Commands across the military have until early April to hold a one-day stand-down to talk to their formations about the threat of domestic extremism. To get the conversation going, the Defense Department has put together a guide with talking points, policies and some recent case studies.
The materials, posted online Friday, accompany a video from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
“We know a stand-down like this can seem like another task to undertake, another burden,” Austin said. “But the truth of the matter is, we need your help.”
DoD’s position on extremist ideology has been murky in the past, as written instruction doesn’t legally prohibit service members from belonging to extremist organizations or holding or discussing extremist views, only from acting on them.
Austin’s guidance puts a much finer point on the issue.
“Actively espousing ideologies that encourage discrimination, hate, and harassment against others will not be tolerated within our (unit/command/etc),” according to the training guide’s talking points for commanders. “I expect the core principles of dignity and mutual respect to guide the actions of the personnel in this unit/organization at all times, to include our conversations here today.”
To clarify, there is a list of prohibited activities.
“Fundraising, demonstrating, rallying, recruiting, training, organizing, leading members, distributing material (including posting online), or knowingly wearing gang colors or clothing, having tattoos or body markings associated with such gangs or organizations; or otherwise engaging in activities in furtherance of objectives of such gangs or organizations that are detrimental to good order, discipline, or mission accomplishment or are incompatible with military service,” the guidance says.
However, the military has already experienced challenges keeping track of extremists, such as monitoring and identifying tattoos.
In June, 2017, an Army 15-6 investigation into Florida Army National Guard Pfc. Brandon Russell — one of the creators of the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen organization — found that the military did not have a database for maintaining tattoo records.
In addition to policy, there is a section on the oath of enlistment/office, and its affirmations to uphold and defend the Constitution.
“Never forget that being on our team is an honor and a privilege,” the guidance says. “You serve one of the most respected institutions in America and that comes with added responsibilities and obligations. You are held to a higher professional standard and must set the example in all that you say and do.”
And if a service member or DoD civilian sees anything that goes against policy, the guidance continues, it needs to be reported.
That should be “through the chain of command or supervision to your local security manager, and/or directly to the Insider Threat program office,” while “imminent threats or activity that may constitute criminal conduct to local law enforcement immediately.”
There are four case studies leaders can use to flesh out their discussions, all of which include examples of service members with white-supremacist leanings.
They include recent examples of service members associated with known extremist groups, as well as those posting online about their sympathies.
Commanders should also be holding listening sessions, according to the guidance, which provides answers to some commonly asked questions, notably: Why now?
“We are seeing an increase in concerning behavior,” the guidance reads. “We believe this is based on societal increases, but there’s also an increase in the reporting of suspect behavior.”
To start tackling the problem, the Pentagon is looking at some increased surveillance, beyond the initial screenings done on recruits before they take their oaths.
“DoD is examining a scalable means of implementing social media screening in conjunction with background investigations,” according to the stand-down guidance. “Furthermore, the FBI currently screens social media for extremism and criminal activity.”
Though there is a requirement to report up the chain of command that units have completed training, there are no requirements as to reporting of the substance of these stand-downs.
Austin has not put out any guidance or held any meetings with senior leadership to discuss deliverables, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told Military Times on Tuesday, including data, anecdotes or recommendations.
The Pentagon has also not released a plan to centrally track extremist activity, either within the services or through the defense secretary’s office, by compiling reports, criminal investigations, non-judicial punishments or other documentation of not only extremist activities, but extremist sentiments.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.