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The military ordered big steps to stop extremism. Two years later, it shows no results

USA TODAY identified 20 reforms proposed by Defense secretary and a group he assigned to the task. Today, many steps appear stalled, and the most important reforms haven't happened.

More than two years ago, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin launched a sweeping initiative − triggered by the Jan. 6 insurrection − to root out the threat of extremism across the United States armed forces. 

But today, the military has almost nothing to show for its efforts, a USA TODAY investigation has found. Most steps in the process are stalled or inactive, and the reforms experts said were most important haven’t happened. 

The proposed policy changes aimed to confront extremism before, during and after military service by: 

  • Diverting extremists from the recruiting process with tougher questions and screening for warning signs such as white supremacist tattoos. 
  • Creating an investigative unit to weed out potentially dangerous extremists in the ranks. 
  • Building an education initiative to teach veterans about the extremist groups that court them and severing the long-known and often deadly veteran-to-extremist pipeline.

Instead, today the military offers almost no answers about what has actually happened. Even a crucial internal study on the scope of the military’s extremism problem has never been released, despite being ordered by Austin himself and completed more than a year ago, USA TODAY has confirmed. 

If this sweeping effort ends with no measurable impact, that’s “a tragic outcome,” said Kathleen Belew, a Northwestern University historian and author of “Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.” Austin’s post-Jan. 6 initiative was “an incredibly powerful lever for real change, and to let it simply fall apart because there are a lot of other things to do would be a tragic misstep.”  

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin during a meeting with German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius at the Pentagon on June 28, 2023 in Arlington, Virginia.

USA TODAY identified 20 reforms proposed by Austin and by a working group he assigned to monitor the effort and make recommendations. Over several months, the newspaper filed inquiries at various levels of the Department of Defense about whether changes had been implemented and their current status. In late May, after repeatedly requesting more time to prepare a response, the department first answered a few of USA TODAY’s questions, then provided several vague responses and no information on most of the proposed reforms.  

“The Department of Defense takes extremist activity seriously and continues to make progress toward implementing the actions approved by the Secretary in December 2021,” Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, a Defense department spokesperson, said in a written response.

“The vast majority of Service members serve with honor and integrity and do not participate in extremist activities,” Schwegman said. 

Though the mathematics behind that statement may well be accurate, the risks from the extremist minority have already resulted in dozens of deaths and injuries. And while the military is yet to release its own findings, outside experts continue to warn that extremism in the armed forces is a potent − and growing − threat to American lives and American democracy. 

“There’s this myopia to deal with this kind of far-right extremism in this country,” said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. “It’s inexplicable. Look, people with military training show up too much in domestic terrorism plots, and they’re killing people, including killing troops.”

What are the warning signs of extremism? One ‘single strongest’ predictor

Being affiliated with the U.S. military is the “single strongest” predictor of violent extremism in America. 

That’s according to a report from researchers with the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, or START, who analyzed a database of thousands of violent incidents going back to 1990 to reach their conclusions.

People who served or are serving in the armed forces "are 2.41 times more likely to be classified as mass casualty offenders than individuals who did not serve," according to the START research. And the problem appears to be getting worse: The number of extremists connected to the military in the past decade more than quadrupled compared with the decade before, the research found.

Most extremists connected to the military are veterans, but recent years have also seen high-profile examples of active-duty servicemen being ensnared in extremism. 

In March, for example, Ethan Melzer, a 25-year-old former Army soldier, was sentenced to 45 years in prison for attempting to murder members of his own regiment. Melzer admitted sharing information about his unit’s location and movements for an upcoming deployment in Turkey with a Satanist neo-Nazi organization. 

The START researchers identified at least 188 people with military backgrounds who participated in the Capitol attack on Jan. 6

But, in addition to the insurrection, they tallied many more people – 451 – who have committed extremist offenses since 1990. Of those, 37% either plotted or followed through with a deadly terrorist attack. Twenty-nine people with military backgrounds have committed an extremist attack that left at least four people dead or injured. 

