Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby speaks at press conference at the Pentagon January 28, 2021 in Arlington,Virginia.

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby speaks at press conference at the Pentagon January 28, 2021 in Arlington,Virginia. (Photo by Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Pentagon Launches Post-Insurrection Extremism Review

Secretary Austin directs new steps, studies to keep extremists out of the ranks and better protect outgoing troops from being recruited into extremist groups.

The U.S. military will begin a wide-ranging counter-extremism program within its ranks after new orders from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin issued in a memo on Friday. 

The multi-front effort is the result of the Pentagon’s  Countering Extremism Working Group, and caps 60 days of reflection and response from unit leaders that began in early February, weeks after the failed insurrection at the Capitol Building on Jan. 6 — where nearly 1 in 5 defendants were later found to have served in the military. 

First on Austin’s new orders: define extremism — or what the Defense Department considers to be “prohibited extremist activities” — in the military. That task will fall to the Pentagon’s Under Secretary for Personnel and Readiness and its lawyers at the Office of the General Counsel. 

The Pentagon will also “commission a study on extremist behavior within our Total Force, to include gaining greater fidelity on the scope of the problem,” according to the memo. Currently, membership in an extremism group is not barred.

“That is something that the secretary has indicated that he wants the working group to look at,” said Pentagon press secretary John Kirby, even though it’s not explicitly mandated in this memo. “The force wants better guidance. The men and women want better guidance about what ‘extremist activity’ really is.” 

Though the numbers of extremism offenders are believed to be “small,” Kirby said the service secretaries, all of whom are Trump administration holdovers, have shared anecdotes from their ranks which “reinforced” with Austin “that this is a problem.”

Other, more tangible changes are afoot. Service secretaries of the military branches will create a way for outgoing troops to self-report being targeted or having “any potential contact with an extremist group,” though exactly how this will take shape is unclear. Other new changes involve “updat[ing] and standardiz[ing] screening questionnaires” for new recruits across every service, including to make clear that lying to recruiters could result in “punitive action for fraudulent enlistment.” 

West Point and an Iraq war veteran Bishop Garrison will lead the working group’s efforts, which are to begin around next week. Bishop also serves as Austin’s Senior Advisor on Human Capital and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. The first progress reports — along with “mid-term and long-term recommendations” are expected by mid-July.

“This is not about being the thought police… it’s about the behavior and the conduct that is inspired by or influenced by this kind of ideology,” Kirby said.