How DOD missed its opportunity to counter extremism in the ranks

by Vern Evans

Has the threat of extremism in the ranks fallen off the Department of Defense’s radar? The department’s fiscal 2025 budget request suggests it has.

In stark contrast to the FY2022 request — which dedicated an entire section to the subject — the FY2025 budget mentions extremism in the ranks only once, alongside other personnel issues such as discrimination and sexual harassment.

However, the threat of extremism cannot be shelved as just another personnel issue. As extremism in the ranks continues to rear its head, we must resuscitate calls for an Office for Countering Extremism within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense.

Since Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III’s February 2021 stand-down, DOD made strides in countering extremism in the ranks. Updated pre-enlistment screening questionnaires inquire about applicants’ membership in racist organizations and previous participation in violent acts.

The 2021 revision of DOD Instruction 1325.06 clarified the scope of “active participation” and what might qualify as “extremist activities.” The DOD Pre-Separation Counseling Resource Guide now also includes specific guidance on helping veterans guard against extremist organizations’ recruitment attempts.

Still, the challenge of extremism in the ranks endures. As evidenced by a November 2023 report published by the Pentagon’s Office of the Inspector General, DOD investigated 183 distinct allegations of extremist activity among military personnel that year, 108 of which necessitated a full investigation.

Another 2023 report from the Department of the Army revealed that 10% of soldiers surveyed did not identify the use of force, violence, or unlawful means to deprive individuals of their Constitutional rights as an extremist activity. This same report indicated that more than 20% of soldiers did not believe donating money to an organization advocating the racial superiority of one group over another was prohibited behavior.

The evidence suggests that domestic violent extremist ideas and behaviors still exist within the military. However, as DOD and the services consider how to navigate the challenge, there is no centralized cross-service oversight body to specifically prevent and address extremism in the ranks.

Individual services are primarily responsible for how they investigate allegations and implement DOD counter-extremism training. As such, discussions of extremism in the ranks then become the responsibility of senior Pentagon and military department leadership, whose responsibilities range far beyond personnel and readiness. Understandably, DOD is experiencing counter-extremism fatigue.

In 2021, the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act FY2022 (H.R. 4350) proposed an Office for Countering Extremism couched within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. Had it been established, the office would have been headed by a director whose duties would include oversight of all policy related to countering extremism in the armed services.

Trainings would have included topics such as identifying extremism and radicalization, media literacy training, and whistleblower protections. Administratively, the Office for Countering Extremism would have integrated law enforcement, security organizations, insider threat programs, and civilian experts to ensure comprehensive and dynamic treatment of the threat of extremism.

Unfortunately, there is little consensus in Congress on the extent of extremism in the ranks and even less regarding how resources ought to be allocated to address the issue — if resources should be allocated at all.

To be sure, extremism in the ranks is rare. Of the 183 aforementioned allegations, just 17 were punished under Article 15 of UCMJ and only two cases warranted a court-martial. Given that fact, two contradictory views emerge. On the one hand, some argue that because extremism in the ranks is rare, it is not worth expending finite DOD resources. Others argue that even a small number of extremist incidents has a negative impact on military readiness, necessitating a robust response.

In 2022, the Senate Armed Services Committee called for the Defense Department to discontinue its efforts to counter extremism, describing these initiatives as “an inappropriate use of taxpayer funds.” Partisan rifts have only heightened this conflict. While Republicans have opposed even minor initiatives to address extremism in the ranks, criticizing these efforts as overreach, some Democrats have been rightly criticized of over-representing the threat of extremism in the ranks.

The Biden administration has failed to push back against congressional resistance and been unable to garner bipartisan support for countering extremism. The administration itself has even expressed apprehension about proposed countermeasures. In its statement on H.R. 4350, the Biden administration deemed the Office for Countering Extremism to impose “onerous and overly specific training and data collection requirements.”

To be sure, establishing a new oversight body is no small feat. However, failing to establish the office is a missed opportunity that cannot be overstated. The effort would have facilitated cross-service tracking of emerging threats, mandated data collection on the specific nature of extremist activities, and ensured information sharing between services to hone approaches to countering extremism.

Creating a collaborative oversight body that involved academics, experts, and researchers in establishing DOD training protocols could have also facilitated more creative approaches for addressing extremism.

For instance, radicalization researchers increasingly highlight the utility of former extremists intervening during the early stages of radicalization. Enlisting deradicalized extremists — especially those with military backgrounds — to speak about their radicalization process and recruitment paints a far richer picture of the lure of extremism than scripted DOD warnings to veterans.

Incorporating these veterans into pre-separation counseling on extremist recruitment could be impactful and effective. The Office for Countering Extremism would have bridged institutional and individual approaches to preventing radicalization.

As the FY2025 budget request indicates, DOD has turned its attention toward the national nuclear enterprise, space capabilities, and modernization priorities. With regard to personnel, suicide and sexual assault prevention initiatives are receiving long overdue attention. Still, disregarding the threat of extremism in the ranks at this juncture is a missed opportunity. The 183 allegations of extremist activity in 2023 is a 125% increase from the previous year.

Substantiated instances of extremist activity in the military are exceptionally rare. The threat posed by extremism in the ranks, however, is that it represents a highly concerning violation of the oath of office sworn by all service members to support and defend the Constitution.

Notably, almost 43% of extremist incidents in 2023 were service members advocating the overthrow of the U.S. Government by unlawful means. Just a few individuals espousing anti-government and anti-authority sentiment violates the military’s professional ethos, the social force which binds the armed services to abide by a common moral code. At its crux, extremism weakens this professional ethos and threatens the moral identity of the military. Extremism in the ranks — regardless of its rarity — is corrosive to the core of the military profession.

It is clear that extremism in the ranks still poses a challenge, and we are in desperate need of an administrative nerve center capable of addressing it. An Office for Countering Extremism would be a good place to start.

Samantha Olson is the Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Intern for the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington. She is also currently an M.A. candidate in Security Studies at Georgetown University.

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