Pentagon Effort on Extremism Snarled by Confusion, Guard Divisions, Gaps in Security Clearance Screening

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Rioters try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.
Rioters try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. (John Minchillo/AP Photo)

Military leaders were confused about how to define and root out extremist behavior, even as they acknowledged a stream of racist or bigoted recruits, in the wake of the U.S. Capitol insurrection, according to a long-awaited independent report commissioned by the Pentagon that provides a snapshot of the effort.

The report released this week -- a year and a half after the research was conducted between 2021 and 2022 -- also found that the Pentagon's effort to counter extremism was mired in a hodgepodge of sometimes contradictory policies, security clearance reviews that struggled to weed out extremists, and data collection efforts that were flawed and produced "inconsistent data at best."

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered a renewed push to counter extremism in 2021 after hundreds of rioters, including some service members and veterans, broke into the Capitol in a violent attempt to block President Joe Biden's election victory. The insurrection came amid a rising tide of extremist activity in the U.S. that increasingly involved troops and veterans, as well as growing warnings from experts about potential acts of violence and terrorism.

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The Institute for Defense Analyses, a private nonprofit think tank, produced the report for Austin, titled "Prohibited Extremist Activities in the U.S. Department of Defense."

Clarity on basic definitions in Pentagon policy such as "active participation" and "extremist activities" had not made it to commanders who are supposed to be on the front lines of the issue, according to the report.

It also found that enforcing policies against extremism may be all but impossible in the National Guard and reserves.

In December 2021, the Pentagon announced a new policy document that it said would address the issue of extremists in the ranks. The new rules banned a range of activities, from advocating terrorism or supporting the overthrow of the government to fundraising for an extremist group -- and even some activities as basic as "liking" or reposting extremist views on social media.

Then-Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters that it was "a more clear explanation of what commanders' authorities and responsibilities are" and stressed that military leaders would look to unit commanders to enforce it "because they know their units and they know their people better than anybody."

But the IDA report noted that those rules didn't provide enough information on the types of "signs of future extremist activities" for commanders -- something outside experts warned could be an issue when the policy was rolled out. Researchers also said that the lack of detail -- especially around "active participation" and "extremist activities" -- was particularly problematic.

The lack of clarity and consistency came as several military leaders told researchers in private interviews that the potential for extremism was present in the ranks.

One senior official told the researchers that "some people come in [to the military] with dislike for other races or ethnicities." Another said that "sometimes, people just come in from a bigoted or intolerant home situation and don't know any better," though they added "that can usually be addressed with mentoring."

Service members who were interviewed told researchers that "'intolerance of others' views,' trying to force one's views on others, and not being open to other points of views are building blocks of extremist behavior."

But those troops "often had difficulty drawing a line between prohibited extremist activities and individual acts of harassment and unlawful discrimination prohibited by the [Pentagon.]"

Leaders interviewed for the report and the authors also argued that strong disciplinary measures to deal with incidents could be counterproductive and "leaders need to be alert to the impact of their actions on 'the whole field, not just a few weeds.'"

Delayed Report Echoes Warnings

The study was one of the first things that the Pentagon announced it would be doing in the immediate aftermath of the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, and the discovery in the weeks afterward that veterans and active-duty service members took part in the siege of the Capitol building. The following April, Austin announced the creation of an internal working group and commissioned the IDA report "to include gaining greater fidelity on the scope of the problem."

The working group delivered a separate report -- complete with recommendations and lines of action -- a few months later in December, and the Pentagon announced that the group's work was over.

Meanwhile, the IDA researchers continued working until June 2022, according to the report.

It is not clear why the IDA report was not released for more than a year after the research concluded. It was also made public by the Pentagon in the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, when many troops and much of Washington, D.C., are on leave.

Many of the report's broad conclusions echo what experts have told Military.com in its reporting on the topic over the past two years. For example, the report notes that while military extremists are rare, they are still dangerous since "even a small number of individuals with military connections and military training could present a risk to the military and to the country as a whole."

Examples include a 2020 case in which members of a group that included two Marines and styled itself as a "modern-day SS" were arrested on allegations that they were plotting to destroy the power grid in the northwest U.S. In 2022, a Marine veteran who was arrested on gun charges was revealed to be part of a neo-Nazi group that was stocking up on body armor and regularly training with guns. In 2023, a former Guardsman and self-identified Nazi was arrested for plotting to destroy a Maryland electrical substation.

