The U.S. Military Must Get Serious About Domestic Extremism

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Among the unsettling revelations about the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol is the number of rioters who served in the military. Of the more than 300 people so far charged with crimes, at least 30 are veterans, and three are currently enlisted in either the Army Reserve or National Guard. The Pentagon believes some active-duty troops also participated in the siege. 

In response, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered all military units to conduct a one-day “stand-down” to address extremism in the armed forces. That’s a good start, but the Pentagon shouldn’t stop there. The department should carry out a comprehensive policy review to upgrade the military’s tools for identifying extremists and their potential to commit acts of ideologically motivated violence. Doing so is crucial for the safety both of the public and of service members themselves.

The first task is assessing the scale of the problem. Last year, active-duty troops were arrested in connection with at least three far-right extremist plots, including an Army sergeant who allegedly attempted to conspire with a neo-Nazi group to stage an attack on his own unit. Racial intolerance in the ranks may also be on the rise. A 2019 survey found that 36% of service members reported seeing evidence of racist or white supremacist attitudes, up 14 points over the previous year.

It’s unclear whether such figures actually reflect a growing risk of violence. The military should in any case be paying attention to deep-seated bigotry among some service members — and the possible nexus between white supremacy and anti-government extremism makes it all the more urgent. The Pentagon doesn’t currently collect system-wide data on disciplinary cases involving violent extremism. Investigations into troop misconduct are handled by the respective service branches, with lower-level supervisors allowed to take action without always reporting their decisions up the chain of command.

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 (NDAA), which was passed over former President Donald Trump’s veto, requires the Pentagon to create a new deputy inspector general charged with reviewing the military’s progress in combating racial discrimination. Congress should broaden the office’s mandate to include responsibility for tracking violent extremist threats of all kinds. The Pentagon should also issue annual reports on the number of incidents of extremism across all service branches, including those that don’t produce criminal charges.

Beyond data collection, the military should do more to target individuals susceptible to radicalization. The Pentagon should work with the FBI to give military recruiters and unit commanders access to the bureau’s database of tattoos signifying membership in extremist organizations. Training programs similar to those used by FBI counterterrorism investigators should be expanded to help recruiters spot warning signs among potential enlistees.

The military should also amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice to make active participation in domestic extremist activity a violation of military law — a proposal introduced by Democratic Representative Jackie Speier and endorsed by the Pentagon that was stripped from the 2021 NDAA by Senate Republicans. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs should coordinate with grassroots veterans’ organizations and law-enforcement authorities to disrupt efforts by extremist groups to recruit and radicalize former service members.

At the same time, U.S. officials should be careful not to overreach. Even as the Pentagon takes steps to root out domestic extremism, it should resist policies that trample on troops’ free speech and privacy rights. Investigations into the social-media histories of current and prospective service members should remain limited to those who display other signs of extremist proclivities, as well as troops whose jobs require top-secret security clearances.

The risk of violent domestic extremism among military personnel is concerning, but the Pentagon has the resources to manage it. A focused strategy to track and deter the threat would protect America’s troops and the democracy they are sworn to defend.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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