House appropriators want Pentagon to get tough on extremists in the ranks

Defense Department asked to report back to Congress on the extent of the problem and the steps it is taking to combat it

Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as people try to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6. (photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images)
Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as people try to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6. (photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images)
Posted July 13, 2021 at 12:25pm

The House Appropriations Committee would require Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III to report to lawmakers soon on progress in keeping violent extremists out of the U.S. military. 

The panel said in a report made public Monday that it would direct the Pentagon to report on how it is implementing proposals to solve the problem, including recommendations from an internal Defense Department study that was sent quietly to Congress in October and disclosed publicly by CQ Roll Call in February. 

The Pentagon study described in detail appeals that white supremacists and other extremists have made to recruit military members — and their periodic successes. 

"Despite a low number of cases in absolute terms, individuals with extremist affiliations and military experience are a concern to U.S. national security because of their proven ability to execute high-impact events," the study stated. "Access to service members with combat training and technical weapons expertise can also increase both the probability of success and the potency of planned violent attacks."

Growing concerns

The Defense Department's efforts to grapple with violent extremism, particularly white supremacism, sped up last year in the wake of the George Floyd protests.

The Jan. 6 riot heightened worries more, because at least 50 people with military ties — mostly veterans, some with connections to extremist groups — have been charged with crimes committed that day at the Capitol, according to news reports.

This week's House Appropriations report, which accompanies the draft fiscal 2022 Defense spending bill, sounded a skeptical note about the prospects for excising from the ranks those who espouse and commit violence. 

"While senior leaders in the Department of Defense and the Services are speaking candidly about the threat of extremist ideologies in their ranks, their efforts to make serious strides are undoubtedly hamstrung by the lack of definition of 'extremism' and 'extremist activities' in Department policy," the Appropriations Committee report noted. "The Department's efforts to address this threat are further complicated by an inability to collect and track extremist activity of servicemembers, gaps in investigative and record keeping procedures, and the absence of a mechanism to report extremist behavior or attempts at recruiting military personnel by extremist groups."

Pentagon report's proposals

The committee's new report notes that the director of national intelligence assessed in March that violent domestic extremists pose what the panel called a "heightened threat to the homeland."

"This is particularly troubling," the lawmakers wrote, "when coupled with the Department of Defense's October 2020 assessment that found extremist groups are actively seeking to recruit military personnel or enlist their own members in the military to obtain combat and tactical experience and gain sensitive national security-related knowledge."

Congress required the Pentagon's report with a provision inserted in the fiscal 2020 defense authorization law at the insistence of California Democrat Pete Aguilar, who has pushed hard for years to get the Defense Department to more forcefully address the presence of extremists in military ranks.

The Pentagon study, written by the Defense Personnel and Security Research Center, recommended improving Defense Department security clearance screening to keep out extremists. It also urged the military services to tap FBI databases of extremist tattoos and symbols so Defense officials can better understand what such signs might say about someone's affiliations. 

The report also said the Pentagon could consider hiring contractors to surveil social media as much as is practically and legally possible. And it proposed requiring that all military discharge forms note if someone was expelled because of extremist actions. 

In the cover memo with the report, Matthew Donovan, then the Pentagon's undersecretary for personnel and readiness, said the department planned to implement most of those recommendations.

'Hatred' in the ranks

The new House Defense spending report would require the Defense secretary to formally inform lawmakers about implementation of the Pentagon research center's recommendations. And the panel wants the Pentagon to provide a separate report dedicated to explaining progress at keeping extremists from getting security clearances. 

The committee's indirect endorsement of the research center's recommendations comes five months after Aguilar, who serves on the Appropriations Defense panel, filed a bill that would require implementation of the proposals.

"This report language outlines clear steps to prevent White Nationalists and other dangerous extremists from infiltrating our military," Aguilar told CQ Roll Call in a statement. "We owe it to the brave men and women who serve this country honorably to rid the ranks of hatred and extremism, and this bill helps us do just that."

Austin's engagement

In addition, the Appropriations Committee would direct Austin to report on progress in implementing the Biden administration's governmentwide strategy for combating extremism, made public in June, as well as Austin's Defense Department guidance on the problem, issued in April.

Committee report language is not legally binding but federal departments and agencies generally treat committee directives to produce reports as effectively mandatory.

All the reports must be submitted to Congress within 90 days of enactment of the new appropriations law. 

The committee also indicated that it "expects" Austin to make funds available for these efforts. 

All signs indicate that Austin, the first African American to serve as Defense secretary, does not need to be persuaded on that score. He has personally made combating violent extremism a top priority and ordered all military units to "stand down" at some point between early February and early April to briefly put other activities on hold so that commanders and their troops could discuss how to combat the scourge. 

Before the House Appropriations Committee approved the fiscal 2022 Defense Department Appropriations bill on Tuesday, Florida Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz said the committee wants to ensure that extremists don't get security clearances and Minnesota Democrat Betty McCollum noted the report language.

"Extremism undermines the cohesion and the trust of the military, and I strongly support Secretary Austin's pledge to root it out," said McCollum, who chairs the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.

Republicans said at the markup they are worried that the campaign against extremists could target unpopular views or become an unfair witch hunt, or target only white supremacists and not other violent extremists.

The Appropriations Committee defeated 24-33 an amendment by Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., that aimed to block funding for the Pentagon's Countering Extremism Working Group, which is studying ways to solve the extremism problem, until 30 days after the Defense secretary gives Congress a definition of extremism and briefs lawmakers on due process protections for those accused of extremism and certifies that their First Amendment rights are not violated by that process.

Democrats said that their concern is about all domestic violent extremists and that the Pentagon is already working on defining the problem.