So, when Austin announced his proposed reforms, extremism experts across the country welcomed the news.

"We’ll have to see how this all works out in process, but overall it’s very positive," Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, told USA TODAY at the time.

They were joined by members of Congress who have long sounded the alarm about extremism in the military.

“If you truly care about a professional military, which I care deeply about, then you would want to address anything that weakens that professional military,” said Illinois Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran and recipient of a Purple Heart decoration. “Anything that weakens that force needs to be addressed − and extremism in the military is that.”

Investigation:After Jan. 6 riot, hundreds of identifiable people remain free

Groundbreaking orders in 2021

In April 2021, Austin called for four key “immediate actions” and formed a working group of nearly 100 people from across the military, which issued a more detailed report with further directions at the end of that year. 

The working group’s December 2021 report contained at least 20 recommended steps, some with 90-day deadlines. As of the middle of 2023, USA TODAY’s inquiry found, only two of these appear to have been completed with any clear effect. 

Other steps remain far behind schedule, according to interviews with participants and Defense Department’s statements to USA TODAY. Some may be abandoned. And while military officials say they have completed some of the tasks, they were unable – or unwilling – to demonstrate the results of those changes or confirm that they even remain military policy.    

One of Austin’s “immediate actions” was to commission a study into extremism in the military’s “total force,” something experts said is an essential foundation for dealing with the problem. 

USA TODAY has confirmed that study was completed more than a year ago, in June 2022. But it remains in an indefinite holding pattern as senior leaders review its findings, its contents hidden from public view. Experts have questioned the status of the study in recent months, and its completion has not been previously reported. 

That frustrates experts who have been concerned about military extremism for decades. 

“I just want good data − small, big, minute, whatever, so that we can address the problem,” Beirich said. “Why would you keep that report under wraps? What are you hiding?”

How extremism is defined

In his first order in April 2021, Austin called for a review and update of the military’s official definition of extremism, codified in “Department of Defense Instruction 1325.06.”

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon, July 18, 2023.

A few months later, the working group confirmed in its report that the rule has been updated and expanded and now clarifies which extremism-related activity is prohibited for troops. 

Notably, the new definition bans members of the military from “Engaging in electronic and cyber activities regarding extremist activities, or groups that support extremist activities − including posting, liking, sharing, re-tweeting, or otherwise distributing content – when such action is taken with the intent to promote or otherwise endorse extremist activities.”

Though rewriting a definition may sound minor, it’s one concrete step the military has indeed completed, and experts consider it a significant development. 

With so much extremist activity and recruitment taking place online, it was vital for the military to specify what activity personnel can and cannot engage in online, they said.

But the working group also recommended clarifying the rules on extremism not just for military personnel but also for military contractors and civilian employees. When USA TODAY asked the Department of Defense whether those rules were ever changed, officials declined to respond. 

That’s a pattern repeated throughout the list of changes Austin and the working group ordered: When asked about progress on the specific directives, the military didn’t supply any results. 

Preventing extremists from joining the military

Another of Austin’s April 2021 orders called for the military to standardize the forms used to screen applicants and to add questions about current or past extremist activity.

This step was taken early on, the military’s reports have said. But their effect is not clear. 

In its December 2021 report, the working group concluded the department overseeing military recruitment had updated its screening forms “to include questions on membership in racially biased entities and other extremist groups, as well as participation in violent acts.”

After multiple inquiries, the Department of Defense confirmed that these changed forms remain in use by military recruiters.

“These additional questions are specifically designed to determine whether or not prospective recruits had any previous involvement with organizations that do not share the Department’s core values,” an official wrote in an email. 

But the department would not say whether a single potential recruit has been screened out by  these questions, and it did not provide the contents of the questionnaire in response to USA TODAY’s questions. USA TODAY filed a request for the new forms under the federal Freedom of Information Act; the military has not yet responded.

The working group also reported that the military had started working with the FBI to tap into the bureau’s extensive knowledge on extremist groups. 

