[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – During today’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the nomination of General Lloyd Austin to be Secretary of Defense, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Austin discussed several pressing issues facing the Department of Defense.
White Supremacy and Extremism in the Military
Last week, following the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol, Blumenthal led a group of fourteen Democratic senators in calling for the Department of Defense to investigate and address white supremacy and extremist ideology in the ranks of the military. During today’s hearing – which took place as reports broken that at least two members of the National Guard had been removed from their duties during the inauguration due to their ties with extremist organizations – Blumenthal and Austin discussed the need to conduct an “immediate and intensive investigation of the prevalence of white supremacy and extremist ideology” in the military. Austin shared his personal experience serving in an infantry division that discovered extremist elements in its ranks and learning “that the signs for that activity were there all along; we just didn't know what to look for or what to pay attention to but we learned from that.” Austin concluded: “This has no place in the military of the United States of America.”
During today’s hearing, Austin committed to Blumenthal that he would conduct a top-down review of the Department of Defense’s cyber operations after Blumenthal referenced “the most recent attack on our country was by Russia which, for months, literally intruded, interfered and attacked our nation in cyberspace.”
Blumenthal and Austin discussed the “immense role” the Department of Defense has to play in combating climate change, and Blumenthal advocated for “the use and procurement of clean energy” and other energy efficiency steps the Pentagon could take to establish “environmental values and provide leadership for the whole world.”
Military Sexual Assault
Blumenthal announced that he is working on legislation to support survivors of sexual assault in the military by creating liability “for perpetrators and for the Department of Defense…so that the survivors would have a right of action.” Austin expressed his interest in reviewing the legislation and in working with Blumenthal to counter sexual assault in the military.
The Military Supply Chain
Blumenthal thanks Austin for his focus on “our supply chain, our work force, our defense industrial base” in Austin’s written remarks, noting the importance of defense manufacturing to Connecticut.
The District of Columbia National Guard
Blumenthal advocated for legislation to grant the Mayor of Washington, DC authority over the District of Columbia National Guard, nothing that “a lot of the very unfortunate lack of planning and coordination between federal and local agencies that has been on display over recent months, in my view, is attributable to the lack of that power on the part of, in effect, the locally empowered official here.”
The full text of Blumenthal’s exchange with Austin is copied below.
U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT): Thanks, Mr. Chairman. General Austin, Mr. Austin, thank you for being here today. Thank you for your extraordinary career of service, which I deeply respect and admire. My opposition to the waiver is not personal. It’s a matter of principal, and I want to move on to the merits of the policy issues that will confront you, if confirmed. In my view, you have expressed clearly and cogently your commitment to strengthening civilian control over the military, which you would implement if confirmed.
First, I have been deeply alarmed as have been many of my colleagues by the rise of white supremacist and extremist ideology in the military. You and I have discussed it. The latest signs are in fact that two National Guard members have been removed from their duties regarding the inaugural because of their potential links to extremist sentiments or organizations.
Last week, I led thirteen of my colleagues in a letter to the Department of Defense Inspector General asking for an immediate and intensive investigation of the prevalence of white supremacy and extremist ideology.
I’m asking for your commitment that you will cooperate with and support that investigation. Shortly after our letter, the Department of Defense indicated it was going to do an evaluation of that issue, but I want an intensive investigation and action to counter it. I look forward, hopefully, to work with you in countering and combating this very important threat.
Secretary-designate Lloyd Austin: I certainly look forward to working with you on this, Senator. I think this is critical. I would share a story with you that, from my past, where when I was a lieutenant colonel working in probably one of the finest organizations in the Army, 82nd Airborne Division, we woke up one day and discovered that we had extremists elements in our ranks. And they did bad things that we certainly held them accountable for. But we discovered that the signs for that activity were there all along. We just didn't know what to look for or what to pay attention to, but we learned from that.
And I think this is one of those things that's important to our military to make sure that we keep a handle on, to make sure our leaders are doing the right things, they're taking care of their troops, they understand, they know their troops, and we can never take our hands off the wheel on this. This has no place in the military of the United States of America.
Blumenthal: Thank you very much. I really appreciate that answer. You mentioned in your testimony the importance of the Chinese threat, the need to focus on it. But the most recent attack on our country was by Russia which, for months, literally intruded, interfered and attacked our nation in cyberspace. In part because, as General Nakasone testified to us, our adversaries do not fear us – that's exactly what he said – in the cyber domain.
I'd like to ask you to commit to conducting a top-down review of our cyber operations including DoD’s posture and structure and to making our adversaries pay a price when they attack us, as the Russians did, through SolarWind.
Austin: You have my commitment that I will conduct that review. I think there's a review ongoing now to really ascertain what transpired. I'll join that if confirmed, in stride, and I really look forward to understanding, with clarity, what really happened. And I truly believe – well, the FBI and NSA have given Russia credit for this. They have attributed this activity to Russia, and if that's the case, I think Russia should be held accountable. That's my personal belief.
Blumenthal: Thank you. Environmental action and climate change are more important than ever. I know the President-elect is going to focus on it. As you and I have discussed in our meeting, the Department of Defense has an immense role to play. I welcome your comments on PFAS and increasing resilience of our military installation.
I'd like to work with you on a total program or plan for the Department of Defense beyond the magnitude of what is done now, and I know you've indicated your interests in it, so I'm not going to ask questions about it but I do think that the use and procurement of clean energy, the energy efficiency steps that DoD can take will not only save dollars, it will save energy and environmental values and provide leadership for the whole world.
I want to focus on military sexual assault, which my colleague, Senator Gillibrand, did so well before, and say that I'm working on legislation that would create liability for perpetrators and for the Department of Defense for sexual misconduct among service members so that the survivors would have a right of action. They would be empowered to take action. Will you support that kind of legislation, sir?
Austin: I certainly look forward to reviewing what's in the legislation, Senator, and would love to have that discussion with you once I've had the ability to do that. I just want to take a moment to thank both you and Senator Gillibrand for your tremendous work, especially Senator Gillibrand, for the work that you have both done, to counter sexual assault in our ranks. And if confirmed, I look forward to working with both of you on this issue.
Blumenthal: I appreciate that point. Let me just say, I welcome and appreciate your focus in your written remarks in answers to specific questions on the need to focus on our suppliers, our supply chain, our work force, our defense industrial base. It's very important to Connecticut where we are the submarine capital of the world at Electric Boat, and where a trained work force is especially important but the supply chain equally so.
I'd like you to review, because I'm out of time, legislation that I've proposed that would give the mayor of the District of Columbia the same powers that governors have over the National Guard. Because a lot of the very unfortunate lack of planning and coordination between federal and local agencies that has been on display over recent months, in my view, is attributable to the lack of that power on the part of, in effect, the locally empowered official here.