One Year After Insurrection DoD Struggles to Curb Extremism in the Military

Photo by Blink O’fanaye licenced under CC BY-NC 2.0

In the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021 assault of the US Capitol, the Department of Defense was stunned to find that one in ten of those charged in the attack were active or former military service members. In September of 2021, the DoD suffered another blow when the non-profit journalist collective Distributed Denial of Secrets (DDoSecrets) released a cache of data showing over 100 active members of the US military were associated with the far-right anti-government militia the Oath Keepers – which played a significant role in the insurrection.

In an effort to curb extremism within the ranks of the military, the Pentagon’s first move has been to clarify previously existing rules that prohibited “active advocacy” of “supremacist, extremist, or criminal gang doctrine, ideology, or causes.”

That’s hardly enough to weed out extremist sentiment among military members, even with new rules prohibiting military members from “liking,” sharing/retweeting, or posting content that might promote domestic terrorism or the overthrow of the US government. In order to verify that activity, however, a report would have to be made, and then military leadership would speak with the service member, to see whether their activity was intentional.

“…it’s going to be very case-specific, and will be up to the individual’s chain of command, and his or her senior leadership in the unit, to have that discussion, that determination, whether this was a very deliberate act of active participation in extremist activities or whether it was maybe a mistake,” said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby.

That’s simply not enough, many experts feel. “Writing policy and recommendations is always easier than enacting them,” said Michael Jensen, senior researcher at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland. Other experts pointed out that the DoD’s reluctance to take a bolder stance in naming specific groups or ideologies.

“I don’t know how you develop a policy on extremism that is really enforceable unless you do bright-line rules — like you can’t be a member of the KKK, you can’t advocate for the KKK — something that’s recognized as an extremist organization,” said retired Col. Don Christensen, the Air Force’s chief prosecutor from 2010 to 2014. “If you don’t make black-and-white rules, then it leaves it up to interpretation.”

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