Republicans downplay military’s extremism issue in hearing

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Democrats and Republicans on Wednesday butted heads over how prevalent the extremism problem is in the military, what constitutes hate speech and what is protected under the First Amendment, and whether the issue needs to be addressed at all.

“We lack any concrete evidence that violent extremism is as rife in the military as some commentators claim,” House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) said in his opening remarks. “While I agree with my colleagues that these numbers should be zero, this is far from the largest military justice issue facing our armed services.”

Democrats, meanwhile, referred to veterans’ involvement in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol as an indication of extremism among service members that is a problem that needs to be dealt with.

Nearly 25 percent of people charged in connection to the insurrection at the Capitol had some connection to the military, and the Pentagon itself has acknowledged that white supremacist and similar fringe groups “very aggressively recruit soon-to-be veterans,” top Defense Department spokesman John Kirby said last month.

But Republicans insisted that — even as they agreed extremism had no place in the military — existing Pentagon rules and limited data on the issue meant it did not warrant close attention.

“I also want to root out of the military those who actively participate in vile and violent hate groups,” Rogers said, “But it’s important to remember that extremist behavior is already prohibited by the Uniform Code of Military Justice and by each service’s own regulations.”

The Pentagon is currently grappling with how to try to stamp out dangerous and violent ideology following the events of Jan. 6, but limited data makes it tricky to point to a clear increase or decrease in such a problem and ways to address it.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in January ordered a 60-day stand down across the force to address extremism, a move meant to prevent more troops from falling prey to violent ideologically driven groups.

The military currently uses criminal convictions to track domestic extremism cases involving current and former service members. But officials have said the Pentagon doesn’t track or compile such cases itself.

The number of troops ultimately discharged for extremist behavior also isn’t the same number as those who hold such views or have promoted them, only the number who were caught and expelled by leadership, similar to any other crime.

Further complicating matters, Defense policy put in place in 2012 doesn’t prohibit a service member from joining 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.

“DOD officials repeatedly claim that the number is small, [yet] no one truly knows,” said witness Audrey Kurth Cronin, the director of American University’s Center for Security, Innovation and New Technology. “No serious plan can be built without defining the scope of the problem.”

Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.), said that he wanted to be cautious about overreactions to comments people had made in their past, but that there is “100 percent a point in having this hearing because we have so much disagreement about how to handle this.”

“It is an issue in the military right now that is bitterly disputed by a lot of different people in terms of how to handle it. I would like us to stop bitterly disputing it and start handling it in an appropriate and fair manner for all concerned,” Smith said.

Several Democrats brought up the possibility of screening public social media activity for red flags as a suggestions for how incoming service members are screened. The military currently screens incoming members by checking for tattoos of racist symbols and doing background checks for criminal records, gang affiliations or participation in extremist organizations.

Most of the panel’s Republicans, meanwhile, used their time to contend with the hearing itself and questioned whether data exists that would indicate a growing problem.

Pentagon officials were not invited to the hearing as committee officials said there would be future discussions on the topic once Defense leaders gather information and plans on how to tackle the issue.

Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), a former Marine, said that the service could have extremists “on a level that I did not appreciate before,” but added there was no DOD witnesses or data “to help us make sense of that.”

“We seem to lack an agreed upon baseline, in fact, from which we could even measure an increase or decrease in extremism. We can’t even agree on a definition of extremism” which risks people making “wild suppositions based on our ideological priors,” Gallagher said.

Some outright claimed the hearing was politically motivated and that extremism in the military was not an issue, including Rep. Patrick Fallon (R-Texas), who called the hearing “political theater.”

Others Republicans on the panel warned that the Pentagon’s efforts risk infringing on service members’ First Amendment free speech rights and alluded that those with more evangelical-leaning religious beliefs could be targeted, a notion that the Pentagon swiftly pushed back on.

Rooting out extremists “isn’t about religion and it’s not about politics,” Kirby said later on Wednesday.

“It’s about extremist ideology that can inspire acts and behavior that actually prejudice good order and discipline. And the idea, the suggestion that this would have anything to do with the god you worship or don’t is an anathema to the whole effort,” Kirby said.

Tags Adam Smith Lloyd Austin Mike Gallagher Mike Rogers

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