Army veteran Stewart Rhodes – the founder of the anti-government extremist militia group the Oath Keepers, which actively recruits members of the armed forces – is one of the first people to be charged with seditious conspiracy linked to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. While the vast majority of service members are patriotic and serve in good faith, the few service members or veterans who choose to side with extremists like Rhodes pose a particular danger: that the skills, equipment, networks, or other resources that may have been gained through military service could be weaponized against American civilians or the government. A leak of documents allegedly linked to the Oath Keepers revealed 133 associated individuals brazen enough to use their military emails while affiliating with the group. And so far, 81 of the defendants charged with January 6th-related offenses have had some form of military service, five of whom were active-duty service members while undertaking the attempted coup.
The intelligence community and FBI have affirmed time and again that domestic violent extremist movements – notably white supremacists and anti-government militias – comprise the most lethal terrorist threat to Americans in our homeland. When the same was said of al-Qaeda or ISIS, we expected that the military would ensure that no service members held allegiance to those groups. Indeed, after the deadly 2009 terrorist attack at Fort Hood by an al-Qaeda sympathizing Army major, the Department of Defense did a comprehensive review and overhaul of its vetting processes related to international terrorism. It is imperative that the military offer an equal, if not more robust, approach to preventing service members from aligning with domestic extremists that undermine national security.
American service members should be recognized for the courage and sacrifice that they make for our security. And we must recognize that there is no monolithic “typical” service member – indeed, the well over one million active uniform service members represent every imaginable demographic, social, economic, and political background. In understanding that, we also recognize that some – not all, most, or even many – may have extremist views when they attempt to join the military, develop such views while in service, or be targeted for recruitment by extremist groups. Others may develop extremist views following separation from the military, when some evidence suggests that factors such as loss of identity and underappreciation of service may make people vulnerable to recruitment by extremist movements.
Department of Defense Efforts Post-January 6th
In the wake of the January 6th insurrection, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin committed to addressing the threat of extremists within the ranks, including ordering a “stand down” for military units to discuss the risks of extremism and commissioning a Countering Extremist Activity Working Group (CEAWG) to explore what more DOD can do to mitigate the threat of extremists in the ranks. (Disclosure: The author, on behalf of ADL, participated in CEAWG “listening sessions” with a variety of civil society organizations.) At the end of 2021, DOD released the CEAWG report and a corresponding implementation memorandum from the Secretary. Taken together, the plan is comprehensive in its categories of review but has some clear gaps, including lack of detail in how it will be implemented. So, the questions remain – is the Pentagon doing enough, and, if more must be done, what?
To be clear, the military has long addressed qualifications for service based on the risks posed by recruits and active-duty members, though it could be argued that its attempts have been incomplete and/or inadequate. Since the 1980s, active participation in a white supremacist group has been prohibited for members of the military, and minor tweaks to the governing rules have been made in the years since then. Examples include 2010 guidance that prohibits Air Force personnel from engaging in hate group activity, 2017 guidance on how to address extremist affiliation in the Navy, and other regulations that have varied across service branch and at times have lacked clarity in how to carry them out. As ADL has recommended previously, the varied guidance needs to be clarified in DOD-wide, specific guidelines.
The CEAWG review included both responses to immediate actions directed by Secretary Austin and additional recommendations for countering domestic terrorism. The directed actions included work on various training, screening, and information-sharing processes, as well as review and update of DOD Instruction 1325.06 (DODI 1325.06), “Handling Protest, Extremist, and Criminal Gang Activities Among Members of the Armed Forces.” As of 2012, DODI 1325.06 prohibited service members from “active participation” in or “active advocacy” of or “supremacist, extremist, or criminal gang doctrine, ideology, or causes, including those that advance, encourage, or advocate illegal discrimination based on race, creed, color, sex, religion, ethnicity, or national origin or those that advance, encourage, or advocate the use of force, violence, or criminal activity or otherwise advance efforts to deprive individuals of their civil rights.” CEAWG noted that the stand down “demonstrated a need to clarify” what was meant by “active participation,” suggesting that many of the rules were in place to prevent extremists from successfully recruiting service members, but that there was limited guidance on how to implement them.
Revisions to DODI 1325.06
In the revised DODI 1325.06, CEAWG clarified two definitions: “extremist activities” and what “active participation” in them means.