There have also been multiple cases of troops using or painting the N-word. One case involved a Marine two-star general, another was a top civilian Pentagon official. The Navy has had several cases of nooses being discovered on its ships.

During a 2020 listening session, Navy officials were told of a variety of different examples of discrimination and racism that spanned from being ignored by superiors despite decades of experience to constant use of the N-word.

Guard Reflects Divisions on Extremism

The problems uncovered by the report appear to be even more acute in the National Guard, where the members are far more attached to their communities than the military and its policies of equal inclusion.

In the wake of the Jan. 6 attack, when several Guardsmen were found to have participated in the insurrection, it took months for some states to deal with the service members. In the case of Wisconsin Guardsman Pfc. Abram Markofski, it took more than a year after the events of that day and seven months after Markofski pleaded guilty to federal charges for discharge proceedings to begin.

Five soldiers even wrote character statements for Guard officials and the Justice Department saying Markofski had been caught up in the moment and that he should be able to continue his military career.

One senior National Guard official told the IDA that "what is accepted as extremism in one location is not accepted in another." Another reported that the reaction to the Pentagon's extremism stand-down -- perhaps the most visible effort to address the problem -- "varied greatly by community, saying, "Some remote areas that are homogeneous ... didn't see the point [of the stand-down], because it doesn't impact them.'"

That dynamic forced researchers to conclude that the Pentagon "may be challenged in its effort to mandate universal acceptance of and adherence to a singular definition and understanding of prohibited extremist activities" for the National Guard the reserve forces since those troops "are embedded in their communities and can be expected to reflect the values and divisions of those communities."

In addition to the confusion around the basic terminology, the Pentagon has little in the way of new data to help give a broader picture of the full scope of the issue. Researchers turned to court-martial records, but they noted that the approach was flawed because "minor offenses and cases that are resolved through plea agreements are unlikely to result in military appellate court opinions."

Meanwhile, efforts to add the ability to flag extremism in the Defense Department's data was still getting off the ground last year, and those flagging systems are "not linked or standardized, and lack clear and consistent definitions."

Security Clearances Fall Short

The report also found that the Pentagon's system of investigating people for security clearances is flawed and "still [focuses] to a significant extent on Cold War threats and threats related to the Global War on Terrorism rather than the threat of home-grown extremism."

The problems became clear in April when Jack Teixeira, an airman first class for the 102nd Intelligence Wing based at Otis Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts, was arrested and charged with leaking some of the government's most closely guarded secrets on a private chat server.

Later court documents filed by the Justice Department alleged that Teixeira had a long history of disturbing online remarks, including claims that he would "kill a [expletive] ton of people" if he could because it would be "culling the weak-minded."

Researchers found that, when it came to security clearances, "in many cases, the existing standards and training materials applicable to these processes do not even specifically identify [extremist] behaviors and activities as a potential problem."

The screenings appeared to be so ineffective that they didn't even catch those who are openly white supremacists.

In 2022, Spc. Killian Ryan was arrested for lying on his clearance paperwork after the FBI, not the military, discovered that he had ties to white nationalism and made threats of violence against minorities publicly on social media.

Ryan's personal email address around the time of his enlistment was "NaziAce1488" and one of his posts read: "I serve for combat experience so I'm more proficient in killing n-----s."

Resistance on Capitol Hill

Despite the host of issues revealed by the IDA report, it is likely to be the last major work from the Pentagon on the issue. Since its commissioning, the topic of extremism with the ranks has become politicized by Congress and a problem for the Pentagon.

Military.com's investigation found that cases of domestic terrorism have skyrocketed in the last decade and the groups behind many of these incidents are actively recruiting veterans into their fold, where they often quickly move into leadership positions.

However, some members of Congress have called the Pentagon's efforts "offensive to every veteran in America" and something that "smacks of the 'Thought Police.'"

Top defense leaders have had to sit before Congressional committees and be grilled on the necessity and cost of the policies, and legislators on the political right have signaled that they are not done.

In April, a defense official who was familiar with the Pentagon's efforts to combat extremism told Military.com that "the department did not want to really have to engage [on] this to begin with for a variety of reasons, mainly because it does distract from a lot of the other business and work that they're trying to do."

Related: What the Pentagon Has, Hasn't and Could Do to Stop Veterans and Troops from Joining Extremist Groups

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