WASHINGTON (AP) — Warning that extremism in the ranks is increasing, Pentagon officials issued detailed new rules Monday prohibiting service members from actively engaging in extremist activities. These new guidelines are nearly one year since some former and current service personnel participated in the Riot at the U.S. Capitol. This prompted a wide department review.
According to Pentagon figures, less than 100 military officers are believed to have participated in evidenced cases of extremist activities in the last year. However, they caution that there is a possibility of an increase in this number due to the recent rises in domestic violent extremism among veterans.
Officials said the new policy doesn’t largely change what is prohibited but is more of an effort to make sure troops are clear on what they can and can’t do, while still protecting their First Amendment right to free speech. For the first time it is more precise about social media.
The new policy lays out in detail the banned activities, which range from advocating terrorism or supporting the overthrow of the government to fundraising or rallying on behalf of an extremist group or “liking” or reposting extremist views on social media. The rules also specify that commanders must determine two things in order for someone to be held accountable: that the action was an extremist activity, as defined in the rules, and that the service member “actively participated” in that prohibited activity.
Previous policies banned extremist activities but didn’t go into such great detail, and also did not specify the two-step process to determine someone accountable.
According to one defense official, what was wrong yesterday still applies today. However, officials claimed that a survey group that spoke with military personnel this year found they wanted more clarity on what is allowed. They provided more details regarding the rules, but they did not make them public.
Long-standing military suspicions of extremist white supremacists or other groups among troops have been known. After it was clear that some military veterans as well as current service personnel were at the Jan. 6, insurrection, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin led a wider campaign to eradicate extremism within the force.
Austin stated that only a small number of military personnel are guilty of violating their oaths or participating in terrorist activities, and sent the message Monday to the force. But, he added, “even the actions of a few can have an outsized impact on unit cohesion, morale and readiness – and the physical harm some of these activities can engender can undermine the safety of our people.”
Because many military personnel can access classified information on sensitive military operations and other national security information, the risk of extremism is higher. Extremist groups regularly recruit ex-servicemen and current military personnel because they are familiar with combat tactics and weapons.
The amount of substantiated cases is likely to be low compared with the total size of the military (which includes over 2 million active-duty and reserve soldiers). The number of substantiated cases appears to have increased over the previous year, when they were only in the mid-twos. Officials also pointed out that the data is not consistent and it’s difficult to spot trends.
New rules don’t provide any list of extremist groups. Officials said that commanders will determine whether a soldier is engaged in extremist activities on their own.
Asked whether troops can simply be members of an extremist organization, officials said the rules effectively prohibit membership in any meaningful way — such as the payment of dues or other actions that could be considered “active participation.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters that “there’s not a whole lot about membership in a group that you’re going to be able to get away with.” He added, “In order to prove your membership you’re probably going to run afoul of one of these criteria.”
Kirby also said that commanders will evaluate each case individually, so simply clicking “like” on one social media post, for example, might not merit punishment depending on all the circumstances involved.
He also noted that the Pentagon does not have the ability or desire to actively monitor troops’ personal social media accounts. These issues could be reported to commanders, or discovered by other means.
Six broad categories of extremist activities are listed in the regulations. Then, 14 distinct definitions define active participation.
Soon after taking office, Austin ordered military leaders to schedule a so-called “stand-down” day and spend time talking to their troops about extremism in the ranks.
All military services are affected by the new rules, except the Coast Guard which is, in peacetime, part of Department of Homeland Security. These rules were developed from recommendations by the Countering Extremist Activities Working Group. And they make the distinction, for example, that troops may possess extremist materials, but they can’t attempt to distribute them, and while they can observe an extremist rally, they can’t participate, fund or support one.
Officials stated that the rules are based on behaviour and not ideology. Therefore, service personnel can hold whatever religious, political or other belief they like, but their actions are controlled.
Additionally to new regulations, the Pentagon will expand its screening of potential recruits in order to look more closely at possible extremist activities. Although some actions may not be enough to prevent someone from joining, they do require more thorough scrutiny.
Additionally, the department is increasing education and training of current military personnel and for anyone leaving service that may suddenly be recruited by extremist groups.
Insurrection at Capitol Jan. 6, 2017, saw more than 650 persons charged, with dozens of veterans as well as about half a dozen active-duty service personnel.