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Overnight Defense: Pentagon watchdog to probe extremism in US military | FBI chief warns of 'online chatter' ahead of inauguration | House conservative bloc opposes Austin waiver

Overnight Defense: Pentagon watchdog to probe extremism in US military | FBI chief warns of 'online chatter' ahead of inauguration | House conservative bloc opposes Austin waiver
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Happy Thursday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Ellen Mitchell, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

THE TOPLINE: The Pentagon’s internal watchdog announced Thursday that it will investigate whether the Department of Defense (DOD) has adequate procedures in place to prevent white supremacists and other extremists from joining and remaining in the military.

“Our objective is to determine the extent to which the DoD and the Military Services have implemented policy and procedures that prohibit active advocacy and active participation related to supremacist, extremist, or criminal gang doctrine, ideology, or causes by active duty military personnel,” the Inspector General’s office said.

The office plans to launch the probe this month, according to a letter sent to top Pentagon officials.

What prompted this: The investigation comes as the Pentagon reviews its policies on extremist activity in the ranks. Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller directed the review following reports that active and former service members participated in the deadly pro-Trump attack on the U.S. Capitol last week.

“We clearly recognize the threat from domestic extremists, particularly those who espouse white supremacy or white nationalist ideologies,” a senior defense official told reporters on Thursday. “We are actively involved in always trying to improve our understanding of where the threat is coming from as a means of understanding and taking action.”

A resurgence: The official pointed to a “resurgence in white supremacy and white nationalist activity over the past five or six years,” adding that studies based on FBI data have found that “between 2001 and today, right-wing extremists are responsible for more deaths in the U.S. than any other type of extremist group.”

Asked if Pentagon officials are seeing an uptick in extremist activity within the military, the official replied: “Yes,” while adding that it was due in part to increased reporting and public visibility of hate groups.

What’s currently in place: U.S. military policy is to conduct background checks on prospective service members and bar individuals from entering the ranks if extremist views are discovered. Service members are also prohibited from participating in or advocating for supremacist or other extremist ideologies once they join the armed forces.

One challenge, the senior defense official said, is determining whether a recruit could be lying about their beliefs or if they might be courted by extremist groups after becoming a service member.

“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,” the official said, noting that there are parts of military service “that are of appeal to these groups.”

“We recognize that those skills are prized by some of these groups, not only for the capability it offers them, but it also brings legitimacy, in their minds, to their cause, the fact that they can say they have former military personnel that align with their extremist and violent extremist views,” the official added.

Aid from FBI: The FBI helps out in such cases, notifying the Pentagon if they discover any active-duty troops or veterans participating in domestic extremist behaviors, the official said.

No statistics were provided to reporters regarding how many such individuals are being monitored. The official also did not say whether the Defense secretary’s office and services have a central tracking system on open cases.

The official declined to provide other information about current or former military members involved in the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, and instead referred questions to the Justice Department.

Military members in attack: Numerous current and former service members were found to have participated in last week’s storming of the U.S. Capitol. The woman who was fatally shot by a Capitol Police officer was a 12-year Air Force veteran; the man photographed inside the building wearing a horned, fur-covered headdress and face paint served in the Navy for two years; and the man photographed in tactical gear and carrying zip-tie restraints on the Senate floor is a former Air Force lieutenant colonel.

The Army is investigating a psychological operations officer who was still on active duty when she led a group at last week’s protests that preceded the attack on the Capitol. The officer was already in the process of separating from the service.

Lawmakers demand investigation: A group of 14 Democratic senators has since demanded a new Pentagon investigation into “white supremacist and violent fringe extremist activity” in the military.

“The issue of white supremacy and extremist ideology within the ranks of our military is not new, but the attack on the Capitol makes clear this alarming trend must be immediately addressed,” the senators wrote in a Thursday letter to Pentagon Inspector General Sean O’Donnell. “The spread of white supremacist ideology is dangerous for the military and threatens to rupture civil-military safeguards that our democracy requires.”

Other related stories from The Hill:

— Lawmakers want Pentagon, DOJ to punish current, former military members who participated in riot

— The Hill: Virginia police officer arrested after Capitol riot is National Guardsman

 

FBI TRACKING ‘EXTENSIVE’ ONLINE CHATTER ON POSSIBLE INAUGURATION THREATS: FBI Director Chris Wray said Thursday that the bureau is seeing "an extensive amount of concerning online chatter" about events with the potential for violence surrounding next week's inauguration of President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenNoem touts South Dakota coronavirus response, knocks lockdowns in CPAC speech On The Trail: Cuomo and Newsom — a story of two embattled governors Biden celebrates vaccine approval but warns 'current improvement could reverse' MORE.

"Right now, we’re tracking calls for potential armed protests and activity leading up to the inauguration," Wray said at a briefing with Vice President Pence at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) headquarters in Washington, D.C.

"And the reason I use the word potential is because one of the real challenges in this space is trying to distinguish what’s aspirational versus what’s intentional," Wray continued. "We’re concerned about the potential for violence at multiple protests and rallies planned here in D.C. and at state capital buildings around the country in the days to come that could bring armed individuals within close proximity to government buildings and officials."

The lead up: Wray's comments come after the riot on Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol, where Trump supporters stormed the building while a joint session of Congress was meeting to certify the electoral votes affirming Biden as the next president. Numerous people sustained injuries in the mayhem, and several people died, including one Capitol Police officer.

Assurances: Pence opened Thursday's briefing at FEMA by assuring the public that Biden's inauguration would be safe despite rising safety concerns after the Capitol riots. Pence is expected to attend the swearing-in ceremony, but President Trump, who has for months fomented anger among his supporters by falsely claiming the election was stolen, will not be in attendance.

