Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is establishing a countering extremism working group, updating the definition of extremism and calling for services to update transition instructions to warn those leaving the military about the dangers of extremist groups.
The actions come after active-component units finished a stand down he ordered in January, following the deadly attack on the Capitol. The stand down applied to all units across the Total Force, but Guard and Reserve units have been granted extensions based on the operational nature of the units.
Austin outlined his latest efforts in a memo last week after meeting with service secretaries and hearing partial results from the stand down.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the actions are critical first steps in the department’s efforts to combat extremism within the force.
An updated, clear definition of extremism was one of the things service members requested during the stand down, officials said. Current Defense Department instruction allows for membership in known extremist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan or Proud Boys, so long as a service member isn’t an “active participant.”
The updated transition instructions come as extremist groups work to actively recruit current and former military members.
The working group will be led by Bishop Garrison, the senior advisor on human capital and diversity, equity and inclusion. It will be charged with examining how the services implement Austin’s initial orders and work toward intermediate and long-range goals.
Austin also ordered the services to work closer together to develop best practices in keeping extremist beliefs out of the ranks.
Kirby said the latest actions were about more than blocking members of certain groups from service.
“It’s not just about group membership … it’s about the ideology and the conduct that that ideology inspires,” he said. “Some of this radicalization occurs on an individual level.”
Part of those efforts will include a standardized questionnaire for new recruits as part of new screening procedures.
Defense officials said they do not currently have data on extremism in the force. Austin has said the number is small, but troubling. He has said he believes the vast majority of the force is serving with honor and dignity.
“Not all, but in many, people did express that they understand this is a problem, that some of them have experienced personally ... quite a few personal anecdotes about experiencing it, and I think that was reflected across the force,” Kirby said of feedback from the force-wide stand-downs.