An Air Force nominee on Thursday walked back previous support for using artificial intelligence to monitor for signs of extremism in the military under questioning by Republican senators.
Ravi Chaudhary, who has been nominated to be assistant secretary of the Air Force for energy, installations and environment, told senators during a confirmation hearing he regrets that an op-ed he co-wrote on the subject "fell short" and added that he does not support using AI to monitor service members' electronic communications.
"The intent of the article was to engage in a public discussion on addressing extremism, as well as other areas affecting readiness," Chaudhary told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
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"The vast majority of the men and women who serve serve with honor, integrity and excellence," he added. "And I believe that the constitutional rights of our men and women who serve should be protected. Period."
Chaudhary, a former Federal Aviation Administration official, served in the Air Force for more than 20 years, including flying C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft during combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. If confirmed, his portfolio would include managing installations struggling after years of deferred maintenance and implementing policies meant to address the risks of climate change.
At his confirmation hearing Thursday, Republicans repeatedly pressed Chaudhary on a July opinion article he co-wrote that called for using AI to identify "toxic behaviors" that often precede extremist acts or sexual violence. At the time, Chaudhary was an adviser for CommSafe AI, a company that monitors workplace communications for signs of bullying, sexual harassment, discrimination and intellectual property theft.
"The time has come to shift the fulcrum in the battle against violent extremism from reactive to proactive, and take the fight to the extremists by doing what we always do -- match superior strategies with advanced technology," Chaudhary and CommSafe founder Ty Smith wrote in the op-ed.
While some Republicans thanked Chaudhary for walking back his views on AI, at least one, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., explicitly said he plans to vote against Chaudhary. Chaudhary does not need any GOP votes to be confirmed, but with the Senate split evenly by party, he would need the support of every Democrat if all Republicans oppose him.
Chaudhary said that if he's confirmed, he will follow Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall's lead on addressing extremism in the military.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has increased the military's focus on rooting out extremists from the force following the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol for which dozens of people with military backgrounds have been arrested.
A Pentagon policy released in December to better tackle the issue of extremism specified that "liking" or sharing extremist content on social media could be grounds for punishment. Still, the Pentagon stressed it was not planning to actively screen service members' social media accounts.
Republicans have accused the Biden administration of overblowing the threat posed by extremists in the military, saying the administration is using it as a cover to attack conservatives in the military.
"This isn't a systemic problem," Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., told Chaudhary on Thursday. "So when our leaders, or people nominated to serve as leaders, like yourself, call our service members extremists, and the vast majority of them aren't, I get worried about the message you're sending to the people you would be there to lead."
Republicans have also dismissed diversity, equity and inclusion training as a distraction from preparing for threats from Russia and China, even as investigations uncover persistent racism in the military.
On Thursday, under questioning from Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., Chaudhary defended diversity training as a military imperative.
"Diversity and inclusion is important to our readiness because it ensures we have a force that brings in all points of views and is representative of our nation," he said.
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.
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