WASHINGTON – The Pentagon is developing ways to better screen military recruits for extremist behavior, while improving training for troops leaving the service so they can be more prepared if violent hate groups lure them to join.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin released a memo Friday that ordered some new, immediate steps the department will take, as well as longer-term efforts aimed at rooting out extremism in the ranks and clarifying how personnel can better identify and report problem behavior.
The military has long been aware of small numbers of white supremacists and other extremists in its ranks. But Pentagon leaders launched an all-out effort to address the problem after it became clear that a significant number of military veterans and some current military members were present at the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Austin in early February gave all military units 60 days to conduct a “stand down” day to discuss extremism, and on Friday morning he met with all his service leaders to hear the results and talk about what next steps the department will take.
As a result, he ordered service secretaries on Friday to update the screening questionnaires they use for recruiting to ask about extremist behavior and “gather actionable information” that will ensure the best qualified recruits are selected. And he said the screening must also clarify that “any demonstrably false answer provided in response could form the basis for punitive action for fraudulent enlistment.”
He also told service leaders to add extremism training for service members who are leaving the military. Individuals who leave the service routinely go through a series of workshops and other training to help them prepare for jobs in the civilian world. That training, said Austin, must now include information on the potential targeting of service members by extremist groups and make clear how veterans can report such contact.
Defense and law enforcement officials have noted that former military members are considered valuable recruits for extremist groups, because of their knowledge about weapons and battle tactics. The Pentagon's chief spokesman, John Kirby, told reporters Friday that the department wants to make sure that individuals leaving the military know “what it feels like and sounds like” when an extremist group is trying to recruit them.
Kirby also said that service leaders meeting with Austin made it clear that troops want clearer guidance on exactly what constitutes extremist activity so they know what types of behavior to report.
One of the goals outlined in Austin's memo is to improve training on extremist and insider threats. That will address persistent questions raised by commanders and supervisors about “gray areas” such as whether reading or liking extremist material on social media forums is prohibited.
Officials have said that the policies and restrictions are not aimed at what individuals think or believe, but rather on what they actually do and how they behave.
Austin and other senior military leaders have consistently said that they believe that the vast majority of the military does not espouse extremist views. But they have provided no data or numbers to back that up. They also say that even a small number can have a corrosive effect.
Kirby said that during the listening sessions held as part of the stand down days a number of people said they recognize this is a problem and had personally experienced it.
Longer term actions outlined in the memo include a greater effort to assess the scope of the problem and develop better ways to share information about extremism between the department and law enforcement.
“The vast majority of those who serve in uniform and their civilian colleagues do so with great honor and integrity, ” said Austin in the memo. “But any extremist behavior in the force can have an outsized impact."