Enter “Shawn Michael McCaffrey” into Google and it doesn’t take long for his white supremacist beliefs to show up. In fact, the first search result is a link about his history of posting extremist views on social media and farther down is a link documenting his membership in the white nationalist group Identity Evropa.

Google searches may not be the best way of evaluating a person’s character, but they’re at least worth a follow-up question, especially if you’re an Air Force recruiter determining whether McCaffrey is qualified to wear the country’s uniform and be responsible for its security.

But those follow-up questions appear to have never been asked, since the 28-year-old McCaffrey is currently an airman first class in the service, Air Force spokesperson Ann Stefanek said in an email to Task & Purpose.

“We were recently made aware of this allegation, and Air Force officials are looking into it,” she said. “We were not aware of the allegations during the enlistment process. No further information or details of this allegation can be released until the facts involving this allegation are fully reviewed.”

McCaffrey’s beliefs and his membership in the Air Force were first reported by HuffPost on Saturday in a damning article revealing McCaffrey’s widespread espousal of white supremacist, anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic beliefs. Among the airman’s many extremist posts, tweets, videos and other activities are the following, according to HuffPost:

  • Was a member of Identity Evropa, a white nationalist group that helped organize the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. in 2017
  • Featured prominently in propaganda material for Identity Evropa
  • Attended a conference held by Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer in Washington D.C. shortly after the election of former President Donald Trump
  • Performed white-supremacist insider jokes at an anti-Trump protest
  • Hosted a podcast called “The Weekly Sweat” where he and other white nationalists lambasted Jews, women, LGTBQ people and Muslims, and interviewed at least five major figures in the white supremacist movement
  • Said ‘fuck the troops’ in a March 2020 episode of the online alt-right show “The Killstream”
  • Said “it seems like every Marine is gay” in a “Weekly Sweat” episode where he also said “I really hope we get into a war soon so you fucking faggots have to go defend sand and die and have all your friends die.”

Shortly after he became Secretary of Defense in January, retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin called for a military-wide stand-down to address extremism. But nobody stopped McCaffrey from pledging the oath of enlistment on Jan. 26, HuffPost reported.

As part of the accession process, Air Force recruiters ask questions about criminal activities and extremist activities and associations and use national and local criminal background checks to scan for extremist ties in potential recruits, according to Stefanek. But background checks will detect a person’s extremist ties only if they have been charged with a crime related to their beliefs, according to HuffPost, which means a recruit like McCaffrey would have passed those checks.

So what are we to make of this? The military talks a big game about how extremism is a threat to readiness, but recruiters appear to have few tools to screen potential recruits for links to extremist groups or behavior before they join up.

Yet McCaffrey isn’t the only one. A Pentagon report released in February cited more than 20 examples of service members and veterans who were either members of white supremacist groups or unaffiliated white supremacists. Separately, Task & Purpose has compiled a list of nearly two dozen current and former Marines who have been involved in extremist activity since 2017, such as two Marine veterans arrested in October for allegedly planning to kidnap Michigan’s governor.

Other examples include the 27 veterans facing charges over their alleged involvement in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, which represented 20% of the nearly 140 people facing similar charges at the time, NPR reported in January.

Even before the U.S. Capitol riots, the Air Force took more than a year to discharge Tech Sgt. Cory Reeves, a Colorado-based airman and a fellow alleged member of Identity Evropa. Reeves was investigated by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations in 2019 for allegedly distributing white supremacist propaganda. He was initially busted down from the rank of master sergeant in September, 2019, and was discharged almost exactly a year later.

Whether Reeves showed signs of extremist behavior when he first joined the Air Force is unclear. But even if he had, flagging recruits for ties to extremist groups is easier said than done.

“Human analysts cannot effectively and efficiently search the Internet on the hundreds of thousands of people each year that undergo DoD background vetting,” according to the Pentagon report from February.

defense secretary lloyd austin
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin walks with the commander of Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan, Army Lt. Gen. E. John Deedrick Jr., before departing Kabul, Afghanistan, March 21, 2021. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

Even if they could do that, there are lots of ways for recruits to hide any signs of extremism online. Potential recruits must give their consent to have their social media postings checked; DoD cannot collect information on people not affiliated with the military; and it is often challenging to identify who has posted content on social media that raises red flags.

“The prevalence of common names (e.g., Robert Smith), the savvy use of privacy settings, and even simple communication under an alias that cannot be linked directly to known personally identifiable information (e.g., full name, e-mail address, school) make identity resolution time-consuming and difficult,” says the report, which urges personal contact with both recruiters and investigators to help “[fill] in the gaps” to identify extremists who may not have much online activity.

To make it even more difficult, DoD can only look at publicly available content, but domestic extremists often communicate over encrypted platforms such as Discord, Telegram, 8chan. Plus, they often speak in an Internet cipher that uses obscure acronyms, symbols and tattoos such as “88” for “HH,” or “Heil Hitler” or “WMSTEOOPAAFFWC” for “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”

Still, it’s not impossible for the military to at least try to root out extremism in its ranks or attempt to stop extremist recruits from joining up. After all, Task & Purpose reported last month how helpful an extremism stand-down in the Army was for informing leadership of all the subtle ways racism can damage the lives and careers of soldiers of color.

“Communication is key,” said one official, about addressing racism and extremism. “It might not affect you directly … But if it affects your unit, it affects you indirectly.” 

Air Force spokesperson Ann Stefanek said the branch is similarly committed to addressing extremism in its ranks.

“Racism, bigotry, hatred, and discrimination have no place in the Air Force,” she said. “We are committed to maintaining a culture where all Airmen feel welcome and can thrive.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that McCaffrey helped organize the “Unite the Right” rally. It has been updated to state that he was a member of the group that did so.