A nearly decade-old Defense Department order that prohibits troops from actively participating in gangs or hate groups – but doesn't forbid them from being members – could soon get an update.
A 2012 Pentagon policy on handling dissident and protest activities among military personnel conspicuously doesn't ban troops from being members of organizations that advocate supremacist, extremist or criminal gang ideologies. What is prohibited, according to the order, is "active participation" in the groups.
That could change, the top Pentagon spokesman said on Friday, as defense officials take on the issue of extremism in the ranks.
"Membership is not considered inconsistent with service in the military," John Kirby told reporters. "It is really about what you do with that membership. I'm not going to be predictive one way or the other about where this discussion is going, but I think membership in these groups is certainly something that I would expect [the defense secretary and Joint Chiefs] to look at."
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin this week ordered each of the services to hold, within the next 60 days, a "stand-down" to address the problem of extremist ideology in the ranks. Arrests made in the wake of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol include more than a dozen veterans and military personnel. Some of those military-connected individuals allegedly belong to militia groups, such as the Oath Keepers, an anti-government group that touts having military and law enforcement personnel in its ranks.
During his confirmation hearing, Austin referenced his own experience dealing with skinheads in his Army unit during the 1990s as a lieutenant colonel. He pledged to rid the ranks of racists and extremists, and Kirby said leaders are now discussing how best to go about doing that.
"The definitions that we're operating under now are based on a 2012 instruction, and so do we need to revisit that?" Kirby said.
Experts on homeland security and extremist groups testified on Capitol Hill Thursday, warning lawmakers of a spike in activity and threats from domestic violent extremist groups. That includes militia groups that actively try to recruit service members and veterans or get their members into the military for training, Elizabeth Neumann, a former Department of Homeland Security official, said.
A retired Navy commander in Congress though, Georgia Republican Rep. Andrew Clyde, bristled at the idea of screening troops for extremist ties, as was done to National Guard members ahead of the mission to provide security on Inauguration Day in Washington, D.C.
"This smacks of the 'Thought Police,'" Clyde said, referencing the secret police in George Orwell's dystopian novel "1984" that punished beliefs that weren't government-approved.
When asked Friday whether the military's focus on extremism mounts to a political litmus test to root out conservatives in the ranks, Kirby said the claim was "absolutely unfounded and untrue."
"It's not about politics," Kirby said. "We encourage our troops to vote, we encourage them to register with the political party of their choice. We go out of our way to make it clear that they get a vote, they get a voice in the political electoral process in this country because they're American citizens.
"It's not about what you believe -- it's about what you do with those beliefs."