The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Pentagon vowed to confront extremism in the ranks. A year after Jan. 6, experts say more must be done.

Demonstrators attempt to breach the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg News)
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The scores of military-trained rioters who took part in last year’s assault on the U.S. Capitol prompted the Pentagon to crack down on a long-buried problem with extremism in the ranks. But a year later, it remains unclear how the Defense Department intends to weed out anti-government sentiment and ensure the individuals promoting those views don’t pose a threat once they leave the armed forces.

That about 80 of the 700 individuals facing federal charges for breaking into the Capitol were military veterans or at the time were currently serving punctuated what observers had warned about for decades: that service members are considered prized recruits for extremist causes. The Biden administration appeared to recognize the need for focused intervention, with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordering a military-wide pause to discuss the problem during his second week on the job.

But the result so far — updated policy guidelines warning against “active participation” in certain “extremist activities” and an accompanying report released last month — is not enough, according to advocates and academics, lawmakers and former service members. Success, they said, hinges on teaching young, impressionable personnel how to recognize extremist ideologies, standardizing how commanders punish those who run afoul of the guidelines, and quantifying how extensive the problem truly is.

“Writing policy and recommendations is always easier than enacting them,” said Michael Jensen, a senior researcher at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland. “There’s a lot of work to be done to implement these processes across the board.”

Pentagon updates rules to address extremism in the military

The guidelines issued Dec. 20 define what types of activity are grounds for punishment, a spectrum encompassing everything from openly advocating violent extremist ideologies and fundraising for such groups, to clicking “like” or otherwise knowingly promoting extremist messaging or symbols online. But the policy does not specify what ideologies are considered extremist.

There are no specific groups identified. The guidelines do not mention white supremacy. Much of that is intentional: The list of recognized extremist groups is vast and ever-changing. Pentagon officials have also cited concerns about infringing on service members’ First Amendment rights, given that there is unresolved debate within broader U.S. society about which ideologies count as “extreme” and which do not.

The military’s reluctance to take a bolder stand is likely to have consequences, warned one former military prosecutor.

“I don’t know how you develop a policy on extremism that is really enforceable unless you do bright-line rules — like you can’t be a member of the KKK, you can’t advocate for the KKK — something that’s recognized as an extremist organization,” said retired Col. Don Christensen, who served as the Air Force’s chief prosecutor from 2010 to 2014. “If you don’t make black-and-white rules, then it leaves it up to interpretation.”

The Pentagon has defended its new policies as a marked improvement. “We believe the instruction provides commanders much better guidance than it did before,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Wednesday. Another defense official, spokeswoman Lisa Lawrence, said the Pentagon is planning to introduce a computer-based training course in early 2022 that “will convey to all service members what constitutes extremist activities” and “familiarize all service members with the DoD policy and how to report suspected violations.” Officials also are expected to develop a program specific to commanders.

Yet there is a gnawing sense outside the Pentagon that officials could — and should — be doing more.

“Together, Congress and the military should have seized this opportunity to make a much more meaningful step in the right direction, ” said Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.), a 30-year Army veteran and a member of the House Armed Services Committee who has been particularly active on the issue of domestic extremism.

Seeking to combat extremists in ranks, the military struggles to answer a basic question: How many are there?

Last year, the House passed a version of the annual defense authorization bill that included a provision drafted by Brown to create a dedicated office within the Pentagon to track displays of extremism, and to share that data with other federal agencies and Congress. Brown also wanted the bill to mandate that participation in a recognized extremist organization would disqualify a person from military service.

But that didn’t make it into the final legislation that President Biden signed into law.

Discussing extremism in Congress has proved particularly challenging in recent months, as a subset of the GOP loyal to former president Donald Trump has decried the debate. Trump was impeached and acquitted on charges that he incited the Capitol rioters. But even before Jan. 6, lawmakers vehemently disagreed over how forcefully to press the Pentagon to address problems of racism and white supremacy. In 2020, for instance, the fate of the annual defense bill was threatened by a bitter dispute over renaming military installations named for Confederate generals.

Without focused congressional oversight, some question whether Defense Department leaders will proactively round out the guidelines before another high-profile incident demands further action.

“The Department [of Defense] has a history of dragging their feet on important issues that put men and women at risk,” Brown said. “I am concerned that we could lose momentum on this issue.”

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While there is consensus in the community of advocates that the Pentagon’s guidelines must be treated as an opening salvo, experts are not in complete agreement about exactly what the next steps should be.

Mark Pitcavage, a military historian and expert on extremism with the Anti-Defamation League, said in an interview that the military’s definition of what constitutes extremist activity is too narrow — and that it would allow white supremacists who do not actively encourage breaking the law to slip through the cracks. He also noted that many of the prohibited actions put “too much of an emphasis on groups” and organizations, instead of ideologies just as easily expressed by individuals.

“The majority of white supremacists today are probably not members of any organized group,” Pitcavage said. “The fact is that any white supremacist, whether they specifically engage in those specific things, is still a big problem for the military.”

Susan Corke, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, assessed that the military’s guidelines were fairly clear-eyed about putting extremism espoused by individuals on an equal plane with that emanating from established groups. She emphasized that key areas of improvement would be in establishing training for service members at all levels, including those about to depart the military, and establishing better whistleblower protections to ensure that people who report suspect activity by their colleagues — or commanders — do not suffer consequences.

Paramount is getting a better grasp on the problem’s scope, most of the analysts who spoke with The Washington Post agreed. The Pentagon found that fewer than 100 service members participated in extremist behavior in 2021. Some analysts surmise that is probably an undercount — particularly now that certain social media posts can be prohibited behavior.

“I have to believe that the number is quite a bit higher,” Corke said, noting that the Pentagon ought to track the cases of extremism behavior that are reported under the new guidelines, and use it transparently to “help inform better evidence and training.” Striking the right balance between addressing extremist activity through educational initiatives and punitive measures, Corke and others argued, also would be key.

Analysts also stressed that the Pentagon must develop better relationships with veterans’ groups and local law enforcement agencies to ensure that, in the process of cleaning house, military leaders don’t end up unleashing radicalized ex-service members on communities. The Pentagon also needs to engage with outside groups to ensure that veterans who leave the service honorably are not later radicalized, experts added.

In its report on countering extremist activity, the Pentagon acknowledged the need to update its screening processes and coordinate efforts with veterans’ groups. In most cases, experts said, service members who engage in extremist activity egregious enough to merit dismissal usually aren’t court-martialed, meaning there is rarely a public record of the offense.

“The military can remove the threat to itself — but it’s still an American problem,” said Heather Williams, a senior policy researcher at Rand Corp. who focuses on extremism. “We need to be concerned about the skills we have equipped people with.”

Alex Horton contributed to this report.

correction

A previous version of this article misidentified the director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project as Susan Cooke. She is Susan Corke. The article has been corrected.

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