The updated definition of “extremist activities” is relatively expansive from an ideological perspective. It includes advocating, supporting, or engaging in terrorism; advocating or engaging in “unlawful force” to “deprive individuals of their rights” or to achieve goals that are “political, religious, discriminatory, or ideological”; supporting the overthrow of the U.S. government; and advocating “widespread unlawful discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex (including pregnancy), gender identity, or sexual orientation.” While the definition smacks of fear to “call the threat what it is,” it is detailed and seems to target white supremacy and other forms of right-wing domestic terrorism, even if those ideologies are not named directly. On the other hand, it limits the definition of some “extremist activities” to a relatively high threshold: for example, not prohibiting the promotion of widespread discrimination in itself, but only of “unlawful discrimination.”
The new definition of “active participation” likewise leans heavily, although not exclusively, on “unlawful,” including, among other things, “unlawful force,” “unlawful use of force,” a “breach of law and order,” and “violation of… [a] lawful order.” It would be difficult to enforce – not to mention raise civil liberties concerns – to prohibit “passive participation,” and therefore, drawing the line at what is unlawful may make sense in punitive contexts like being separated from the military. But surely there is widespread discrimination that could be considered “awful but lawful” that is disruptive within the ranks and also poses a security risk. In terms of punitive actions, while lawful but awful behavior may not be grounds for more severe punishment, a more expansive policy could identify lawful activities that would still trigger education, training, or counseling. Furthermore, given that white supremacy and other forms are extremism are not, themselves, unlawful, clearly there is a gap between embrace of a dangerous movement and the point at which DOD regulations trigger action. Therefore, it is bit odd to have such a high threshold for behavior being considered extremist, rather than a more expansive definition where more severe infractions are tied to more severe punishments.
The CEAWG report outlines several policies that DOD could implement to help the military counter extremism, including addressing the processes for recruiting new service members, screening and intervention for those on active duty, and resources for those transitioning out of the military.
Identifying the Current Threat
The report also outlines studies commissioned on extremism within the ranks. Separately, but relatedly, the Inspector General commissioned a study on screening and recruitment, and the CEAWG report itself announced a three-phased set of studies commissioned on extremism within the ranks, estimated to be completed in June. While both of these measures are laudable, it is premature to assess their effectiveness – for one, the studies themselves have not been released, and secondly, final results will not be available until mid-year. That timeline may be necessary due to the comprehensiveness of the study. But DOD also has long had the resources and tools to study domestic extremism. Such work should have been in progress years ago, and certainly should have been ordered immediately following January 6th, 2021, and expedited, in light of the urgency.
These reports, or versions of them, must be released publicly so that people, including civil society groups and policymakers responsible for oversight, can understand the nature of the threat and the veracity of the Pentagon’s prioritization. Thankfully, the Inspector General completed a report last year, based on diversity and inclusion requirements, that looked into “prohibited activity,” a summary of which has been released to the public. The report showed only 245 allegations of extremist participation (of approximately 1.4 million service members) and 92 disciplinary actions. Although helpful in quantifying the serious threat of violent extremism in the armed forces, the data was presented at a high level of generality, and a more detailed breakdown would be necessary to use the information to inform policy. This transparency is welcomed, but a much deeper dive is required.
Implementing the Guidance
Cutting across efforts to measure the threat: how will the military better identify extremists going forward? One recommendation from the CEAWG report is that, when reviewing suitability for service, recruiters use FBI data on extremist symbols, including in tattoos (which have long been prohibited), to help screen recruits. One would hope that indicators of extremist affiliation extend far beyond symbols like tattoos; as has been outlined elsewhere, the CEAWG guidance is expansive enough that service members’ social media and other posts (and potentially even “likes”) could be part of the review of their suitability.
Yet, with that expansive scope, there is a lack of clarity around where the line will be drawn: Which social media posts are private, protected speech, and which comprise a risk? While some of these details may need to be kept to investigators, others would be helpful guidance for commanders and the public alike to better understand the protections of service members’ civil liberties as well as investigators’ understanding of exactly what to look for to mitigate threats. In particular, it would be helpful to know how DOD will inform the investigators. Ongoing transparency and dialogue with civil society organizations investigating extremist movements to bolster expertise into the movements is sorely needed. Similarly, dialogue is needed with civil liberties organizations to ensure transparency and advice on the limitations of investigations.
