The Pentagon is looking into better screening recruits’ and service members’ social media as part of its effort to get rid of “extremism” in the United States military, according to a recent memo from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
The Pentagon released the memo on Friday afternoon, 60 days after Austin ordered a force-wide “stand-down” for commanders to discuss extremism in the military with troops after some military veterans took part in protests at the Capitol on January 6.
The Pentagon has never defined exactly what “extremism” means or given an estimate of how many “extremists” there are in the military — which defense officials have said was part of what Austin wanted to get a better grasp on during the unprecedented stand-down.
Friday’s memo, dated April 9, is Austin’s first action taken since the end of the stand-down and outlines immediate steps to be taken, as well as the establishment of a “Countering Extremism Working Group (CEWG),” which will have a representative from each military service.
One of the CEWG’s four lines of efforts (LOE) includes pursuing better screening of troops’ and recruits’ social media:
This LOE will examine the Department’s pursuit of scalable and cost effective capabilities to screen publically [sic] available information in accessions and continuous vetting for national security positions. The LOE will make recommendations on further development of such capabilities and incorporating algorithms and additional processing into social media screening platforms. This LOE will also endeavor to develop policy to expand user activity monitoring of both classified and unclassified systems.
Kirby said the Pentagon is looking to do that in a “legal, lawful way.” He said:
“Some of the services, in their recruiting, already take a look at what’s out there in the public realm, because that’s not violating anybody’s First Amendment rights, if you post something on Facebook or social media and it’s out the public,” he said. But so there is some of that, and I think the secretary wants to get a better sense of its utility and the consistency across the services. Again, doing this in a legal, lawful way, but is there more that we could be or should be thinking about in terms of looking at that activity before we bring somebody in as an indicator of their behavior and their conduct.
Another line of effort (LOE) is to make sure training addresses “issues raised by commanders and supervisors on ‘gray areas’ such as reading, following, and liking extremist material and content in social media forums and platforms.” Those “gray areas” are not identified, but during the stand-down period, the senior enlisted leader in the military, Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Ramón “CZ” Colón-López, expressed concerns to reporters that troops “from every echelon” saw Black Lives Matter riots in the same light as riots at the Capitol on January 6, according to Military.com.
Kirby acknowledged that one thing that emerged from the stand-down was that troops want better guidance on what extremist activity is. “The men and women want better guidance about what extremist activity really is which is again totally in keeping with what we’re going to try to do here with his instruction and through the working group and wants that guidance to be as clear as possible,” he said. “So it is really a consistent theme that he heard was a hunger for more information and context about what we’re talking about here.”
One of the immediate actions was to review and update the definition of “prohibited extremist activities among uniformed military personnel.” Currently, Department of Defense Instruction 1325.06 says on extremist behavior:
a. Military personnel must not actively advocate 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.
b. Military personnel must reject active participation in criminal gangs pursuant to section 544 of Public Law 110-181 (Reference (i)) and in other organizations that advocate supremacist, extremist, or criminal gang doctrine, ideology, or causes; including those that attempt to create illegal discrimination based on race, creed, color, sex, religion, ethnicity, or national origin; advocate the use of force, violence, or criminal activity; or otherwise engage in efforts to deprive individuals of their civil rights. Active participation in such gangs or organizations is prohibited. Active participation includes, but is not limited to, fundraising; demonstrating or rallying; recruiting, training, organizing, or leading members; distributing material (including posting on-line); knowingly wearing gang colors or clothing; having tattoos or body markings associated with such gangs or organizations; or otherwise engaging in activities in furtherance of the objective of such gangs or organizations that are detrimental to good order, discipline, or mission accomplishment or are incompatible with military service.
Kirby did say at a briefing on Friday that “this is about the kind of extremist ideology that is based on extreme hatred or discrimination on, based on ethnicity and discrimination based on someone’s personal background.” Democrats have sought to paint the January 6 protesters as “white supremacists.” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) has previously said, “The insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on January 6th did not wear white robes and hoods, they might as well have.”
Other immediate actions include training service members leaving the military on how to report potential contact with an extremist group, and updating and standardizing screening questionnaires for recruits to weed out extremists and make lying punishable. The memo does not specify how DODI 1325.06 or the questionnaires will be updated.
Kirby also said the working group would look at banning membership in extremist groups, which is currently allowed as long as service members are not active participants. “That is something that the secretary has indicated that he wants the working group to look at,” he said.
Kirby indicated the Pentagon still does not have an idea of how many extremists are actually in the military or how many veterans are recruited by extremist groups, but even small numbers of extremists could have a “corrosive effect.”
“Even though the number is small, it can have a corrosive outsized effect,” he said.
Kirby said that a report on “additional mid-term and long-term recommendations” and the status of the steps’ implementation will be provided by the working group no later than 90 days from the working group’s first meeting on or about Wednesday, April 14.
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