DOD failed to share rules on partisan politics before election season

by Vern Evans

The Pentagon failed to properly train and guide troops about off-limits political activities ahead of the 2024 presidential election season, a federal watchdog said.

The lack of communication about Pentagon policies means service members may be prone to violating rules they don’t know exist and portraying the Defense Department as politically partisan, the DOD’s Office of Inspector General argued in a report published May 28.

The IG asked the Pentagon to share a memorandum immediately with all service members to outline what they can’t do during a presidential election.

A Pentagon policy adopted in 2008 encourages service members to vote, serve as election officials and sign political petitions as private citizens, rather than as representatives of the military. The same policy spells out the list of prohibited activities. The list of off-limits actions include: fundraising for political candidates; participating in letter-writing campaigns; soliciting votes for a political party or candidate; attending political events as official military representatives; and displaying large political signs, banners or posters on their private vehicles, among others.

“Failure to ensure compliance and awareness of the permissible and prohibited political conduct activities could result in service members unintentionally violating (policy) and the DOD, a nonpartisan institution, illustrating a partisan position to the public,” the IG report says.

In its investigation, the IG sought to discover whether the military had provided guidance and training to troops about their conduct during the 2024 presidential election season. Republican presidential primary debates began in August 2023, and primary elections kicked off in January 2024.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks sent a memo February 15 to senior Pentagon leaders and DOD field activity directors reminding them to stay apolitical in their official duties. Attached was a “quick guide” on what service members could and couldn’t do according to DOD rules.

“Maintaining the hard-earned trust and confidence of the American people requires us to avoid any action that could imply endorsement of a political party, political candidate or campaign by any element of the department,” Hicks wrote.

The IG determined the memo lacked comprehensiveness and failed to reach all service members. Additionally, the IG’s review revealed that while the Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps issued guidance on partisan activities, the Army did not, and the National Guard’s guidance was limited. Furthermore, all services provided only limited training on these policies.

The guidance was inconsistent because the Pentagon doesn’t require the services to provide training on partisan political activities on a recurring basis, or at all, the IG said.

“The (DOD) does not have assurance that all service members understand their responsibilities as they relate to partisan and nonpartisan political activities and the associated consequences for failure to adhere to the guidance,” the report reads.

From 2019 through February 13, 2024, the DOD Inspector General hotline received 58 calls about troops engaging in partisan activities, the IG said. There were complaints of troops participating in political rallies in uniform, discussing their political opinions with staff, displaying political patches and badges and writing politically partisan social media posts.

The IG recommended updating Pentagon policies to require all services to provide guidance and training on partisan and nonpartisan political activities every presidential election year, at minimum, to better educate service members.

Ashish S. Vazirani, the acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, agreed with the recommendation, according to the report. He said the Pentagon would implement the training requirements by December 2027, just before the next presidential election year.

This story was produced in partnership with Military Veterans in Journalism. Please send tips to [email protected].

Nikki Wentling covers disinformation and extremism for Military Times. She’s reported on veterans and military communities for eight years and has also covered technology, politics, health care and crime. Her work has earned multiple honors from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, the Arkansas Associated Press Managing Editors and others.

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