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Pentagon review finds few extremists in the armed forces

A new directive to commanders defines extremist activity and how they should handle it

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said servicemembers who liked extremist content on social media could face discipline.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said servicemembers who liked extremist content on social media could face discipline. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

A Defense Department review has found that “about 100” servicemembers participated in activities the department prohibits as extremist in 2021, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a briefing on Monday.

Kirby stressed that the department had arrived at the figure not with a concerted search of its more than 2 million active duty and reserve forces, but rather in the process of updating instructions to commanders on how to handle extremism in the ranks.

That process — which split congressional Republicans and Democrats— took place over the course of 2021 as Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III responded to the participation of about 80 veterans in the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. Only one active duty servicemember has reportedly been charged.

Kirby said that as part of the review the department has updated its instructions to commanders, defining extremist activity and guiding them on how to handle it. In April, Austin tasked a new Countering Extremist Activity Working Group with reviewing those instructions.

The definition of extremism now includes advocating violence to deprive citizens of their rights, or to pursue political, religious, discriminatory, or ideological goals; supporting terrorism, law-breaking or the overthrow of the United States government; and encouraging unlawful discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

Servicemembers face potential separation from the armed forces for advocating violence in support of extremist activities, but also for attending meetings of groups deemed extremist, displaying extremist materials, distributing literature and “liking” content on social media, among other things.

Lawmakers react

Republicans in Congress said they were concerned the new rules will violate servicemembers’ freedom of speech rights. The policies “may be unconstitutional & impact Americans beyond DOD,” tweeted House Armed Services ranking Republican Mike D. Rogers of Alabama. “DOD must halt any policy rollout” that harms First Amendment rights.

The chairman of the House panel, Democrat Adam Smith of Washington, backed the changes, saying they would strengthen national security and protect servicemembers from radicalization in the ranks.

But Maryland Democrat Anthony G. Brown, an Army veteran and member of the same House committee, said in a statement that the changes do not go far enough. He argued Congress needs to pass a law codifying “the department’s institutional capacity, training requirements, robust and expanded transparency through reporting, and affirming commanders’ inherent authority to remove extremists from the ranks.”

The House Armed Services Committee included Brown’s provision to do that in its version of the fiscal 2022 defense authorization bill, despite GOP opposition. But the amendment was dropped in final negotiations before both the House and Senate passed the bill earlier this month. Republicans argued Brown’s provision would be used to target conservatives.

At the briefing, Kirby said that was not the Pentagon’s intent: “The department is focused on prohibited activity, not on a particular ideology, thought or political orientation.”

Pentagon officials don’t plan to monitor servicemembers’ social media activity, but will take action if extremist activity is spotted, Kirby told reporters.

“The department has always maintained a distinction between thoughts and actions,” he said, adding the new rules were designed to preserve a servicemember’s “right of expression to the extent possible, while also balancing the need for good order and discipline.”

Kirby said the department would launch a training program for servicemembers on the rules and had begun a study on extremist activity in the armed forces.

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