The Pentagon plans to be more aggressive in shutting down attempts by extremist groups to recruit service members to their cause.
Following the revelation that nearly one in five people charged in connection to the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol had some connection to the military, the Defense Department is turning its attention to its ranks to try to stamp out dangerous and violent ideology.
Defense officials are hoping to use a series of steps announced in recent days, including a force-wide “stand-down” to address extremism, in order to prevent more troops from falling prey to ideologically driven groups including those that advocate white supremacy.
“Some of these groups are very organized. They very aggressively recruit soon-to-be veterans,” top Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Monday.
Officials acknowledge that the task at hand is likely to prove difficult due to a lack of data on tracking incidents of extremism in the military.
“It’s not the kind of thing that we’re centrally tracking here — that [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] has a database that we can just go pull from — that’s not the case right now,” Kirby said.
Some of that data doesn’t exist at the department because it’s in the lane of civil law enforcement, he noted, "and there’s a limit to what we’re going to be able to obtain in that regard."
The only data the Pentagon has revealed so far on the matter is information it received from the FBI last year. The bureau informed defense officials that 68 domestic extremism cases from 2019 involved former and current military members.
Adding to the problem, current rules put in place in 2012 allow service members to be in groups with more extreme or violent ideology as long as they don’t actively participate in fundraising, recruiting, demonstrating at a rally, training, organizing or distributing material — allowing such troops to go unflagged.
The services do screen incoming members, scrutiny that can include checking for tattoos of racist symbols and doing background checks for criminal records, gang affiliations or participation in extremist organizations. However, there is no uniform understanding for how to address incendiary or problematic comments and views made on social media as it runs up against First Amendment rights.
Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinGOP holds on Biden nominees set back gains for women in top positions Drones are a strategic liability for US Buttigieg has high name recognition, favorability rating in Biden Cabinet: survey MORE hopes to get a handle on just how deep the issue of extremism runs with his order last week for a force-wide stand-down.
Austin, who was confirmed by the Senate last month as the nation's first Black Defense secretary, directed commanders to select a date within the next 60 days to conduct a one-day pause to discuss the issue with their personnel.
Among the possible solutions are new training for troops before they enter the service, while they are actively in the military and before they leave.
The added training would inform them of "what's waiting for them on the other side and who might be waiting for them on the other side,” said Kirby.
Veterans, who make up only 7 percent of all American adults, are a particularly attractive pool from which far-right militias seek to recruit due to their highly sought-after experience with weapons as well as their organizational and leadership skills.
Of the 190 people charged in the Jan. 6 riot, at least 30 are veterans and three are current National Guard members or reservists. The riot is the central focus of the Senate impeachment trial that began Tuesday accusing former President TrumpDonald TrumpStowaway found in landing gear of plane after flight from Guatemala to Miami Kushner looking to Middle East for investors in new firm: report GOP eyes booting Democrats from seats if House flips MORE of inciting insurrection.
Among the groups whose members were seen and arrested at the riot include the 3 Percenters, an anti-government militia movement named after an inaccurate claim that only three percent of American colonists fought against the British during the Revolutionary War; the Oath Keepers, a loosely organized collection of militia members who believe the federal government is trying to strip U.S. citizens of their rights; Texas Freedom Force, an extremist militia group; and Proud Boys, a self-proclaimed "Western chauvinist" group.
“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 in January.
Before Austin’s initiative, the Pentagon under former acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller announced a review of its policies on extremist activity in the ranks. And the DOD inspector general said it would look into whether the Pentagon has adequate procedures in place to prevent those with extreme views from entering and staying in the military.
But there is concern that the effort will unfairly pinpoint service members who hold more politically conservative views.
“The argument that this amounts to some sort of political litmus test, that is absolutely unfounded and untrue,” Kirby said at the Pentagon on Friday.
“It's not about what you believe. It's about what you do with those beliefs. It's about how you act with those beliefs. ... When you violate good order and discipline, when you violate the [Uniform Code of Military Justice] or you violate civil laws, then we've got a problem. And that's what the secretary is trying to get after.”