White House, Congress Clash over How to Combat Extremism in the Military

Members of the National Guard stand guard outside the U.S. Capitol
Members of the National Guard stand guard outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

House Democrats and the Biden administration agree extremism in the military is a problem. But they don't agree on what to do about it.

Language in the House-passed version of a massive annual defense policy bill aims to give the military more tools to root out extremists in the ranks by creating a new office in the Pentagon; requiring more training and data collection; and clarifying that service members cannot be members of extremist groups.

The White House, though, has said it opposes the changes even as it said it agrees with lawmakers' goals.

Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md., who sponsored the provision, said in an interview that he has been working with the Defense Department on finding agreeable language but insisted the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, must include an aggressive provision to arm the Pentagon in its fight against extremism.

"I go back to Jan. 6," said Brown, a former officer in the Army judge advocate general corps. "We now learn many of them were people with a background in military training. You saw it in the formations they were using as they marched on the Capitol. You saw it in the gear that they were carrying, and in the protocols, the manners in which they were operating on that day. And we're not going to stand for a Defense Authorization Act that doesn't get after that problem."

Brown expressed confidence House leadership is on his side and would give negotiators a message: "Don't come back with a Defense Authorization Act that doesn't have meaningful provisions that counter extremism in our military."

The military has long struggled with eliminating extremism in the ranks, but the issue came to the forefront after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, in which several service members and veterans have been charged with participating.

In the wake of the attack, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he would make countering extremism a top priority, using one of his first acts in office to order a force-wide stand-down for rank-and-file troops and their leaders to discuss the issue.

But there continue to be signs the military is struggling with how to handle cases tied to extremism. Of five service members charged in the Jan. 6 attack, just one Army reservist has been booted from the force.

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Brown's amendment would clarify that anyone who "engages in extremist activities or is a member of an extremist organization" is barred from serving in the military and that military leadership can use "content knowingly shared, disseminated, or otherwise made available online (including on social media platforms and accounts) by an individual who serves in an armed force that expresses support for extremist activities" as cause for involuntary separation.

The amendment, which was approved by the House Armed Services Committee in September in a party-line 31-28 vote, also would create an Office of Countering Extremism within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness.

Brown's provision also would require the Pentagon to craft "extremist insider threat training" that touches on what constitutes an extremist insider threat, how to identify such a threat and media literacy, among other areas. The training would have to be done at several points in a military career, including initial entry and certification courses for promotions.

The measure also would mandate a slew of data to be collected and maintained in a database, including information on each incident, complaint or allegation of extremism by a service member or civilian employee; notifications from civilian law enforcement about investigations into current or former service members related to extremism; involuntary separations on the basis of extremism; and security clearance revocations related to extremism.

In arguing for the need for the data collection, Brown pointed to "uncertainty and confusion" about the extent of the issue during congressional testimony.

In particular, Brown cited U.S. Strategic Command chief Adm. Charles Richard's testimony at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in April that he is "very confident that the number of extremists in my forces is zero." Richard later clarified at a Pentagon briefing that he "know[s] of none" but that he is "doing my best to make sure that I haven't missed anybody."

The bill would leave the definition of extremism -- the lack of which has led Republicans to accuse the Pentagon of using extremism as a guise to target conservatives -- to the DoD to decide. The department created a Countering Extremism Working Group in April that is working on a definition, and its report is "nearing completion," Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby told reporters late last month.

In a statement ahead of the House passing its version of the NDAA in September, the White House said it opposes the provision because it would "impose onerous and overly specific training and data collection requirements and would foreclose other options to address extremism."

Still, the statement said the administration "shares the goal of preventing prohibited extremist activities and holding offenders accountable."

Brown said he is in talks with the department, including having a personal call with Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, to address its concerns with the language and that he's received commitments the Pentagon "will work with us, not against us."

Among the concerns the department has expressed to him, he said, is the language that prohibits membership in extremist groups since Pentagon rules right now focus on participation rather than just being a member.

The Pentagon did not respond to requests for comment on its talks with Brown or what changes it would like to see to the provision.

There is no similar language in the Senate version of the NDAA right now, which could provide an opening for opponents of the amendment to get it stripped out from the final version of the bill during House-Senate negotiations.

A spokesperson for House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., declined to comment on the White House's opposition to the provision or his expectations for conference negotiations, saying that "to preserve the member's decision space, we don't comment on issues subject to conference negotiations."

The Senate version of the NDAA still needs to be voted on by the full chamber, and Brown said he is in talks with a few Senate offices to sponsor an amendment mirroring his language when the bill comes to the floor. He declined to name the offices since those talks are ongoing.

Asked whether he'd support the House language during negotiations, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., who will lead talks on the bill for Senate Democrats, told Military.com he thinks it's "something we have to discuss in conference" but appeared to downplay the need for "institutional reform."

"Like so many things in the military, this is not so much institutional reform, it's leadership. It's educating troops so that they understand their duty to the Constitution," he said.

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

Related: What Happened to Members of the Military Accused of Storming the Capitol on January 6?

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