WASHINGTON – The Pentagon is updating its personnel policies to address a concerning rise of extremism within the military and hold service members accountable for the views they express on social media, officials said Monday.
The rules stem from revelations that military personnel and veterans were among those who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Upon taking office this year, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin pledged to study how prevalent the problem may be and take steps to eliminate it.
Senior U.S. defense officials said the Pentagon’s approach will not expressly prohibit membership in extremist groups – and does not target particular ideologies or political leanings, despite the prevalence of right-wing groups that participated in the Capitol attack. Instead, it focuses on addressing “actions” and will rely in large part on individual service members or outside law enforcement agencies to report concerning behavior.
“Groups can and do change. Their methodology, their ideals, their motivations, and they can reform themselves,” said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby. “So if we got into coming up with a list of extremist groups, it would probably be only as good as the day we published it.”
The prohibited actions – particularly online – are strict. Now, even clicking “like” on a social media post espousing extremist views can get a service member into trouble.
“Liking something with the intent to promote or endorse the extremist activity would be violative of the policy,” though the Defense Department is “not actively screening” troops’ social media and intends to address such activities only “as an incident comes to light,” an official told reporters during a telephone briefing ahead of Kirby’s news conference at the Pentagon.
The expectation, officials said, is that military personnel will expose their colleagues who run afoul of the rules.
It is unclear, however, how broadly the revamped policies will be enforced – or whether they will change the Pentagon’s understanding of how significant the problem is.
Officials said Monday that documented cases in the individual service branches “were in the low double digits over the last several years, culminating in about 100 cases in 2021, which represents – we believe – an increase.” They spoke on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon.
Last week, a consortium at the University of Maryland released a report showing that since 1990, 458 crimes tied to extremism involved veterans or active-duty U.S. troops.
At least five service members were federally charged in connection to the Jan. 6 riot, including an active duty Marine Corps officer and two soldiers each in the Army National Guard and Army Reserve. To date, only one of those individuals has been discharged from the military as a consequence.
Timothy Hale-Cusanelli, who had been a military reservist, was removed from the Army in May. He wore a “Hitler mustache” to his civilian job as a Navy contractor and was openly racist around colleagues, according to federal prosecutors.
Wisconsin National Guard soldier Abram Markofski, who pleaded guilty to parading, demonstrating or picketing in a Capitol building, was sentenced Dec. 10 to two years of probation and a $1,500 fine. Markofski is still serving as a Guard soldier.
“The Wisconsin National Guard was waiting for the issue to play out in civilian court out of respect for the judicial process, and the command is now contemplating its courses of action,” said Maj. Joseph Trovato, a spokesperson for the Wisconsin National Guard.
Separately, a man accused of pepper-spraying police at the Capitol enlisted months after being interviewed by the FBI. Spec. James Phillip Mault was charged in October.
At least 55 military veterans were federally charged in the riot, ranging from former privates who served for short periods to retired lieutenant colonels with full careers in uniform.
Compounding the challenge is a lack of continuity between the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has no dedicated program to combat extremism among former military members and has resisted calls to establish one.
The Washington Post’s Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.