The CEAWG report also calls for training and education throughout DOD. Increasing knowledge and awareness of the concerns of extremist recruitment is a key component to address the threat. However, military trainings on extremism have varied considerably in quality, including some that have contained Islamophobic sentiments that may have echoed the very white supremacist narratives that now underlie our nation’s most lethal terrorist movement. Who will design, who will deliver – and who will oversee the design and delivery of – these trainings to ensure they identify dangerous narratives while ensuring those narratives do not proliferate?
Similarly, the CEAWG report notes that the Transition Assistance Program checklist has been updated to mandate that service members transitioning to civilian life affirm their commitment to their oath of office, and to provide service members transitioning out with access to counseling and a tip line to report extremism. While welcome, surely it will require a complete rethinking of current counseling and other transition guidance to adequately off-ramp those who might otherwise be at risk to extremist recruitment. DOD should consider counseling even outside of the context of separation from the military, and Department of Veterans Affairs should consider robust options for post-transition support.
In terms of the day-to-day of military service, the guidelines offer insight into how service members’ experiences may reflect the new guidance. Displaying extremist symbols is prohibited, concerning behavior with respect to extremism can be reported, and commanders are encouraged to remind service members of these rules. However, therein lies a significant gap in DOD’s plans: adjudication of these rules, including who is punished, for what type of behavior, and how, are in the hands of commanders. That creates a clear conflict of interest. Members of a unit may be shielded by commanders who shy away from losing members of their team, or who may even be likeminded.
What Comes Next?
Overall, DOD’s guidance is a significant first step. The types of prohibited extremist behavior are clearer, the comprehensive set of actions to address it are laid out, and DOD has clearly declared extremism in the ranks a priority of the Secretary. With an uncompromising mindset, one might take the Department’s plan one of two ways. Either DOD now has a comprehensive approach to addressing extremism in the ranks, including recruitment, overseeing those on active duty, and reforming the process of transitioning to civilian life. Or, one could say that, while DOD is slightly clearer on detailed prohibitions of who exactly can’t attempt a coup, it has issued guidance comprised of plans for future action, vague commitments, a high threshold for action, and a conflict of interest in the process of taking action. Where one falls on a spectrum between these two opinions may depend on how much one trusts the word of DOD. Additional guidance on objectionable behavior, a clear sense of how DOD will stay informed on the evolving nature of extremism, the release of the reviews of the current threat in the ranks, and new approaches like a study into innovative counseling and counter-disinformation approaches would all be welcomed.
Crucially, the only way to truly determine how DOD is doing will require ongoing transparency and regular relationships with civil society. The CEAWG report and implementation guidance stated that, with the December 20, 2021, release of those documents, CEAWG was disbanded. One must question why the working group would be shut down as if its work were completed. By the reading of its own report, the work of countering domestic extremism in the military has just started. Under the mandate that created it, CEAWG only had a brief window with which to review a broad set of policies and issues, and also to issue a report – it is reasonable that some processes will take additional time. But CEAWG needs a successor, one that ensures coordination and transparency on next steps and works with civil society partners to sharpen their knowledge and ensure public oversight.
There is cause for optimism for more developments throughout the year. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2022 requires DOD to make recommendations on a “separate punitive article” on “violent extremism.” Depending on the substance of those recommendations, such an article has potential to create a more severe deterrent for extremism and require the military’s investigators to deepen anti-extremism expertise. Further, the NDAA requires that DOD submit a report in June on training and education related to extremism.
A previous draft of the NDAA would have created a standing office to address these issues. Such an office would go a long way toward providing the type of ongoing coordination that had been provided by CEAWG, as well as providing Congress and civil society groups a central hub to look to for transparency and oversight. Although the standing office did not make it into the NDAA, lawmakers committed to defending national security should continue looking for other opportunities to create it.
For the Pentagon to start to prioritize addressing domestic extremism in the ranks is laudable. Domestic extremism – whether it be in the form of the most lethal terrorist threat to Americans on U.S. soil or in attempted coups to overthrow the government – is a top, if not the top, issue that our national security apparatus should be working to address. While the Pentagon’s progress is noteworthy, much more must be done to meet the moment.