The Military Has a Watchdog for Stopping Extremism. Now, It Wants Teeth -- and Independence

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Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol.
In this Jan. 6, 2021 photo, protesters try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

The Defense Department's Office of Inspector General is asking Congress to take steps to empower its new deputy IG in charge of rooting out extremism in the ranks, and secure its independence.

The Pentagon's deputy inspector general for diversity and inclusion and extremism in the military was established by the National Defense Authorization Act that took effect Jan. 1. It is in charge of conducting audits and investigations into supremacist and criminal gang activity in the armed forces.

In a report to Congress released last week, the IG's office said that it is already working on projects that directly cover those areas, such as evaluating the Pentagon's efforts to address extremism, diversity and inclusion programs, and sexual assault at the Naval Academy.

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And the IG has its eyes set on more projects it could work on beginning next year, such as auditing how well military entrance processing stations identify supremacist, extremist or gang member recruits. But if the office doesn't get more resources, it said, it won't be able to get all of those projects done.

The IG said it needs more funding starting in fiscal 2022 to hire 80 more employees over a two-year period, as well as additional facilities, equipment and operational expenses, to work on diversity, inclusion and extremism. The Office of Personnel Management also gave the IG permission to hire three more Senior Executive Service members, including the new deputy IG.

The hiring will start this year with a dozen new staff members, paid for with money already in the budget, to stand up the office and lay the groundwork for its mission. If the IG gets the rest of its funding in 2022, it will hire the rest of the core staff then.

The Pentagon's IG also needs money to speed up the deployment of an investigations case management system to other IGs throughout the military, the report said. The Pentagon and the IG must develop new ways to track and report extremist, supremacist and criminal gang activity by service members, it added.

But the IG cautioned that Section 554 of the NDAA, as it is currently written, has provisions that "significantly challenge" the office's independence and should be changed.

The IG's office said the section of the law giving Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin the power to appoint and assign duties to the deputy IG, and having the deputy IG report to him, is particularly problematic.

As written, the deputy IG would be "required to simultaneously serve two leaders with distinct and often divergent interests," the IG's report said. "In practical effect, the deputy inspector general is a DoD employee detailed to duties in the DoD OIG, which undermines the independence of the DoD OIG from the DoD and the secretary of Defense in fact and appearance."

This could undermine the new deputy IG before it even gets started, according to the report. If complainants don't believe their concerns will go to an independent, objective organization, they might not come forward with reports of extremist, supremacist or criminal gang activity in the military, it explained.

The IG also said the NDAA has redundant reporting requirements that compromise the office's independence. Section 554 of the NDAA requires the new deputy IG -- not the Defense Department's IG -- to submit semiannual reports to the secretary of defense and the IG.

But the deputy IG also is required to submit annual reports to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, as well as other additional reports when directed by the SecDef or the IG.

The defense secretary's authority to direct the deputy IG to write reports puts the office's independence at risk, the IG wrote.

For now, a temporary fix appears to have been found. Austin agreed to delegate power to appoint the new deputy to the Pentagon IG, and clarified that the deputy will be a member of the defense IG's leadership team.

But the IG said it is still possible -- albeit unlikely -- that a future SecDef could rescind that delegation and reclaim power to appoint the deputy.

The IG said it has worked with lawmakers' staff and the DoD Office of Legislative Affairs to propose an amendment to the law that fixes the independence issues, clarifies roles and responsibilities, and clears up the redundant reporting requirements.

-- Stephen Losey can be reached at stephen.losey@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenLosey.

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