The Pentagon Restates Existing Policy With Clarifications For Service Members

Yesterday the Pentagon issue a “new” policy regarding extremism that in almost every way was a re-statement of its long-standing policies regarding service members participating in criminal gangs and extremist organizations and activities. When Secretary of Defense Austin ordered a top to bottom review of this policy, saying combatting extremism was going to be a focus of his tenure as secretary it was widely derided as someone looking for a problem where none really existed.

This review by Austin was prompted in some part by the so-called “Insurrection” at the Capitol that took place on January 6th after President Donald Trump was defeated by former Vice President Joe Biden in the 2020 general election. Of the more than 700 charged with offenses in connection with the riot at the Capitol on that day, not a single defendant has been charged so far under 18 U.S. Code § 2383, Rebellion or Insurrection. Critics point to this fact as proof that claims of a rebellion led by insurrectionists are just political hyperbole.

Democrats have called for the military to pursue and root out any extremism within its ranks as Congressman Anthony Brown(D-MD) stated during an NPR interview on Monday, “…one extremist in the ranks is just one too many.”

Republicans for their part tend to downplay the presence of extremism in ranks as all but non-existent.  Congressional hearings on extremism in the ranks were called just “political theater” by Congressman Patrick Fallon (R-Texas).

Both points have merit.  The Pentagon has only been able to find 100 service members in recent years that have been discharged in relation to holding extremist views, which suggests it is a very rare occurrence among more than 1.4 million people on active duty from year to year. 100 service members discharged cannot truthfully be called “non-existent.”  But the Pentagon does not have discharge classifications that specify things like “Political Extremism” that would generate actual data on just how many service members might hold extremist views or belong to extremist organizations or criminal gangs.

Among Republicans and Democrats there was little agreement as to what constituted “Political Extremism” and whether naming specific groups service members are barred from joining would do any good since these groups could simply change their name to avoid being singled out. Republicans also pointed out that there was no mention of servicemembers joining communist party groups which hold views that are antithetical to the Constitution or Democracy in general.

In 2019, the Army policy was that service members could be communists and members of the American Communist party, the NAZI Party or the Democratic Socialist Party.  This stemmed from an incident involving Spencer Rappone, who took a photo of himself in his West Point uniform at graduation with a message in his hat that read “Communism Will Win.” He doubled down by then revealing a Che Guevara t-shirt under his tunic.

Spencer Rappone did not get in trouble for being a communist, but for wearing a Che Guevara shirt under his uniform, thereby suggesting his personal support of this infamous killer of homosexuals in revolutionary Cuba was endorsed by the U.S. military. Photo: Army Times of Rappone’s social media postings

Ironically, immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship will be denied entry if they have ever been a member of the communist party in their own country or any other group that spouts a totalitarian ideology.

Nevertheless, the Pentagon expressed concern that veterans and active-duty personnel were present at the Capitol riot on January 6th.  75 of those charged with offenses were veterans, one was a Marine officer on active duty and four others were either in the National Guard or Army Reserve.

Five persons died in the riot, all but one of natural causes.  Two died of heart attacks related to existing cardiovascular problems, one from a methamphetamine overdose, Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknik suffered two strokes while in the hospital recovering from injuries sustained in the riot. The sole fatality due to homicide was Ashley Babbit, an Air Force veteran who was shot as she attempted to enter the House Chamber by Lt. Michael Byrd of the Capitol Police. Lt Byrd was exonerated of wrongdoing by the Capitol Police and Justice Department saying that under the circumstances of that moment, he acted reasonably and within the scope of his duties in killing Babbit with a single gunshot.

In A Charged Political Climate, Over Reach Is Very Possible

In such a charged political climate, it would be easy to imagine the Pentagon engaging in a witch hunt for extremism in the ranks with damage ultimately done to the First Amendment rights of service members being punished for thoughts rather than deeds that are actionable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. With the rise of various social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter it would also be possible for a service member to not realize that liking or commenting on a post by a person or group engaged in political extremism is akin to actively participating in that extremism as well.

This restatement of the existing policy with some clarifications and guidelines for commanding officers seems aimed at trying to prevent overreach while also informing service members as to the military’s expectations of acceptable conduct. The advisement on social media posts to service members reads as follows;

“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. 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 Leave Discretion To The Commanding Officer With Some Restrictions

While the policy directives leave a great deal of the enforcement duties at the discretion of unit commanders it advises them to begin with counseling of the service member rather than going straight to the most punitive disciplinary measures available to them.

“Preventive Activities. Commanders should remain alert for signs of future extremist
activities. Commanders should intervene early, primarily through counseling, when observing
such signs even though the signs may not rise to the level of active participation or threaten good
order and discipline, but only suggest such potential. The goal of early intervention is to
minimize the risk of future extremist activities. In these situations, commanders will educate the
Service member regarding the potential adverse effects of their actions.”

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It also informs commanders that their own view of what constitutes “extremism” must conform to the definitions stated in the policy and that the service member needs to have “actively participated” in the activity or organization in order to take any action to address it.  In effect, a service member may read about Nazi or Communist or even Islamist ideology without fear of violating the policy but are prohibited from actively endorsing it in writing or on social media.  They could witness as a bystander a demonstration by an extremist group, but not pick up a “Overthrow the Constitution” sign and march with them.

A service member joining this march on the Ohio state capitol on inauguration day with a group calling itself the”United Front Against the Far-Right & Capitalist System!” would probably violate the DoD policy

There Still Isn’t A Way To Accurately Measure Extremism In The Ranks

One thing that has not changed is the military creating a discharge classification that would include these prohibited activities so that data may be gathered on just how many service members are discharged for political extremism or engaging in criminal gang activities while in uniform.

Which the Pentagon really should do in order to create the hard data that would prevent extremism in the ranks from becoming a political football that both parties can kick around for their own purposes.