As the primary federal agency tasked with investigating domestic extremists, the FBI maintains extensive resources about extremist groups, including the “Law Enforcement Enterprise Portal (LEEP),” which contains information on gangs, white supremacist and nationalist groups, as well as gang signs, extremist symbols and tattoos.

USA TODAY asked the Defense Department and the FBI whether military recruiters have actually used this partnership, including asking how many times recruiters have signed in to the portal to check up on applicants' tattoos or affiliations. 

Neither the Defense Department nor the FBI provided any information about whether the system has flagged any extremist applicants. Officials wouldn’t say whether the partnership is ongoing. “We will refer you to the U.S. Department of Defense for comment,” an FBI spokesperson said by email. 

And when it comes to rooting out extremists now serving in the ranks, less appears to have happened.

A ‘supercharged internal affairs unit’

When Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira was arrested in April on charges he shared hundreds of highly classified documents on the internet with friends, admirers and hangers-on for months, many experts on national security and extremism had the same questions: How was Teixera able to get away with his alleged actions for so long, and why was he never reported?

“I mean, how did they miss him?” Beirich said. “I just don’t understand how this can’t be top of mind.” 

Extremism expert Heidi Beirich.

More than a year earlier, in its December 2021 report, the working group had called for a new system that might have sniffed out Teixeira and other suspected extremists like him.

The group recommended opening a Behavioral Threat Analysis Center staffed with experts who would research and understand new trends in domestic extremism. That center would be combined with a Defense Insider Threat Management and Analysis Center, which would use the military’s up-to-date knowledge about domestic extremism to seek out insider threats, as well as receive tips about service men and women via a hotline.   

“That was where the sauce was made − that was where things were really going to happen,” said Andrew Mines, who until recently was a research fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, and who consulted with the working group. 

Mines said the changes suggested for the Insider Threat program would have been a crucial step. The program would essentially act as a supercharged internal affairs unit specifically tasked with responding to allegations of extremist activity, he said. 

“It's staffed by professional threat assessors who are trained and have experience in threat assessment and who take on these cases, take them out of a commander’s hand” Mines said. “So there’s trust in the process. There’s no conflict of interest, and you have trained individuals who look at each of these complaints on a case-by-case basis and then respond accordingly.”

But there’s no evidence the military ever built these centers or took any special action on reports of extremism. 

When USA TODAY asked the Defense Department if it was creating a Behavioral Threat Analysis Center or a Defense Insider Threat Management and Analysis Center, the department didn’t respond. 

Pressed about whether these reforms were in progress, Schwegman, the department spokeswoman, wrote in an email: “We don’t have anything additional to add but I want to emphasize that the Department continues to make progress on the recommendations.”

In years past, even when the military has identified an extremism problem, it has tended to dismiss the people involved rather than identifying or addressing the underlying issues, USA TODAY has reported.

Kathleen Belew, a Northwestern University historian and author of “Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.”

The apparent lack of action on creating this revolutionary new system to root out extremists in the military is especially frustrating because the Department of Defense is so good at providing effective social services for the troops – housing, health care, mental health – once leaders decide to do so, Belew said.

“The U.S. Armed Forces are excellent at administering programs like this when they want to, so the question is, why don't they want to?” Belew said. “This is something that has an immediate impact on the well-being, not only of their own people − the men and women who have served in the armed forces − but also their families, their communities and the health of the democracy that they say they're interested in protecting.”

That frustration doesn’t just apply to inaction in seeking out active-duty extremists. 

As the START study concluded, by far the biggest group affiliated with the military that has historically engaged in extremism is outside the immediate command of the Department of Defense: veterans.

Education on the way out of the military 

Some of the most notorious actors in the Jan. 6 insurrection once wore military uniforms. 

Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, is seen on a screen during a House Select Committee hearing to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol. Rhodes is an Army veteran.

Ashli Babbitt, who was shot and killed as she tried to enter the Speaker’s Lobby during the insurrection, served in the Air Force for 12 years. Stewart Rhodes, the eye-patch-wearing founder of the Oath Keepers who was found guilty last year of seditious conspiracy for his role in the insurrection, was once an Army paratrooper. START researchers found that 26 of the military-affiliated defendants charged in relation to Jan. 6 were members of the Proud Boys.

