- Chuck Leek, a former neo-Nazi and Navy airman, told us how he recruited other military members into his hate group.
- The US military still does not specifically ban members of white supremacist groups.
- More than a third of troops say they’ve seen white supremacists in the ranks.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Chuck Leek spent parts of his life working toward and hoping for a riot like the one that happened at the US Capitol on January 6.
He’s a former neo-Nazi, and now he’s speaking out about how his past in the military is relevant to policy today.
“I didn’t become an active, actual white supremacist until after I had joined the Navy,” Leek told Insider.
Leek is a former airman first class in the US Navy. He was also a skinhead who lured new members from the naval base where he fixed helicopters.
The FBI called them “ghost skins” over a decade ago – skinheads blending into society and slipping into law enforcement to infiltrate and recruit, stir up investigative breaches, spread a tolerance of racism, and jeopardize the safety of law enforcement sources and personnel.
“I spent a long time grooming and recruiting people,” Leek said. “I absolutely know that the rank and file in the military understand the depth of the problem.”
More than a third of troops say they’ve seen white supremacists in the ranks, according to a 2017 poll, and the military still does not specifically ban members of white supremacist groups.
Insider spoke with Leek at his home in San Diego to find out how he recruited from the ranks and what it will take to root out white supremacy in the military.
When he watched the January 6 riot from California, Leek said he felt partly responsible.
“That was kind of a gut-wrenching day,” Leek said. “For a good chunk of my life, I was actively seeking something like that. You know, the downfall of the government, chaos in America, and collapse of society.”
As many as one in five of the people who stormed the US Capitol had military experience, according to the George Washington University Program on Extremism. The insurrection was the most serious in an escalating number of attacks by far-right militants in public, said Mike German, a former FBI Special Agent who spent time undercover investigating white supremacy groups.
“There was talk of, ‘How do we get the skills that we want to use to create an event so significant that it would spark race war?'” German told Insider.
“Recruiting strategy was to get military members for the training, for access to the hardware,” Leek said. “Specifically with skinheads that have infiltrated law enforcement, the greatest danger is that they can get access to people of color and harm them.”
Leek recruited other military members to his hate group.
In 1988, the local news ran a three-part series on Chuck’s white supremacist gang. Leek spoke of “skinhead and white pride” in the segment and said the broadcast probably wouldn’t affect his career in the Navy, although he added, “it might.”
A white supremacist leader and former KKK grand dragon, Tom Metzger, was also featured in the report. After the story, he reached out to Leek.
“He tasked us with getting as many new people into the group as we could,” Leek said.
Metzger wanted military insiders like Leek to help bring about his white supremacist endgame: a race war and a white ethno-state.
Leek says his recruiting on the naval base had to be subtle. But he was able to spot potential recruits by how they acted around military members of color.
“In the military, you’re exposed to a lot of people of color, and you can kind of get a sense with people, white people, when they are less comfortable with that,” Leek said.
“And when they, you know, things they say, and then when people of color aren’t around, the mask tends to drop, you know? And so we would really drive after people who were free with their words.”
After the news report, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service found Nazi fliers in Chuck’s trash when it came to question him.
“Obviously, I did not tell the truth,” Leek said. “I lied about basically everything. It was actually kind of a shocker when they let us off scot-free.”
Somehow, Leek kept his job as a helicopter electrician on base. In fact, in the NCIS report, the naval investigator seemed to show sympathy for Leek.
“They were more concerned about whether or not we were safe from repercussions by other people on base,” he said.
Chuck later served two years in prison for beating a Hispanic man.
Experts are urging the US to fight extremism in the military.
Leek’s experience is not surprising to experts like Heidi Beirich, cofounder of the Global Project Against Hate & Extremism. She testified before Congress in 2020 about white supremacy in the military, and advocates for mandatory reports from the military about white supremacy among its ranks.
“None of the programs related to getting rid of white supremacists and other extremists are good enough,” she told Insider. “They barely exist.”
“Look, the most scary thing that’s going to happen if extremists are in the military is that they’re learning how to kill,” she said. “Specifically with skinheads that have infiltrated law enforcement … The greatest danger is that they can get access to people of color and harm them.”
Meanwhile, Black veterans like Victor LaGroon called white supremacy an existential threat.
“They all are a threat to our democracy, and they all are a threat to my existence,” said LaGroon, who represents 300,000 vets as the chair of the Black Veterans Empowerment Council. “So you know, I don’t care where the service member is branched or serving or what base they’re on. You’re at risk of it.”
After the Capitol riots, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered members of the armed forces to revisit their oath and discuss extremism. However, the military’s current policy allows members of white supremacist groups to be in the armed forces, so long as they aren’t “active” white supremacists.
A defense department spokesman told Insider that the military will soon update its definition of extremism and a working group will present a variety of solutions to Secretary Austin this summer.
“It isn’t confronted head-on,” said LaGroon. “It isn’t confronted consistently. There is no significant accountability for it.”
Leek wants the military to own up to its reality. But to root out white supremacy, he says the military needs to hear his story and never let it happen again.
“A zero-tolerance policy for any kind of racial incident would be a good start,” Leek said. “In 1988, they put blinders on and looked the other way. And it’s still going on today.”