A coalition of human rights groups, extremism experts, faith-based organizations and left-leaning veteran and military family groups is calling out the Pentagon for an apparent lack of progress in rooting out extremism in the ranks.
In a letter Wednesday to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the groups pressed him to publicly detail any progress the department has made since a working group issued its recommendations on tackling extremism in the military in December 2021.
"As close observers in this field, we understand the urgency of this threat and the impact it has on service members, veterans and their families," said the letter, which was organized by Human Rights First and co-signed by 35 other advocacy groups and three individual academics. "Extremism undermines the strength of the military and our democracy."
The Pentagon did not immediately respond to Military.com's request for comment on the letter.
Taking office in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, in which dozens of those arrested were found to have military connections, Austin vowed to make eliminating extremism in the military a top priority.
As one of his first acts, Austin ordered a force-wide stand-down so the rank-and-file and leaders could discuss the issue of extremism. He also formed a Countering Extremist Activity Working Group to provide recommendations for policy remedies.
But efforts to root out extremism quickly became a political lightning rod, with Republicans charging that the Biden administration was using those efforts as an excuse to target conservatives and that they were a distraction from the military's purpose of preparing for war.
Austin has been admonished by Republican lawmakers for the efforts at nearly every congressional hearing he's testified at, and non-binding language adopted by the Senate Armed Services Committee last year called any ongoing activity related to the counter-extremist working group "an inappropriate use of taxpayer funds" that "should be discontinued by the Department of Defense immediately."
In May, the Pentagon acknowledged it had implemented just one of the six recommendations the working group provided in its December 2021 final report. The implemented recommendation relates to training service members about what constitutes prohibited extremist activity.
There's no evidence that veterans and service members are more likely to become radicalized than the general population, and only a small fraction of those with military backgrounds have extremist connections. But experts say that when veterans and service members do turn to extremism, they have an outsized influence because they often assume leadership roles and are more likely to plan or to carry out mass casualty terrorist attacks.
In their letter, the advocacy groups highlighted several recent cases in which service members or veterans were arrested for extremist activity beyond the Jan. 6 insurrection, including an active-duty Marine being arrested in June for allegedly firebombing a Planned Parenthood clinic, a self-identified Nazi and National Guard veteran being arrested in February for allegedly plotting to attack a power grid, and four veterans and a member of the National Guard who were members of a white supremacist organization being arrested in June 2022 for allegedly conspiring to disrupt an LGBTQ+ Pride event.
Between 1990 and this past August, 659 individuals with military backgrounds were arrested for committing extremist crimes, according to data from the University of Maryland's National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism cited in the letter.
"We owe it to those who are serving and who have served to make addressing this threat a priority," the groups wrote. "We urge the DoD to continue the essential work you have begun in addressing white supremacy and other forms of extremism in the military -- and to inform Congress and the American public about progress made towards fulfilling these critical commitments and recommendations."
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on X @reporterkheel.