Of the military-affiliated extremists identified by the START researchers over the past 33 years, 83% were no longer serving when they committed their offenses. Veterans have long been targeted for recruitment by extremist groups for a variety of reasons, including their knowledge of military tactics, intelligence and training, Belew said. 

“These are high-value recruits to a movement that is interested in guerrilla warfare,” she said.

Austin acknowledged this in his April 2021 memo. 

Another of Austin’s “immediate actions” called on the military to update the “service member transition checklist” to include training on targeting of veterans by extremist groups. The defense secretary also called on the military to “create a mechanism by which Veterans have the opportunity to report any potential contact with an extremist group should they choose to do so.”

Here too, the military provided little evidence it has taken these steps, or that they have had any effect. 

The working group wrote in December 2021 that the Military-Civilian Transition Office added language to the script it uses when people are leaving the military on how to report attempted recruitment by extremist groups to law enforcement. 

“The Military Services have made implementation of the new script a part of mandatory counseling before leaving the military,” the working group concluded.

But when USA TODAY asked the Defense Department whether this script has been implemented and whether outgoing service members receive any additional support or training about extremist groups, the department did not respond. It has not released copies of these scripts even though USA TODAY requested them, including under the Freedom of Information Act.  

The working group also recommended reviewing and updating this transition script each year. The Defense Department again didn’t say whether this has happened in either of the two years that have passed since the original order. 

The working group also concluded the military has a desperate need for additional training on the threat extremists pose to veterans. It noted the VA and other agencies had already met to discuss how to set this up and said those meetings were ongoing.

USA TODAY asked both the Defense Department and the VA whether this process resulted in any new training or resources for veterans. The VA deferred to the Defense Department.

“As I suspected, this is primarily a DoD issue so we respectfully refer back to them on these issues,” a spokesman said in an email. 

USA TODAY asked the Defense Department three times over several months to provide any information about this effort. 

It provided none. 

Just the latest failure

Austin’s 2021 directives were seen as a watershed moment, but they were hardly the first time the military acknowledged its own problem.

In this April 19, 1995, file photo, the north side of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City is missing after a bombing that killed 168 people.

Back in 2009, federal defense officials issued a stark warning: 

“Right-wing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to exploit their skills and knowledge derived from military training and combat,” experts in the Department of Homeland Security wrote. 

In the 14 years since, the armed forces have seen scores of examples of such radicalization and recruitment.

And experts stressed that while the overall numbers of extremists serving in the military is probably only a tiny proportion of the millions of men and women who wear uniform across the globe, one extremist in the ranks is too many – especially because service men and women often possess training, expertise and information not held by civilians.

Since the 1980s, extremist groups have been less concerned with recruiting large numbers of people than with attracting true believers with specialized knowledge who can inflict the maximum damage, Belew said.

“We’re no longer talking about groups that are trying to recruit 1,000 or 2,000 or 5,000 people,” Belew said. “They’re trying to recruit one or six or 12 people who are fully invested in this movement and are prepared to detonate a bomb and sacrifice their own life.”

She added: “You don't need thousands of people to perpetrate acts of atrocity − we know that from the Oklahoma City bombing and from 9/11. We know that small-cell terrorism can have a dramatic impact on American society and targeted communities.”

The author of that 2009 Department of Homeland Security report on extremists recruiting military veterans was vilified by everyone from conservative pundits to GOP politicians. His unit was disbanded shortly after the report was released. 

So, while experts may have had their hopes raised in the wake of Jan. 6, they aren’t surprised that those bold efforts may have fallen by the wayside.     

“At every point that our government or military could have gone the way of addressing extremism, they chose not to,” said Wendy Via, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. “Nobody is immune from political pressure, but at a certain point, when you’re talking about the national security and safety of our troops and citizens, then we need to stand up to political pressure. That’s the bottom line.”

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