DOD orders ‘immediate actions’ to reduce extremism in the ranks

Updated: May 7

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin last week ordered several “immediate actions” to reduce extremism in the U.S. military, including reviewing and updating DOD’s definition of prohibited extremist activities among uniformed military personnel.

The way that definition is updated and enforced will likely determine the success or failure of the effort, which has turned into a political fight between Democrats and Republicans.

Democrats have pushed for an effort to prevent service members and veterans from associating with “extremist” groups since the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, after which 34 veterans were arrested. But in a March hearing, Republicans argued the threat of extremism is being overblown to score political points against the GOP, and that Democrats only seem interested in policing right-leaning extremists, not left-leaning extremists.

DOD last week acknowledged that so far, it’s not clear at all how to define “extremism” in the military, which is why the department will try to define it.

“One consistent thing that [Austin] did hear was that the force wants better guidance,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said last week. “The men and women want better guidance about what extremist activity really is…”

Other actions DOD will take to counter extremism include:

  • Considering “policy recommendations and options to address extremist activity” by DOD civilian employees and contractors.

  • Paying closer attention to service members who are transitioning out of the military and who may come into contact with extremist groups. Kirby said the goal here is to educate service members about “who and what are waiting for them on the other side.”

  • Updating screening procedures to learn more about whether enlistees have exhibited extremist behavior. DOD will also make it clear that “any demonstrably false answers provided in response could form the basis for punitive action for fraudulent enlistment.”

  • Conducting a DOD-wide study on extremism in the military.

As part of this effort, the Pentagon also launched a Countering Extremism Working Group led by Bishop Garrison, DOD’s top adviser on human capital and diversity, equity and inclusion. This group will issue its first report no later than 90 days after its first mid-April meeting.

This working group will examine:

  • Whether amendments to the Uniformed Code of Military Justice will help root out extremism.

  • How DOD should collect and share information about extremist behavior through Service Insider Threat Programs.

  • How DOD might screen publicly available information for signs of extremist behavior.

  • Whether changes to military training might eliminate extremist behavior.

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