The Defense Department’s stated desire to combat extremism in its ranks would benefit from a data-based assessment of the problem and better screening of open-source social media in evaluating security risks while protecting service members’ free speech, experts told the House Armed Services Committee.
Audrey Kurth Cronin, director of the Center for Security, Innovation and New Technology at American University, told lawmakers at the Wednesday hearing that “violent extremism that erupted during the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol had a disproportionate number of current or former members of the U.S. Armed Forces leading the mob,” and that “protecting patriot service members who serve honorably and deserve our support, even as we mitigate violent extremism in the ranks, will be a long-term test.”
Last month, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin directed the department to have a one-day “stand-down” to address extremism in the military and ensure “service members, DoD civilian employees, and all those who support our mission” work in an “environment free of discrimination, hate, and harassment.”
That was followed by the release of DoD training materials to help guide discussions that address the issue of extremist ideology within the ranks.
“The most immediate problem is an absence of good data. The 2021 Capitol insurrection leaves the impression that the number of extremists in the military is increasing, yet DoD officials repeatedly claim that the number is small,” Cronin said. “No one truly knows. No serious plan can be built without defining the scope of the problem.”
“Second, the Department of Defense needs to build common standards and rules across all components. This means adopting a consistent definition of domestic violent extremism, identifying organizations that are dangerous, and developing a discharge code that can be tracked across all services,” she added. “Third, the best way to address extremism is to put a structure in place to ensure adequate oversight and follow through. This could either be a confirmable Assistant Secretary of Defense or a senior-level civilian.”
“Fourth, digital literacy is a national security priority. Active-duty military members should have regular training to make them less susceptible to online manipulation. Veterans should be offered it as well. This is imperative not just for the extremist threat, but to defend against a broad range of information operations.”
Cronin stressed that military officials “must recognize and address the ongoing risks of digital technology” and employ “better screening of open-source social media and website use while protecting the constitutional rights of our members — permission to access that information is already provided through the clearance process.”
“The digital environment has enhanced the ability to radicalize, project power, and integrate tactical systems. In the 20th century, it required a national army to do all three of those things: mobilization, power projection, and systems integration,” she said. “Now, terrorists, extremists, and militias can do them all. If we do not address the effects of our new digital landscape, we will never get on top of this problem. Only two things can truly defeat the United States Armed Forces: undermining the American people’s trust and cleavages within the ranks.”
Southern Poverty Law Center Chief of Staff Lecia Brooks testified that “the vast majority of those who serve in our Armed Forces have no connection to white supremacy or extremism and strive always to uphold the best traditions of our nation’s democratic ideals,” yet “the military has a growing problem with white supremacy and extremism.”
“Veterans and service members are high-value recruitment targets for extremist groups. They bring social capital, legitimacy, specialized weapons training, leadership skills, and an increased capacity for violence to these groups,” Brooks said, adding that over the past several years SPLC has “identified dozens of former and active military personnel among the membership of some of the country’s most dangerous and violent white supremacist groups” include the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division and The Base, and the accelerationist Boogaloo movement. “SPLC has analyzed more than 80 hours of calls between Base recruits and group’s leadership and found that roughly 20 percent of the recruits claim to have military experience,” she said.
Brooks said the Department of Defense “should expand and clarify existing prohibitions against advocating for or involvement in supremacist or extremist activity,” and support services should be expanded “that work to deradicalize our active-duty service members and veterans reentering civilian life.”
“If you’re within the military, you’re trying to root out extremist views or other things, how does that work within the context of the First Amendment, if you, the United States military, look at the social media history of the people serving?” Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) asked.
Cronin replied that “at the moment, I think that the Department of Defense is finding itself less willing to look at open-source material than many employers are.”
“I think that there should be a consistent way to be on top of what is open-source information about military members and that is not currently being consistently pursued,” she said. “There’s an uneven degree to which our investigative services vet what is happening on open-source social media. And I think that we could use more aggressive tools to be able to at least have one single policy across the Department of Defense that watches out for keywords, for example, or looks for particular memes and keeps on top of the symbology. I think the Department of Defense is falling behind in many cases and doesn’t necessarily have access to the most up-to-date information that they need.”
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) asked “whether we need additional legislation” to combat extremism in the military. “Can we rely on the guidelines we have now in the Uniform Code of Military Justice without additional legislation?”
First Liberty Institute General Counsel Michael Berry said he believes “the existing regulations and policies are adequate.”
“And if the Congress decides that it wants to amend that, then my strong encouragement would be to do so in a manner that ensures robust protection for the First Amendment,” Berry said. “Nothing will erode public trust and confidence in our military faster than the belief — whether perception or reality, but the belief — that the military no longer protects First Amendment rights for its service members.”
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) stated that “all service members are supposed to be able to obtain a secret or top-secret security clearance, and we expect cleared individuals to not sympathize with violent extremists, yet we allow military service members to be members of such organizations.”
“I think the problem is that we don’t have a joining up of the UCMJ and the clearance process,” Cronin responded. “We don’t have a consistent way of looking at exactly how we are evaluating our service members. The degree to which these rules are enforced across different services differs greatly, and commanders tend to look on a case-by-case basis. So, it is a serious problem, I believe.”