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Pentagon takes step toward new screening procedures to weed out extremists

Pentagon takes step toward new screening procedures to weed out extremists
© Greg Nash

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is moving to set up new screening procedures at the Pentagon as part of an effort to weed out extremists in the military, according to a memo released Friday.

The immediate steps include setting up a working group tasked with finding ways to address the issue as well as launching a study on extremist behavior in the ranks, Austin wrote in the memo.

The Pentagon chief said he wants the working group to review and update the military’s definition of extremism, create standardized questionnaires to screen recruits with current or previous extremist behavior, and come up with new training and procedures for veterans to deflect and report the targeting of them by extremist groups after they leave service. 

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“The vast majority of those who serve in uniform and their civilian colleagues do so with great honor and integrity,” the Defense secretary wrote, “but any extremist behavior in the force can have an outsized impact.”

The working group will be led by Bishop Garrison, Austin's senior adviser on human capital and diversity, equity and inclusion. It will be made up of representatives from across the services and issue a report in 90 days.

Friday's memo comes after Austin ordered a 60-day, forcewide stand down in early February to address extremism in the military after the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President TrumpDonald TrumpVirginia GOP gubernatorial nominee acknowledges Biden was 'legitimately' elected Biden meets with DACA recipients on immigration reform Overnight Health Care: States begin lifting mask mandates after new CDC guidance | Walmart, Trader Joe's will no longer require customers to wear masks | CDC finds Pfizer, Moderna vaccines 94 percent effective in health workers MORE.

Nearly 25 percent of those who were charged in connection with the Capitol riot were current or former military personnel. But because the Pentagon has limited data on just how many service members believe or act on extremist views, the department has struggled to gauge the extent of dangerous and violent ideology in the forces or ways to address it.

The stand down order sought to gain a clearer picture, and service secretaries met with Austin earlier Friday to provide their recommendations.

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“One consistent thing that he did hear was that the force wants better guidance ... about what extremist activity really is,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters Friday.

“Anecdotally, the service secretaries shared with him what bubbled up from the ranks ... that in many but not all cases people did express that they understand that this is a problem that some of them have experienced personally,” he added. 

One major obstacle preventing Pentagon officials from getting a handle on the problem is a 2012 Defense policy that 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 service members to often go unnoticed.

The Pentagon acknowledged in February that white supremacist and similar fringe groups “very aggressively recruit soon-to-be veterans."

Friday’s actions did not go as far as banning current service members from being members of such organizations, but Kirby said it was “something that the secretary has indicated that he wants the working group to look at.”

“What we need to do and focus on more is how we prepare the transitioning members to be aware of that interest in them and to know what it looks like and what it feels like, what it sounds like when these groups are trying to recruit them,” Kirby said.