leaders of character who embody the Army Values. I have appointed an Investigation Officer … to conduct an administrative investigation into the facts, circumstances, and intent of the Cadets in question,” Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams, superintendent of the academy, said.
The gesture in question is when someone forms the “OK” sign with their fingers and thumb – a sign that can be associated with white nationalism.
The Anti-Defamation League, which studies hate messages, said in a report earlier this year that it now considers the “OK” gesture a hate symbol in some cases.
The ADL has previously said the use of the “OK” symbol “in most contexts is entirely innocuous and harmless.” The gesture acquired new significance in 2017 after some members of the website 4CHAN claimed it represented the letters “wp” for “white power,” according to the ADL.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which has tracked extremist groups and their actions for decades, applauded the military for investigating the matter.
“It is definitely hard to know if they intended this as a white power signal, but given who these people are, they should be sure to take this very seriously. We cannot have people playing around with white supremacy in the military,” Heidi Beirich, the director of the Intelligence Project at the SPLC, told CNN. “If nothing else, it’s a teachable moment. Even if they didn’t mean it. They should know that the symbol now has two very different meanings.”
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said on Monday that he doesn’t believe white nationalism is a problem in the military.
“I don’t believe it’s an issue in the military. There is no room whatsoever for anybody to have – to be a white nationalist or to be a member of any hate group whatsoever or harbor anything like that,” Esper said to reporters while flying back to Washington from a ceremony in Luxembourg marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. “That said, I understand some claims were made. I also understand that both academies are investigating these and we’ll see what comes out.”
CNN’s Kevin Bohn, Sara Sidner and Ryan Browne contributed to this report