Pentagon Plan to Fight Extremism in the Ranks Is a Start, But Experts Say Problems Loom

Boogaloo Bois stand on the sidewalk in Richmond, Va.
Boogaloo Bois stand on the sidewalk on 9th Street in support of lobby day on Monday, Jan. 18, 2021, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/John C. Clark)

Experts who study extremism are calling the Pentagon's latest report and plan to combat extremism in the ranks a step in the right direction, but one that relies on an already problematic approach -- leaving the issue for commanders to fix.

The 21-page report, released Monday, created new guidelines for activities that are banned for service members by adding more detail and clarity on what constitutes extremist activity as well as "active participation."

Since the Pentagon began discussing a crackdown, it has lacked a clear definition of what types of actions would get service members in trouble. Most troops aren't broadcasting membership in extremist groups, and what constitutes support had previously been ambiguous.

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The new policy bans a range of things from advocating terrorism or supporting the overthrow of the government to fundraising for an extremist group – even something as basic as "liking" or reposting extremist views on social media. The report also emphasized that "military personnel are responsible for the content they publish on all personal and public Internet domains."

The Pentagon's spokesman, John Kirby, explained during a press briefing Monday that the new policy is "a more clear explanation of what commanders' authorities and responsibilities are" and stressed that military leaders will look to unit commanders to enforce it "because they know their units and they know their people better than anybody."

He also stressed that the Pentagon is not planning systemic surveillance of service members' social media accounts to find infractions.

However, Kristofer Goldsmith, an Iraq War veteran who has spent years studying extremism in the ranks, told in an interview that this mechanism is a major weakness of the Pentagon's intended fix.

"The average commander is focused on getting their troops combat ready; they're not spending any time learning what 1488 means," he said, citing a symbol popular with white supremacists.

    Goldsmith explained that much of the online extremist activity that he has tracked and studied "is encoded language that the average person is not going to understand."

    "These individuals with extreme views on race and anti-government sentiment … their ability to camouflage is a survival tactic," he added.

    Kirby stressed that the newly prohibited behavior "wouldn't be something that the command or the department's going to be actively fishing for."

    The military's reliance on unit commanders to address problems in the ranks has not always been successful. Years of failure by leaders to deal with an epidemic of sexual assault has led to congressional efforts to remove commanders from the equation.

    "Just like in incidents of sexual assault, if you have people in charge who are not specialists, you are going to do a very, very poor job of addressing the problem," Goldsmith said.

    And with extremist rhetoric and even action becoming an increasingly prominent feature of the political sphere, commanders may not always take action.

    A National Guardsman who was part of the mob that rampaged through the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 is still serving in Wisconsin despite having been sentenced by a federal court to probation and a fine for his actions. Fellow soldiers and his commander wrote letters of support ahead of his sentencing.

    A major in the Marine Corps was arrested in May for his part in the Capitol riot but is also still on active duty. The Corps held a hearing in September on whether to let him keep serving but has yet to reach a decision on the matter.

    Kirby said that leaders in the Pentagon "have full confidence in our commanders' ability when something's reported to them to treat it appropriately and to look into it in the manner that they see fit."

    Andrew Mines, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, said in an interview with that some of the suggestions and recommendations in the report show promise for future action.

    The report recommends centralized centers dedicated to the issue of extremism, something that Mines believes could be particularly helpful for supporting service members who have become entangled in extremist ideologies.

    "I really think the best option for their side of things would be to kind of create more of a centralized office that is staffed by a bunch of case managers ... focusing on nonpunitive measures first," Mines said.

    Mines, who is also wary of leaving the issue to commanders to solve, noted that this approach would alleviate much of that criticism.

    "You can give commanders all the training you want, they're still never going to be at the point where they have the same kind of competencies and expertise that folks with mental health background, with kind of generalist backgrounds in extremist organizations and extremist ideology."

    Mines said that the next step would be for the Pentagon to focus more on prevention than punishment.

    "If you … don't focus on the primary prevention side, you're always going to be playing whack-a-mole," he said

    Goldsmith also noted that, on the whole, the report is a positive step. "In defining extremist activity and behavior and giving an affirmative way for commanders to measure it -- we've got the most important step," he said.

    "No one policy change, no one administration is going to do this," Goldsmith said. "The insider threat is never going away, and it is going to constantly evolve."

    -- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

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