Pentagon has new definition for extremism in the ranks

The new definition is intended to spot active participation in extremism.

NBC News/December 20, 2021

By Luis Martinez

The Pentagon on Monday issued a new definition of prohibited extremist activities providing military commanders with specific information that will help them determine whether service members are actively participating in extremist activities.

Commanders will also receive specific guidance for what to look for in past social media activity to help them identify whether a service member is participating actively in such activities.

The Pentagon's new specific definition of prohibited extremist activities was prompted by the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol that led Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to order an unprecedented one-day stand down for service members to discuss extremism in their ranks and what to do about it.

The Pentagon's new definition goes beyond the previous definition of prohibited extremist activities that was considered too vague. But it maintains the focus on active participation in a prohibited activity as opposed to membership in a group, support for an ideology, or opposition to a political leader which are protected under the First Amendment's right of expression.

"The revised instruction regroups issues into three sections: prohibited extremist activities, command authority and responsibilities and criminal gangs" John Kirby, the Pentagon's top spokesman, told reporters Monday. "It also prohibits active participation in extremist activities and clearly defines what we mean by the term extremist activities."

"The new definition preserves a service members right of expression to the extent possible, while also balancing the need for good order and discipline to affect military combat and unit readiness," said Kirby.

Military commanders will be provided with a "two-part test" that first focuses on allegations of alleged extremist activity and then looks at whether there is active participation.

Fourteen categories will help commanders determine if a service member is an active participant in extremist activities.

"When you go through the list that we have in the instruction you'll see that there's not a whole lot about membership in a group that you're going to be able to get away with," said Kirby. "In order to prove your membership, you're probably going to run afoul of one of these of one of these criteria sets."

The new policy will include guidance for how military commanders can take a service members past social media activity when reviewing whether that service member is actively participating in extremist activity.

"As an incident comes to light, and as authorities are looking at the context of that case, then that social media information could be one point among many that would be taken into consideration," a senior defense official told reporters.

"There has to be a knowing element to it," a senior defense official. "There has to be sort of an amplification of the message is what we're looking at. So, somebody who just stumbled across content wouldn't be necessarily sufficient, depending on the facts, to violate this policy."

The new policy provides details of what constitutes dissemination of extremist materials in the internet age "including posting, liking, sharing, re-tweeting, or otherwise distributing content – when such action is taken with the intent to promote orotherwise endorse extremist activities."

"Military personnel are responsible for the content they publish on all personal and public Internet domains, including social media sites, blogs, websites, and applications," the policy continues.

"Nothing about this has anything to do with who a service member votes for or doesn't vote for, or their personal political views,' said Kirby.

But he added that if a service member is advocating for domestic terrorism or "the overthrow of the government, or you're actively undermining the oath you took to the Constitution to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, then all that fits" the criteria of extremism.

A review found that about 100 service members were found to have engaged in substantiated cases of extremist activity in 2021, an increase over previous years that senior defense officials said might just be the result of better tracking of available data.

The officials said that the Defense Department will increase the use of an existing insider threat program that uses background checks as a means of identifying potential threats.

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