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SPLC Welcomes Department of Defense Countering Extremism Report: Calls for More Action to End Hate and Extremism in the U.S. Military

WASHINGTON, DC – The Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Intelligence Project Director Susan Corke responded today to the release of the Department of Defense’s Countering Extremism Activities Working Group (CEAWG) report, which outlines several initiatives designed to address the dangerous and disturbing trend of extremism in the U.S. military.  

“The SPLC has been tracking the issue of extremism in the military since the mid-1980s as part of our work monitoring the activities of domestic hate groups and extremists. SPLC presented testimony last March before the full House Armed Services Committee and, in October, submitted a statement for House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearings focused on efforts by extremist groups to recruit veterans.  SPLC experts also participated in several briefings for members of the CEAWG.

Several Department of Defense commitments outlined in the CEAWG report are especially notable: 

  • Expanding and significantly clarifying existing prohibitions against advocating for, or involvement in, supremacist or extremist activity. Importantly, these commitments are uniform from service to service.   
  • Prohibiting the use of social media to distribute or support extremist activities when these actions are taken with the intent to promote or endorse extremist activities. 
  • Expanding screening, education, and training to prevent recruitment of extremists into the military, to inoculate against radicalization for active-duty personnel throughout their military careers.
  • Of special interest is the report’s commitment to update a standardized transition checklist for veterans as they reenter into civilian life to include training on potential targeting by extremist groups and enhancing mechanisms for reporting those outreach efforts. This is a welcome initiative, but there is also a need for the Pentagon, the Department of Veterans Affairs, veterans’ groups, and other stakeholders to work together to design pre-retirement training to help veterans understand that they may be targeted for recruitment by extremism groups.  In addition, we recommend training designed to help inoculate veterans against adopting extremist ideologies, and, importantly, the ongoing availability of counseling and other mental health and social welfare services.
  • Expanding existing prohibitions against the display of flags, clothing, tattoos, and bumper stickers – on or off a military installation – that support extremist groups and activities.   

We will be reviewing the report and tracking its implementation to ensure that the new provisions are consistent with First Amendment speech and privacy protections. Although the report includes important advancements, we would cite three significant omissions in the report.   

  • First, the lack of a commitment to develop and implement regular, anonymous climate surveys related to white supremacy or other forms of extremism. Almost every report and every hearing on this issue has underlined the lack of data on this issue. Regular personnel climate surveys are essential and could be used to inform the creation of evidence-informed trainings. 
  • Second, officers, instructors, and upper-class students at service academies have virtually absolute command authority over their students and subordinates, creating undue pressure to not only conform, but also refrain from reporting extremist activity or race-based intimidation. We regret the report did not call for expanded protections for whistleblowers and reporting of extremist outreach and activities outside the chain of command.
  • And third, we are disappointed that the CEAWG Report does not call for the 10 U.S. Army bases named for Confederate leaders to be immediately renamed. A commission has been established to remove names, symbols, displays, monuments, and other Defense Department assets, but there is no reason to wait the full three years accorded to the commission to complete this task. 

The commitments made today are especially important considering the outsized role people with military experience played in the deadly violence surrounding the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. More than 80 of the 700 individuals charged by the Justice Department in connection with the Capitol breach have ties to the U.S. military. Though most are veterans, some are active-duty personnel. 

It is no surprise that extremist groups and individuals encourage their followers to join a branch of the military and that they target existing servicemembers and veterans for recruitment. Veterans and servicemembers bring social capital, legitimacy, specialized training, and an increased capacity for violence to white power groups, which makes them highly sought-after recruits.   

Because the military’s unique command structure makes the need for leadership in rejecting extremism and bigotry essential, we deeply appreciate the outspoken leadership of Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark A. Milley in working to address this important issue.  While there is still more to do to truly end hate and extremism in the military, today’s announcement demonstrates seriousness of purpose and progress towards that goal.”