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WASHINGTON — Gang membership among military personnel for the first time would be specifically forbidden under language outlined in the 2008 Defense authorization bill.

Current department regulations prohibit membership in any organizations that “espouse supremacist causes; attempt to create illegal discrimination … advocate the use of force or violence; or otherwise engage in efforts to deprive individuals of their civil rights.”

But they don’t explicitly list street gangs among those groups, an issue lawmakers and law enforcement officials have criticized as a way to overlook possible gang affiliation among troops in the ranks.

“I’ve heard from police officers across the country that there are problems with gangs on posts,” said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., who introduced the amendment.

“The FBI suggests there are problems not only in the states but on bases abroad. So somebody hasn’t been serious enough.”

Earlier this year, Army Criminal Investigation Command announced a jump in gang-related crimes, from 23 incidents worldwide in fiscal 2005 to 60 in fiscal 2006. An FBI report found links between gangs and at least seven military facilities in the U.S. and gang activity and graffiti in bases in Germany, Italy, Japan and Iraq.

Both agencies classified gangs as a small but growing problem within the ranks.

All four services have rules allowing commanders to discipline or dismiss servicemembers found working with gangs, but the new bill language would be the first departmentwide standard specifically banning those associations.

Department spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington said officials there do not expect any changes in policing of troops as a result of the amendment because the current regulation “is already broad enough to prohibit active participation in criminal gangs.”

But he added they did not oppose the language change, to explicitly state that troops must reject participation in gangs.

“Although the Department’s statistics do not support the conclusion that gang problems in the military are pervasive or significantly on the rise, anything that negatively affects readiness or undermines military values is of concern,” he said.

Thompson, a Vietnam veteran, said he hopes the new language also spurs more investigation into the problem by military officials. He said in many instances defense investigators don’t have the same resources of agencies such as the FBI to recognize or identify gang affiliation.

“We want to make sure they’re sharing the same list, identifying problems and minimizing the opportunity for gang members to get in (the military),” he said.

He added that he has discussed the issue with defense officials, and hopes to see more progress on weeding out gang members in coming months. Withington said officials are already working with FBI experts on accessing their gang databases.

House and Senate negotiators finalized their work on the 2008 Defense authorization bill earlier this month. The House gave final approval to the measure Wednesday, and the Senate passed it Friday. It now goes to President Bush to sign into law.


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