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Pentagon chief orders militarywide 'stand-down' to tackle elusive issue of extremism

Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense: House votes to repeal 2002 Iraq war powers | Pentagon leaders press senators to reimburse National Guard | New pressure on US-Iran nuclear talks Top US general: Chinese military has 'ways to go' before it can take Taiwan Pentagon leaders press senators to reimburse National Guard for Capitol deployment MORE on Wednesday ordered a U.S. militarywide “stand-down” to address extremism in the ranks, an issue that has long stumped Pentagon leaders but came to the forefront after the Jan. 6 breach of the U.S. Capitol.  

The Defense Department is still scant on details on Austin’s decision, which came after he met with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark MilleyMark MilleyOvernight Defense: House votes to repeal 2002 Iraq war powers | Pentagon leaders press senators to reimburse National Guard | New pressure on US-Iran nuclear talks Milley downplays report of 1,900 lost or stolen military firearms Top US general: Chinese military has 'ways to go' before it can take Taiwan MORE and the service secretaries and chiefs on Wednesday morning. Leaders are expected to hold “needed discussions” with subordinates about extremism in the next 60 days, top department spokesperson John Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon. 

Kirby added that more details are coming and that leadership still needs to provide specific guidance on the expectations of the stand-down. He could not say what Austin hopes to learn from the effort or his plans for after.

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“One of the reasons the secretary wants to do this stand-down is to see the scope of the problem. ... We don’t want to overestimate or underestimate the number of people it might affect,” he said. 

“It may be more than we’re comfortable hearing and admitting and probably a lot less than the media attention surrounding it seems to suggest it could be. But where is it? It’s just not clear,” he added.

The move is a direct result of the events of Jan. 6, when supporters loyal to former President TrumpDonald TrumpChinese apps could face subpoenas, bans under Biden executive order: report Kim says North Korea needs to be 'prepared' for 'confrontation' with US Ex-Colorado GOP chair accused of stealing more than 0K from pro-Trump PAC MORE — including some active-duty service members and veterans — violently stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to prevent Congress from certifying President Biden's election win.

Following the insurrection, it was discovered that nearly 1 in 5 people charged in connection with the riot have some form of military background.

Austin, the country's first Black Defense secretary, pledged during his confirmation hearing that he would fight to “rid our ranks of racists and extremists.” The Pentagon, however, has little information about how deep the problem runs, making it difficult to take action.

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It is unclear whether the Pentagon tracks how many of its service members hold white nationalist or other extremist ideology or how many troops have been flagged or disciplined for extremist behavior.

Of the few data points available are those provided for 2020 by the FBI, which found that of 143 notifications of investigation the Pentagon received from the bureau of former and current military members, 68 concerned domestic extremism cases.

Defense officials have for years struggled to understand the issue of extremism among service members, though the Jan. 6 events “brought it into stark relief, and it’s very clear that it’s something we haven’t solved,” Kirby said.

The current Defense Department policy expressly prohibits military personnel from actively advocating for or participating in supremacist, extremist or criminal gang doctrine, ideology or causes, including fundraising or demonstrating at a rally as part of such groups, recruiting, training, organizing or leading members, or distributing material.

But Kirby said that there is not yet uniform understanding across the military as to how to define extremism and whether it includes belonging to a racist or violent ideological group such as the Proud Boys — a relatively new organization — or if it includes believing in or spreading patently false conspiracy theories such as those pushed by QAnon supporters. Austin hopes the stand-down will help the Pentagon pinpoint the answer.

“[Austin] too is frustrated that this is an issue and that we don’t have better visibility, better understanding of it,” Kirby said.