A congressional hearing on domestic terrorism turned tense when a freshman congressman likened screening military personnel for extremist ties to the "Thought Police" who ferret out unapproved beliefs in George Orwell's famous dystopian novel "1984."
Rep. Andrew Clyde, a Georgia Republican and retired Navy commander, told experts Thursday that he's concerned about the push to screen troops, law enforcement members, or those in political office following the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot.
"This smacks of the 'Thought Police,'" Clyde said during a Committee on Homeland Security hearing. "We are Americans. We respect every person's right to their own opinions, especially those with which we do not agree. We all raised our hand and swore to the same oath of office."
Clyde's comments follow Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's order to the Joint Chiefs that each of the military branches hold a stand-down in the next 60 days to address the problem of extremism in the ranks. Stand-downs are typically daylong pauses from training and other requirements in which leaders address safety concerns or other problems.
Recruiters screen prospective service members for possible extremist ties, but tens of thousands of National Guard members recently got a second look by the FBI ahead of a massive domestic military operation in which they were tasked with safeguarding President Joe Biden's inauguration after the assault on the Capitol. A dozen were removed from the mission as a result, two of whom were flagged for making inappropriate comments.
Clyde, who along with other freshman lawmakers was sworn in last month just days before the riot, said people can have differing opinions and ideologies without it affecting their ability to carry out their duties.
"Comments about screening the members of the military ... are very concerning to me," he said.
Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive officer of the Anti-Defamation League -- a nonprofit that monitors extremist groups, told Clyde that right-wing militias and white-supremacist groups "have made it a point to try to be recruited into the military and law enforcement," driving the need for better screening.
"It's not 'Thought Police' to make sure that our police don't subscribe to white supremacist ideals," Greenblatt said. "It's not 'Thought Police' to make sure that our politicians don't subscribe to conspiracy theories and want to overthrow the government."
During the hearing, House members were debating whether to strip another Georgia Republican, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, of her committee assignments after past comments surfaced in which she indicated support for executing Democrats. Green has also shared false theories about a school shooting and the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon.
Senior defense officials have warned that domestic extremists are actively seeking to recruit service members for their tactical skills. More than two dozen of the people arrested after the violent takeover of the U.S. Capitol have military ties.
Experts echoed warnings about extremism and the military during Thursday's hearing. Elizabeth Neumann, who served at the Department of Homeland Security during the Trump administration, said it has been known for decades that white supremacist and militia groups target former military and law enforcement personnel.
They also encourage young people recruited into the movements to "stay clean," she said, so they can join the military or police departments without getting caught up by screening policies.
"This is primarily because they're looking for people to have had the training associated with being in the military and law enforcement," Neumann said.