'Why Are We Talking About It?' Congress May Face Impasse on Extremism in the Military

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Rioters try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington.
Rioters try to break through a police barrier, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

As the military faces a reckoning on extremism within the ranks following the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riot, the issue is turning rapidly into a partisan stalemate in Congress.

"In many instances, you have members of the military be a part of these groups," Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said on "Morning Joe" on Thursday. "The Republicans ... part of the problem with their response is acting as defense attorneys asking why, if the problem can't be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, why are we talking about it?"

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Extremism in the military is a complex issue for which Congress seemingly doesn't see a straightforward legislative solution. There's a critical balance to strike: Service members don't give up all freedoms of speech and expression when they join the military, and lawmakers and brass are cautious about making policy that infringes on the rights they do have. Then there's the issue of how to define extremist activity, which can turn quickly into rhetorical jiu-jitsu.

"Something I've wrestled with is, it's going to be in the eye of the beholder. There are certain worldviews we are not going to accept. If you're in line with the Nazi Party or the Ku Klux Klan or Hamas, we're not going to accept you," Smith said. "It's not simply free speech; we have to make a choice as a society of what we tolerate. It's where the debate gets lost."

Armed Services Committee Republicans on Wednesday argued during a hearing on extremism in the military that the insurrection doesn't represent an overall problem in the force.

"We lack any concrete evidence that violent extremism is as rife in the military as some commentators claim," Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, the top Republican on the committee, said during the hearing. "While I agree with my colleagues that these numbers should be zero, this is far from the largest military justice issue facing our armed services."

As of late February, veterans made up about 13% of total arrests in the Capitol riot. However, more veterans have been detained since then. Veterans made up about 7% of the U.S. population in 2018, according to Census Bureau data.

When 27,000 National Guard troops deployed to D.C. to secure the Capitol, at least 12 service members were taken off the mission as a cautionary measure. However, none of those soldiers were a part of the mob. Law enforcement and military officials have yet to detail what led to the soldiers being sent home.

But Jacob Fracker, an infantryman in the Virginia National Guard, was arrested after photos surfaced of him taking part in the mob. In a deleted Facebook post, he published a photo of himself in the Capitol during the siege and wrote, "Lol to anyone who's possibly concerned about the picture of me going around ... Sorry I hate freedom?"

Republicans at the hearing were mostly dismissive of the idea of extremism in the military and focused most of their attention on blasting a witness representing the Southern Poverty Law Center, attacking the organization for perceived credibility issues instead of discussing the issue at hand.

Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Texas, grilled Lecia Brooks, the chief of staff for SPLC, on the organization adding two major veterans groups -- the VFW and American Legion -- to its annual list of hate groups that includes the Ku Klux Klan. The SPLC never did that; Fallon seemingly was citing a post from the military satire website Duffel Blog.

Some GOP lawmakers on the panel suggested extremism was being conflated with views that might be offensive to some, expressing concern that efforts to police ideologies could be weaponized against those with mainstream conservative views or people who make an off-color comment on social media.

"I'm very concerned that we're seeing people through all walks of society lose their jobs and other things simply because of some post when somebody was mad," Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., said.

But Democrats said Republicans were getting bogged in hypotheticals instead of addressing the real issues.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin directed all commanding officers to conduct a one-day stand-down to discuss extremism with their formations by early April, making rooting out racist and other radical views in the military one of the earliest top priorities during his time running the Pentagon.

While there's no evidence the military itself radicalizes service members, some argue the background checks for getting into the military can be thin and not as extensive as those for civilian jobs, which often include reviews of social media accounts and other online activity.

"The Department of Defense is less willing to look at open-source material than many employers when vetting interns or students at a university. The Department of Defense is falling behind in many ways," Audrey Cronin, a professor of international security at American University, said at the hearing.

-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon

Related: Why So Many Veterans Find the Path to Extremism

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