Two top military officers told lawmakers Tuesday they believe they have “zero” extremists under their command, citing the security clearance process — despite arrests of people with security clearances in connection with the Capitol attack and other recent examples of clearance holders having extremist views.
U.S. Strategic Command chief Adm. Charles Richard, the top officer in charge of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, told the Senate Armed Services Committee he is “very confident that the number of extremists in my forces is zero.”
“Every person in my organization has to have a security clearance for starters,” Richard continued. “And when you fill that form out — and I've been filling it out for 40 years — there is an extensive battery of questions designed to get after that very point. And then somebody goes and investigates you, and then they go talk to all your references, and then they go talk some more hunting for that very thing.”
“So if they're an extremist in my organization, one, they hide it very well, and two, it’s just a matter of time until I get to them,” Richard added, also citing the Personnel Reliability Program that includes peer monitoring meant to ensure those who work with nuclear weapons are trustworthy.
Testifying alongside Richard, U.S. Space Command chief Gen. James Dickinson similarly said he did not think he commands any extremists based on his personal experiences and because of the security clearance process.
“We have done everything that [Defense] Secretary [Lloyd] Austin has asked us to do in terms of training and awareness, but in my organization, I would say that number is zero,” Dickinson said. “In the formations that I've had throughout my career, I have not seen that, so I believe it's close to zero in my organization, if not zero.”
Despite assertions that the security clearance process would weed out extremists, recent reports have identified extremists with security clearances and several people arrested in connection with extremist activity in recent years have held security clearances, including some of the Jan. 6 Capitol attack suspects.
Some lawmakers have also called for changes in the security clearance process after the Capitol attack, including more thorough social media scrubs.
The military has long struggled with rooting out extremism, but the issue moved to the forefront after several of those arrested in connection with the Capitol attack were found to have military backgrounds.
Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOversight Republicans seek testimony from Afghanistan watchdog Carbon reduction tax credit: An investment we can't afford not to make The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - What do Manchin and Sinema want? MORE ordered a militarywide stand down for leaders to discuss the issue with their troops, begin getting a handle on the scope of the issue and get ideas for how to tackle it.
Once the stand-down ended, Austin took steps to set up new screening procedures for recruits, write an updated definition of extremist activity prohibited by the department and launch further studies on extremism in the ranks.
One of the issues the Pentagon has had in tackling the problem is identifying the scope of it, with Pentagon press secretary John Kirby saying in February that the number of extremists in the military “may be more than we’re comfortable feeling and admitting and probably a lot less than the media attention surrounding it seems to suggest it could be.”
Some Republicans have begun to bristle at the Pentagon’s efforts to combat extremism, arguing the Biden administration and Democrats are inflating the issue for political purposes and in the process smearing service members.
Richard and Dickinson on Tuesday were replying to a question from Sen. Dan SullivanDaniel Scott SullivanGOP senators unveil bill designating Taliban as terrorist organization More Republicans call on Biden to designate Taliban as terrorist group Overnight Energy: Judge blocks permits for Alaska oil project MORE (R-Alaska).
Sullivan had taken issue with comments from a hearing last week by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) that the number of extremists in the military “may be a small percentage, under 10 percent, but that is a large percentage in terms of its potential impact on the readiness and capability of our military and public support for our military.”
In particular, Sullivan called out the 10 percent figure as “absurdly high.”
“I'm really tired of hearing about what supposedly is all the bad things about the members of the military when I think it's some of the finest young men and women in America serving, volunteering to serve,” he said.