"We all lived through that day of January the 6th," Pence said. "And as the president made clear yesterday, we are committed to an orderly transition, and to a safe inauguration, and the American people deserve nothing less."

Biden briefed: Biden was briefed by the FBI and Secret Service on Wednesday about potential security threats to his inauguration, his transition team said. Lawmakers were briefed earlier this week on four armed threats targeting the Capitol, White House and Supreme Court. One Democrat described it as "the most chilling hour imaginable."

Officials at Thursday's briefing expressed confidence in their ability to keep Wednesday's inauguration secure. In the days since the riots, fencing has gone up around the Capitol building and the Supreme Court, and members of the National Guard have been stationed at the Capitol.

Biden's inauguration was already expected to be scaled back given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Biden has said he will still take the oath of office outside the Capitol building despite the latest security concerns, though he has scrapped earlier plans to arrive in D.C. via Amtrak.

Past oversights: The FBI and Department of Homeland Security did not compile formal threat assessments ahead of last week’s deadly riots at the U.S. Capitol, NPR reported Thursday.

Both the FBI and DHS confirmed to NPR that no such assessment was produced outlining the potential for violence, even though the Jan. 6 gatherings were expected to draw far-right participants such as the Proud Boys, who were involved in violent clashes in Washington, D.C., weeks before. Trump also heavily promoted last Wednesday's demonstration in the nation's capital, saying it would be “wild.”

A DHS spokesperson told NPR that instead of a formal assessment, the agency opted instead for a more generalized report about the "heightened threat environment during the 2020-2021 election season, including the extent to which the political transition and political polarization are contributing to the mobilization of individuals to commit violence.”

 

IN OTHER NEWS… CONSERVATIVE CAUCUS OPPOSES WAIVER FOR BIDEN PICK: A bloc of House conservatives is opposing a waiver that would allow President-elect Joe Biden’s Defense secretary nominee to bypass a law barring recently retired generals from holding the civilian job.

In a memo its members and staff released Thursday, the Republican Study Committee, which counts most GOP lawmakers as members, argued granting a waiver for retired Gen. Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinCan a common bond of service unite our nation? Politics, not racism or sexism, explain opposition to Biden Cabinet nominees Pentagon releases training materials to address extremism MORE so soon after Congress granted one to President TrumpDonald TrumpNoem touts South Dakota coronavirus response, knocks lockdowns in CPAC speech On The Trail: Cuomo and Newsom — a story of two embattled governors McCarthy: 'I would bet my house' GOP takes back lower chamber in 2022 MORE’s first Defense secretary, James MattisJames Norman MattisRejoining the Iran nuclear deal would save lives of US troops, diplomats The soft but unmatched power of US foreign exchange programs The GOP senators likely to vote for Trump's conviction MORE, would set a “new dangerous precedent.”

“Furthermore, regardless of the ‘waiver,’ Gen. Austin is not the right person for the job of secretary of Defense,” the memo added. “He lacks civilian experience, has no experience in countering China, and has a track record of failures as the [Central Command] head in Syria and Iraq and in the war on ISIS. For all of these reasons, conservatives should not vote to grant a ‘waiver’ for Gen. Austin.”

The current rules: Under a 1947 law meant to ensure civilian control of the military, Defense secretaries must be retired from the military for at least seven years before they can take the job. Austin retired in mid-2016.

But Congress can approve a waiver to the law to allow someone within the cooling off period to lead the Pentagon and has done so twice: first for George Marshall in 1950 and then for Mattis in 2017.

In 2017, one House Republican voted against Mattis’s waiver.

Regrets: But after Biden named Austin as his pick for Defense secretary, some Republicans said they regret supporting a waiver for Mattis, including current Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Banks (R-Ind.).

“Based on the lessons learned after the House made the unprecedented move of granting a waiver four years ago, the Republican Study Committee will oppose granting General Austin a waiver,” the caucus said in a statement Thursday.

Will it pass?: The Republican Study Committee’s position is not binding on its members, and Republican opposition alone would not sink Austin’s waiver in the House.

But with Democrats holding a slim majority in the House, Republicans opposing Austin en mass would leave little room for error in uniting Democrats around the pick.

Some Democrats have expressed a wariness to granting Austin waiver, but few have explicitly said they would vote against it. Most House Democrats opposed Mattis’s waiver after Trump would not let him testify before the House Armed Services Committee prior to the vote.

But some Democrats who voted against Mattis have said they will support Austin’s waiver, including House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.).

The House Armed Services Committee is expected to hold a hearing Jan. 21 for Austin to testify about the waiver.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The Center for Strategic and International Studies will hold a webcast on "great power competition with China, COVID-19 relief efforts, the Trump administration's work on religious freedom, the future of U.S. foreign assistance, and opportunities and challenges for the incoming Biden administration,” with Jim Richardson, director of U.S. foreign assistance resources at the State Department, at 1 p.m.

 

ICYMI

— The Hill: House Democrats request cots for National Guard troops stationed in Capitol

— The Hill: Guard units defending Capitol warned of IED threat: report

— The Hill: John Kirby to reprise role as Pentagon press secretary under Biden

— The Hill: Military veterans organize to clean up DC streets after Capitol riot

— The Hill: Pence meets with National Guard members stationed at Capitol

— The Hill: Retired general: Trump needs to step down or be removed

— The Hill: Krebs: Infrastructure operators 'need to be assembling their crisis management teams yesterday'

— The Hill: Senate panel to hold nomination hearing for Biden Intelligence director nominee this week