December 21, 2021
IntelBrief: Pentagon Issues New Guidelines to Address Extremism in the Ranks
The United States Department of Defense (DoD) has just released new guidelines and policies to deal with the rise of extremism within its ranks. The new guidance explicitly prohibits U.S. military servicemembers from joining extremist groups or engaging in extremist activities, although there is a focus on types of actions rather than specific organizations or ideologies per se. The need for formal policies became apparent in the aftermath of the January 6, 2021 Capitol Insurrection, which included dozens of military veterans, as well as individuals in the National Guard, reservists, and an active duty Marine Corps major. Overall, more than 600 people have been charged with crimes related to the events of that day. The effort stems from a recognition within DoD that some servicemembers may not be clear on the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable engagement. Just prior to the release of the new policies, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin noted: “The overwhelming majority of the men and women of the Department of Defense serve this country with honor and integrity. They respect the oath they took to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. We are grateful for that dedication… We owe the men and women of the Department of Defense an environment free of extremist activities, and we owe our country a military that reflects the founding values of our democracy.”
The policies, which were laid out in the “Report on Countering Extremist Activity Within the Department of Defense,” resulted in part from work done by the Countering Extremist Activity Working Group (CEAWG). [For transparency, members of The Soufan Center team were invited to take part in CEAWG sessions.] The report includes a review and update of DoD Instruction 1325.06, “Handling Protest, Extremist, and Criminal Gang Activities Among Members of the Armed Forces,” which was last updated in 2012. Four lines of effort flowed from Secretary Austin’s guidance, including: evaluating whether to amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and amending related Department policy to address extremist activity; support and oversight of the Military Service Insider Threat Programs; investigating processes and screening capabilities, to include the screening of publicly available electronic information (PAEI); and lastly, providing education and training at all leadership levels. The newly released guidance includes comprehensive definitions of both “extremist activities” and what constitutes “active participation.”
The issue is further complicated by social media. Prior to the new guidelines, there were numerous gray areas, such as whether “liking” or reposting material or images originally shared by extremists could result in troops being reprimanded. The newly issued policies attempt to reconcile those gray areas, making it apparent that advocating terrorism or the overthrow of the U.S. government, fundraising for extremist groups, or promoting extremist views on social media are squarely outside of acceptable behavior. Within the newly clarified guidelines, servicemembers are solely responsible for any and all content on personal and public internet domains, to include social media sites, websites, blogs, etc. The review had the difficult task of balancing privacy rights with the imperative to weed out and prevent extremists from the ranks of the U.S. military. Servicemembers are also reminded that they are subject to the UCMJ upon joining the military, and that their actions (both on and off duty) are covered by the new anti-extremism policies.
Fewer than 100 military members are believed to have been involved in documented cases of extremist activity over the past year, but there are widespread concerns that the number could increase, especially as more veterans are implicated in groups like the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, Three Percenters, and other anti-government and militia violent extremist organizations. Extremist groups actively target veterans for recruitment, since veterans bring combat experience, knowledge of operations security and tradecraft, and can serve as force multipliers for extremist groups. Moreover, counting veterans among its members can contribute to an organization’s “street cred” and image, useful for propaganda and communications. Within the United States, some violent extremists, including white supremacists and neo-Nazis, have actively sought to infiltrate the U.S. military in order to gain tactical skills, such as weapons training, and to broaden their networks. Members of the U.S. military have also traveled internationally to fight with extremist groups abroad, including in Ukraine.