Pentagon wades into political minefield in hunt for extremists

Bryan Bender
·7 min read

The Pentagon is launching an unprecedented campaign to root out extremists in the ranks after dozens of military veterans took part in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

But confronting white nationalism and other far-right ideologies is proving to be a political minefield for an institution that prides itself on staying out of the nation’s partisan wars. There's a growing sense of anxiety within the Pentagon that this push could feed the perception that it is policing political thought, favoring one political party over another or muzzling free speech.

By the first week of April, all members of the military must take part in a highly unusual order from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, in which unit leaders will conduct a day-long “stand down” to discuss the threat of extremism and gather feedback from troops on the extent that racism and other hateful ideologies or anti-government sentiment have taken root in recent years.

The Pentagon has not yet disclosed all the training materials it is providing commanders, but that hasn't stopped lawmakers and right-wing commentators from accusing the Defense Department of initiating a witch hunt on behalf of the Biden administration to purge political opponents. While there is no evidence to support a politicization of this effort, there are concerns among the top brass and senior retired officers that it could backfire if the Pentagon doesn't clearly define exactly what "extremism" means.

The day-long event is one in a series of steps the Pentagon has initiated in recent weeks to try to get a handle on the problem. The military, which has been accused of a "haphazard" approach to weeding out extremists, is also assessing the extent to which the problem has permeated the ranks, and has begun a series of reviews to determine if new training or regulations are needed to screen out extremist elements.

But the order for all units to set aside a full day to address the threat of extremism and to hear from rank-and-file troops on what they are seeing or hearing is considered a major test case for how effectively the Pentagon can manage such a politically sensitive subject.

“It really matters how it’s done,” said Doyle Hodges, a retired Navy commander and former professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and Naval War College. “If it’s done correctly, it’s a way to educate the force about what the problem is and what it looks like. If it is done poorly, it is a way to make people feel persecuted on the basis of political views they hold.”

Some branches of the military have adopted their own initiatives. The Navy this week decided as part of the stand down that it will require all sailors to reaffirm the oath they took to the Constitution when they joined the service. The service also warned sailors in a separate video that “just by posting, retweeting, or liking an offensive post on social media — you could be participating in extremism."

Austin also issued a new video message warning of the “speed and pervasiveness with which extremist ideology can spread today, thanks to social media and the aggressive and organized and emboldened attitudes many of these hate groups and their sympathizers are now applying to their recruitment and to their operations.”

But as officials compile additional training materials to help guide these conversations and subsequent actions, senior military leaders acknowledge there is a risk of going too far, especially if the Pentagon is not specific about what constitutes extremism and prohibited behavior.

“How do you balance this? We don’t have all the answers on this right now,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. C.Q. Brown told reporters on Friday. “How do you define it? That’s been part of the conversation. Where does the line get drawn on the definition? We may all have different opinions about this. And this is part of the work we will do with the stand down and as we go forward.”

Others have pointed to previous crackdowns that went too far, such as when the Army was a primary target of a communist witch hunt by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s that ultimately became a symbol of the federal government trampling individual rights.

“You can’t cross the line into political correctness,” said Roger Rosewall, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and intelligence officer who has written about the risk of damaging the military if the crackdown is not carried out surgically. “Then you are accusing them of thought crime. The risk is that current military leaders will be telling soldiers you may not believe this, that or the other thing."

"If you are in the military and you participated in the events of Jan. 6, then you and anyone who was there committed violent acts that really amounted to an attempted insurrection against the United States government and you violated your oath,” he added.

Rosewall cites a number of views that commanders must ensure do not get lumped into extremist behavior, including religious convictions that hold that gay marriage, while legal, is immoral.

"Some service members believe their race, ethnic group, tribe, organization, etc., is superior to others, while acknowledging this belief affords them no special rights or privileges," he said. "Are they extremists?"

The Pentagon says it is still working on additional guidelines for commanders to rely on during the stand down, including the specific themes to be highlighted about the military's values and its adherence to the law and subservience to civilian authority.

But officials also insist that the effort to address extremism will be very focused in order to avoid discussions that could alienate members of the military or be perceived by the public as advancing one political worldview over others.

"We want our people to participate in the electoral process," said John Kirby, the Pentagon's chief spokesperson. "We want them to vote. It's absolutely OK for them to have political views. That's not what this is about. It is about ideology that is prejudicial to good order and discipline and contradictory to our values and could incite conduct and behavior in oneself or others that can actually do harm to the institution."

Avoiding any discussion of the controversies and conspiracies surrounding the recent presidential election is crucial, Hodges believes, "especially since so much of the narrative of stolen election made its way into mainstream media. "

"While you would ordinarily think of these as fringe beliefs," he said, "Fox News isn’t fringe. When you tell someone a hallmark of the insurrectionist behaviors is not accepting legitimacy of the election, you not only are addressing the QAnon people. You are addressing a nontrivial portion of Fox News viewers. There’s a real challenge in how you present it in a way that is not equivocal but also doesn't make someone feel persecuted by virtue of their political alignments. Good luck with that."

Others with experience combating extremists in the military also assert that the focus must be on behavior, not ideas or beliefs, and point to regulations already widespread in the military as a guide.

For example, an Army regulation published last year defines extremist organizations and activities as advocating "the use of force or violence or unlawful means to deprive individuals of their rights," and advocating "the use of unlawful violence or force to achieve goals that are political, religious, discriminatory, or ideological in nature."

That also includes "expressing a duty to engage in violence against [the Department of Defense] or the United States in support of a terrorist or extremist cause," the regulation states.

"Focus on behavior," advises George Reed, a former investigator in the Army's Criminal Investigation Division who investigated racial murders committed by soldiers at Fort Bragg in 1995 that uncovered a large group of white supremacists in the ranks.

"There is no litmus test for ideology and people can hold in their head and in their heart pretty much whatever they want to," added Reed, who is now the dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. "It’s when they start impacting other people through their behavior that it becomes prejudicial to good order and discipline.”

However, he added: “I understand the concern about overreacting, but the threat is less of overreaction and more of under reaction.”