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Rooting out extremism in the military is a tall task — but a necessary one

Rooting out extremism in the military is a tall task — but a necessary one
© Greg Nash

Secretary of Defense Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinFive questions about Biden withdrawal from Afghanistan Secret Facebook groups of special operations officers include racist comments, QAnon posts: report New US sanctions further chill Biden-Putin relations MORE recently convened military leaders and ordered all military commands to focus on rooting out extremism in the ranks for 60 days. The move follows the identification of at least 10 suspects with military ties — primarily National Guard and Reserve veterans — accused of participating in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. As it proceeds, the Pentagon must be careful to look beyond the active-duty force — often its core focus as the full-time guardians of our country — to the part-time Guard and Reserve troops most likely to be called upon to confront domestic armed extremists, yet who are also the most difficult to monitor.

The military has confronted extremism in its ranks throughout its existence, but the rise of extremist violence after the 2020 election has triggered an extraordinary response. Prior to Secretary Austin’s directive, former acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller directed Pentagon officials to toughen policies and regulations banning extremist activities in the military. Pentagon leaders are investigating their own reaction to the insurrection. Both the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Army leaders issued reminders to the entire military force of their allegiance to the Constitution. The Defense Department inspector general launched an investigation into the effectiveness of policies that prohibit service members from participation in extremist groups.  And Pentagon officials are considering monitoring the social media posts of service members for extremist propaganda. 

Whatever changes the Pentagon makes, policing a large population with the freedom to engage in activities outside of work will be challenging. Yet policing active-duty troops for extremist ties will be somewhat eased by the ability of military leaders to interact with their subordinates daily. Unlike many employers, active-duty leaders oversee close-knit units and face strict accountability for their service members’ whereabouts, positioning them to observe each day whether their troops are involved in extremist activities. The residency of their troops in the local community increases the odds that extremist activity will come to light. Capt. Emily Rainey, one of the first service members identified among the Jan. 6 insurrectionists, had received a career-ending reprimand before she traveled to the Capitol — effectively forcing her out of the Army — for her activity near Fort Bragg before the riot.

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However, sifting through the ranks for extremism is a much taller task for the “weekend warriors” in the Guard and Reserve. National Guardsmen and reservists participate in military activities for as little as two days per month, spending the remainder of their lives as civilians without close military supervision. Although they undergo the same initial recruit vetting as active-duty troops, that one-time screening leaves a career-long risk of exposure to extremism that can go unnoticed

Those who receive security clearances are typically investigated only every five to 10 years — long periods during which extremist activity can go undetected. When these part-time service members are arrested or charged with a crime in their civilian lives — typically outside the reach of the military justice system — local commanders, themselves part time, often rely on informal relationships with local authorities to learn of the information. If part-time service members reside far away from their military units, their commanders may not learn of it at all, potentially allowing criminals and extremists to continue their military service until records checks are conducted upon a reenlistment.

This problem is especially acute for the National Guard, which is usually tasked with domestic duties and therefore most at risk of being called upon to confront the kinds of armed rioters and extremists that have shown force over the past year. National Guard units can be mobilized by state governors and the federal government. When under state control, they are often tasked with law enforcement duties such as safeguarding government buildings, responding to riots and crime, and even direct confrontations with the types of groups responsible for the Jan. 6 riots — powers denied to active-duty and reserve forces under constitutional law. That some of these trusted public servants could be actively involved and even charged with extremism and crime, yet unwittingly deployed to confront it, is worthy of concern.

The case-by-case screening of the 25,000 Guardsmen deployed to Washington was both unprecedented and unsustainable given the dizzying pace of Guard and Reserve deployments in the modern era. Instead, the Pentagon can implement a robust and automated continuous evaluation system — akin to security clearance investigation reforms under way — that allows for regular records checks and social media monitoring of service members. Service members can be asked to consent to at least limited monitoring as part of the terms of their service.

As important, Congress can enact legislation that requires state and local law enforcement authorities to notify the military as soon as information about service member-related extremism surfaces. To facilitate this, Congress also can improve local and state law enforcement access to records indicating military status so that military members suspected of extremism, part time or otherwise, can be identified immediately. Finally, the Pentagon can shore up legal resources at Guard and Reserve units around the country to ensure that action can be taken in a timely manner when criminal activity or law enforcement intelligence of extremism occurs.

If the attack on the Capitol was merely the latest example of extremist violence in America, the military must retain its capabilities and the public trust necessary to help bring its end.

Phil Caruso is a former officer and investigator with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. He is an Afghanistan war veteran. The views expressed here are his alone.