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Defense officials announce new rules to counter extremism within the U.S. military


The Pentagon is updating its policies on extremism within its ranks. The participation of active and former service members in the January 6 attack on the Capitol led to this. Thing is, though, the issue is not a new one. NPR's Odette Yousef covers domestic extremism. Odette, OK, so what is and what is not allowed under the revised policies?

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Well, A, the key thing here is that membership or affiliation with an extremist group actually is still allowed. What's not allowed is active participation. And the updated policy strives to be pretty comprehensive in what that includes, you know, such as paying membership dues or fees. And the updated policies also define what prohibited extremist activity is. You know, one really key addition to this policy are some new rules around social media, namely that for the first time, service members will be held responsible for what they do on social media. So for example, liking or sharing content that endorses or promotes extremist activity would be prohibited under the new policy.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Now, so just to be clear, in case people heard it and don't believe it, a service member could be a member of the KKK and not be disqualified from service?

YOUSEF: That's right. You know, this gets at a balance that senior defense officials said that they were trying to strike here, you know? They said this isn't about policing ideology but rather activity. And, you know, they said it was very important to balance service members' First Amendment rights against what it's called the corrosive effect of extremists within the ranks. You know, obviously, this is controversial. Representative Anthony Brown, who's a Democratic congressman from Maryland and a retired army colonel, has said that he believes membership and not just activity should be enough to disqualify somebody from service.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, when it comes to activity, how is the Pentagon defining that?

YOUSEF: Well, the updated rules would prohibit the promotion of terrorism or the support or endorsement of the overthrow of the U.S. government, for example. And as I mentioned, when it comes to social media, sharing, retweeting, liking or posting anything that would support or endorse extremist activity would also be barred.

MARTÍNEZ: What are extremism experts saying about whether these changes go far enough?

YOUSEF: Well, I heard a few areas that they fell short. One person I spoke with is William Braniff. He's director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland. And he's also a retired army officer. He noted that the updates really prioritize identifying service members that are engaged in extremist activity by strengthening something that's called the insider threat program that the military has had for about a decade.

WILLIAM BRANIFF: The question is, what next? Is it merely to identify them in order to remove them from military service? Or is it to take a public health approach and try to address the vulnerabilities that that individual may have, try to increase their protective factors, so that they become less vulnerable to violent extremism?

YOUSEF: You know, I also heard concerns that this framework really relies mostly on people reporting instances of extremist activity that they observe, and that there still isn't enough being done to inoculate service members who are retiring against recruitment from extremist groups.

MARTÍNEZ: And one last thing, how big of a problem is this in the military?

YOUSEF: The Working Group report says up to 100 active military engaged in substantiated cases of prohibited extremist activity in the last year. I'll note that's a tiny fraction of 3.2 million active duty members.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Odette Yousef. Odette, thanks a lot.

YOUSEF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.