Dec 20, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Pentagon updates rules to combat rising extremism

men in tactical gear on Jan. 6

Men wearing military tactical gear on the Senate side of the Capitol on Jan. 6. Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

The Pentagon announced Monday new steps in its internal fight against the rising appeal of extremist ideas and ideologies in its ranks.

Why it matters: Domestic extremism in the military has become a growing concern in recent years, but blew wide open on Jan. 6 when former and current service members — some in tactical gear — participated in the U.S. Capitol. insurrection.

  • Almost one out of every five rioters who have been charged for their alleged participation in the riot have a connection to the U.S. military, NPR analysis found. The news organization adds, for context, that roughly 7% of U.S. adults are military veterans, according to the U.S. Census Bureau data.

Between the lines: With so much of the vitriol ahead the Capitol attack inflamed and exacerbated via social media channels, one of the most noticeable parts of the Defense Department's updated guidance is that which addresses "likes" and "reshares."

  • "Liking something with the intent to promote or endorse the extremist activity would be violative of the policy," Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters at a press conference Monday.
  • The department does not plan to "actively screen" service members' social media accounts, but will respond "as an incident comes to light," a Defense Department official said during a background call with reporters.

Details: The guidance, updated along with a report compiled by the Countering Extremism Working Group, now identifies extremist activity as any advocacy or violent act against the U.S or its citizens, including planning or attempting to overthrow the government.

  • Support, including those likes or reshares of "widespread unlawful discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex (including pregnancy), gender identity, or sexual orientation" is considered an extremist activity.
  • Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin wrote in a memo accompanying the report and updated rules that Pentagon officials would also modify screening methods for new recruits, as well as those who are on their way to retiring from active duty so they do not become targets of extremist groups or fall victim to extremist propaganda.

For the record: The new guidance does not list any specific extremist organizations or expressly prohibit service members from belonging to certain groups.

  • The guidance focuses on actions and membership, according to Kirby.

Of note: The department identified roughly 100 service members who it said had participated in substantiated acts of extremism in 2021.

Catch up quick: In March, the department released a report, which underscored the ways in which domestic extremists pose a threat to the military by attempting to recruit service members into their movement.

  • "Military members are highly prized by these groups as they bring legitimacy to their causes and enhance their ability to carry out attacks," according to the report, which was prepared at Congress' request.
  • Austin signed a memo in early February, which ordered commanding officers and supervisors to hold a one-day "stand-down" to discuss extremism within their ranks.

What they're saying: "The overwhelming majority of the men and women of the Department of Defense serve this country with honor and integrity," Austin wrote in his memo.

  • "We believe only a very few violate [their] oath by participating in extremist activities, but even the actions of a few can have an outsized impact on unit cohesion, morale and readiness — and the physical harm some of these activities can engender can undermine the safety of our people," he added.
"We owe the men and women of the Department of Defense an environment free of extremist activities, and we owe our country a military that reflects the founding values of our democracy."
— Secretary Austin

Read the full report, via DocumentCloud:

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