WASHINGTON -- The Army, shocked by last week's arrest of two openly white-supremacist paratroopers for allegedly murdering a black couple near Fort Bragg, N.C., launched a new probe yesterday to determine the extent to which soldiers are participating in hate groups.
The investigation, to be conducted by the Army inspector-general, was announced by Army Secretary Togo D. West Jr. after he conferred with Defense Secretary William J. FTC Perry and Gen. Dennis J. Reimer, the Army chief of staff. It is expected to be completed by March 1.
Mr. West, who is black, told reporters at a briefing that participation in such hate groups is "simply inconsistent" with Army policy, and he vowed that "we will not have it" in the Army. Mr. Perry also said there was "no place for racial hatred or extremism in the U.S. military."
The slaying in North Carolina was only the latest such incident to besiege the Army this year. The service also suffered embarrassment after it was discovered that those charged in the Oklahoma City bombing of a federal building that killed 169 in April began their association in the Army.
Discussing the North Carolina incident, Mr. West parried questions about why commanders at Fort Bragg did not take firmer action to deal with the two paratroopers when their sympathies with so-called "skinhead" groups were discovered, saying the case still is under investigation.
Army officials have said repeatedly they are under constraints as to how far field commanders may go in taking action against free expression of views -- no matter how distasteful -- without violating an officer's or soldier's constitutional rights.
Last Thursday's slaying, in which a black man and woman were shot as they were walking along a street in Fayetteville, N.C., stunned both the military and the local community and sparked an FBI investigation of the incident as a civil rights case.
Local police said they had found that one of the paratroopers charged -- Pvt. James Norman Burmeister II, 20, of Thompson, Pa. -- apparently was open about his white-supremacist views, hanging a Nazi flag over his bed and often wearing neo-Nazi "skinhead" garb.
Another paratrooper alleged to have taken part in the shooting, Pvt. Malcolm Wright, 21, of Lexington, Ky., also was charged with first-degree murder. A third, Spec. Randy Lee Meadows Jr., 21, of Mulkeytown, Ill., was charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit murder.
Fayetteville police told reporters last week that in searching Private Burmeister's mobile-home apartment, they found a Nazi flag, white-supremacist literature and pamphlets on Adolf Hitler.
Mr. West rejected suggestions that he order an Army-wide "stand-down" -- to stop all training and activities for a day of lectures about Army policy on extremist activities -- as the Marine Corps and the Navy have done in response to recent sexual harassment incidents.
With the service getting ready for deployment to Bosnia, he indicated, "I am not prepared to stand down Army activities. I don't think that is what is called for here."
Army regulations prohibit soldiers from "participation" in organizations that espouse supremacist causes, seek to create illegal discrimination or advocate violence. But "passive" activities, such as membership or receiving literature, are merely discouraged.