Department of Defense taking steps to "stamp out extremism among the ranks"

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is urging troops to share any experiences they have had related to extremism with their commanders during a 60 day military-wide "stand down" to address the issue. Military Times deputy editor Leo Shane III joins CBSN's "Red & Blue" anchor Elaine Quijano to discuss the initiative and what successful efforts to "stamp out extremism among the ranks" might look like.

Video Transcript

ELAINE QUIJANO: The Department of Defense is taking steps to stamp out extremism among the military's ranks. It comes after 30 veterans were arrested for participating in the January 6 Capitol riot. Of that group, just under half were US Marines, according to the Defense Department. There is currently a 60-day military-wide "stand

Down" to discuss the issue and find solutions. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin put that in place last month. He's made the initiative personal, calling on service members who have dealt with extremism in the ranks to share their thoughts with Pentagon leaders. In a video message, he acknowledged extremism is not new to the military.

LLOYD AUSTIN: It's not new to our country. And sadly, it's not new to our military. What is new is the speed and the pervasiveness with which extremist ideology can spread today thanks to social media and the aggressive, and organized, and emboldened attitude that many of these hate groups and their sympathizers are now applying to their recruitment and to their operations.

ELAINE QUIJANO: For more, let's bring in Military Times deputy editor Leo Shane III. He covers Congress, Veterans Affairs, and the White House. Welcome, Leo. Thanks very much for being with us. What exactly does this initiative to combat extremism in the military look like?

LEO SHANE III: Yeah, for right now, as you mentioned, they have that video that they're showing to all of the soldiers, all the folks across the military. They're also having a lot of small group conversations about what it means to have-- have extremists in the ranks, signs they might see, you know, do you know someone who has tattoos, do you know someone who's espousing some extremist views? And they're having conversations with commanders about what they've seen, how they report it, how they can relay that information.

The real key going ahead is going to be what do they do with this? Is this just a one-time conversation? Is this just a-- some-- some feel-good discussions among service members? Or does this become a point of action for future reference? And do they actually start to root out folks, do we start to see more-- more prosecutions, more-- more arrests, more-- more criminal identifications here? Or is it just for show right now?

ELAINE QUIJANO: Yeah, that does sound like the next question. But what do we know about the extent of extremism in the military currently?

LEO SHANE III: Yeah, no, it's a great question, because we don't know a lot right now. The Defense Department hasn't kept great records on this. It's not something that they've really looked into. They can cite a couple-- a few dozen arrests they've made over the last decade for folks who were affiliated with hate groups, but they're not really looking into the issue.

Military Times, we've done a poll each of the last four years asking troops if they've seen signs of extremism or racist ideology. About a third of troops we've polled have said they've seen signs of it. About half of minorities said they've seen signs of it. So clearly, there is some segment of the military population that is connected to these groups. And we know that a lot of these-- these hate groups, these extremist groups are trying to recruit military members.

They want folks who are proficient in weapons. They want folks who are good at organization. And they have respect for the military too. They want to be seen as having people in the community that you might respect. So-- so the military right now is going through trying to do a better job of seeing what they have, doing their own internal surveys. Hopefully later this fall, we'll get a chance to really see what they've found and just how widespread the problem is.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Yeah, it'll be really interesting to see what those results are. Shortly after the killing of George Floyd, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, gave a rare speech. Here's some of what he said.

MARK MILLEY: And I am personally outraged by George Floyd's brutal and senseless killing. The protests that have ensued not only speak to this injustice, but also to centuries of injustice toward the Black Americans. We as a nation and as a military are still struggling with racism, and we have much work to do. We who wear the cloth of our nation understand that cohesion is a force multiplier. Divisiveness leads to defeat.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Leo, how is racist or extremist rhetoric dealt with in the military ranks?

LEO SHANE III: Yeah, it's really on a case by case basis. Obviously, the military-- as you heard there, the military doesn't tolerate this kind of behavior. This is against the code of conduct. It's against good morale. But what we've seen in the past is it depends on individual commanders.

In some cases, it could just be brushed aside as, well, this was a one-time event. This was something where you misbehaved a little bit. In other cases, a commander can take it seriously and see extremism for what it is. It's a really corrosive hatred that could spread and could undermine the entire unit's morale and-- and trust in each other.

So-- so we've seen cases where folks can be booted out for this, can be-- you know, if you've got racist tattoos, if you've got an affiliation with these groups, you can be kicked out. But in a lot of cases, commanders will also turn the other way and say, well, he had a bad day or that, you know, this person is generally a good soldier, so I'll let them slide on this. We'll just give him a letter of reprimand and move ahead.

And that's going to be key. Are they going to start really prosecuting these folks? Are they going to really root out folks? Or are they just going to keep on the business as usual and say, if you're generally OK and we catch one or two whiffs of this, we'll leave you in the ranks?

ELAINE QUIJANO: Well, Lloyd Austin, as you know, is both a former general and the first-ever Black defense secretary. He's discussed how this is personal for him. Officials acknowledge this is a significant undertaking. So Leo, what are some possible metrics of success on this?

LEO SHANE III: Well, the first thing is going to be just identifying what the extent of the problem is. Look, we don't think that most members of the military are involved with these groups, but we just don't have a number of what it is. So if they can start to say, all right, we've seen a few hundred cases, we've seen these places in units, and just-- just really identify what the problem is, then they can start to say, all right, here's how we bring it down.

Right now the only data we really have are criminal arrest records that come from outside or a couple of cases under the UCMJ where-- where folks have been brought up on charges. But that's where we'll really to start to see, do-- are they actually kicking folks out of the military? Are they removing these folks? Are they prosecuting people?

And once we start to see those numbers, we'll know that they're taking it really seriously and starting to address the problem. Also, we'll start to see it in some command climate surveys. We can-- you know, the-- the military often talks to-- to service members. We talk to them too.

We'll start hearing from them. And if folks are getting kicked out for this kind of behavior, we'll know about it. They'll see it, and they'll be able to say, OK, now folks have more confidence in the force as a whole.

ELAINE QUIJANO: A lot of interest, as I said, in that upcoming data. Leo Shane for us. Leo, thank you.

LEO SHANE III: Thank you.