Lawmakers move to oust extremists from military
Lawmakers are taking matters into their own hands to prevent white supremacists and other extremists from joining and remaining in the military.
Following the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol — and the subsequent revelation that nearly 1 in 5 people charged in connection with the riot have some form of military background — Congress plans to insert language into this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to address extremism at the Pentagon and other federal agencies.
“The attack on our Capitol was an insurrection fueled in large part by groups that espouse the same extreme white supremacists’ views groups that actively recruit veterans and from the ranks of our military,” Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.) said in a statement to The Hill.
“We must recommit ourselves to rooting these beliefs out of our ranks, protecting our servicemembers from radicalization and ensuring all Americans feel safe serving the country we all love,” he added.
Concerns about extremists in the ranks were thrust into the national spotlight after the Jan. 6 insurrection. At least 27 of the more than 140 individuals charged in the attack have served or are currently serving in the U.S. military. The Department of Defense (DOD) has struggled with how best to root out white nationalists and extremists among its soldiers, sailors and airmen.
A defense official told The Hill that of the 143 notifications of investigation the Pentagon received from the FBI last year of former and current military members, 68 concerned domestic extremism cases. The official stressed that the vast majority were former military, many with unfavorable discharge records.
Still, roughly one-third of active-duty service members said they had “personally witnessed examples of white nationalism or ideological-driven racism within the ranks in recent months,” according to a 2019 poll conducted by the Military Times and the Syracuse University Institute for Veterans and Military Families.
“We know that some groups actively attempt to recruit our personnel into their cause, or actually encourage their members to join the military for purpose of acquiring skills and experience,” a senior Pentagon official told reporters earlier this month.
To address the issue, the Pentagon is now conducting a review of its policies on extremist activity in the services.
The Defense Department’s inspector general also plans to look into whether the agency has adequate procedures in place to prevent those with extreme views from entering and staying in the military, as ordered in the fiscal 2021 NDAA that became law before former President Trump left office.
But lawmakers don’t plan to wait for the results of those two reviews before taking action.
“We must better vet recruits for extremist ideologies, tackle the issues of white supremacy and domestic terror in an organized and bipartisan process and focus on ensuring our military academies are training the next generation of leaders that look like America,” said Brown, a top member of the House Armed Services Committee and member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Brown said he has been in touch with the Biden administration as well as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin about these issues.
On the other side of the Capitol, senators are looking at how the Pentagon is implementing provisions ordered in the 2021 NDAA before crafting legislation for this year’s bill, according to a spokesperson for Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The committee “will carefully monitor how DOD implements these provisions, and future legislation might be informed by what the committee learns from DOD’s updates,” the spokesperson said.
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), meanwhile, plans to work with his Senate colleagues and the Biden administration to “root out hate in our military,” his office said.
Bennet last year offered an amendment to the annual defense bill that would require the Pentagon report to Congress on the prevalence of white supremacy and other extremist ideologies within the armed forces.
The amendment was not included in the final NDAA, but his office said another provision addressed aspects of Bennet’s measure.
Some lawmakers are casting a wider net by broadening their efforts beyond the military.
Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), a former national security specialist at the Pentagon, introduced a bill this past week that would prevent anyone who took part in the insurrection, as well as followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory, from obtaining or keeping a federal security clearance.
The legislation, known as the Security Clearance Improvement Act of 2021, requires an applicant seeking to get or renew their federal security clearance to disclose if they participated in the Jan. 6 event or if they “knowingly engaged in activities conducted by an organization or movement — like QAnon — that spreads conspiracy theories and false information about the U.S. government,” according to a statement from Murphy’s office.
On Friday, Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) announced new legislation that would restart a Department of Homeland Security initiative to counter violent extremism.
The Biden administration has signaled it will prioritize stamping out extremism.
In his inaugural speech Wednesday, Biden pledged to combat “a rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism.”
Those same sentiments were expressed by Austin, the first Black secretary of Defense.
“I will fight hard to stamp out sexual assault, to rid our ranks of racists and extremists, and to create a climate where everyone fit and willing has the opportunity to serve this country with dignity,” Austin told lawmakers last week during congressional testimony.
“The job of the Department of Defense is to keep Americans safe from our enemies,” he added. “But we can’t do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks.”
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