Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III has ordered a Department of Defense-wide stand down to discuss the challenge of extremism in the ranks, Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby said on Wednesday. 

Austin has ordered a spaced pause of operations across the entire U.S. military so commanders can have “needed discussions” with servicemembers about the issue of extremism over the next 60 days. 

The Defense Department has a policy (DODI 1325.06 “Handling Dissident and Protest Activities Among Members of the Armed Forces”) that expressly prohibits military personnel from actively advocating for or participating in any supremacist, extremist, or criminal gang doctrine, ideology or causes, including fundraising or demonstrating at a rally as part of such groups, recruiting, training, organizing or leading members, or distributing material.

The FBI reportedly opened 143 investigations into troops and veterans in 2020. Of those, 68 investigations were for domestic extremism.

Austin held a meeting Wednesday with Army Gen. Mark A, Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as service civilian leaders and service chiefs to discuss the problem of extremism, Kirby said to reporters. SecDef Austin asked them about their concerns and ideas for improving the situation.

“One of the reasons the secretary wants to do this stand-down is to see the scope of the problem. We don’t want to overestimate or underestimate the number of people it might affect,” Kirby said. 

“It may be more than we’re comfortable hearing and admitting and probably a lot less than the media attention surrounding it seems to suggest it could be. But where is it? It’s just not clear,” he added.

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“Even though the numbers might be small, they may not be as small as we would like them to be, or we believe them to be,” Kirby added. “And that no matter what it is, it is not an insignificant problem.”

Since the January 6 protest during which a small percentage of the people stormed the Capitol, the issue of extremism in the military, among both active and former members, has been a hot-button topic. Among those arrested were 22 active-duty military members and veterans.

Senior military leaders have been struggling with the matter since the DoD hasn’t issued a concrete definition of what is extremism. Unit commanders have been waiting for a policy on policing troops’ social media accounts since there are First Amendment issues to consider. 

Austin considers extremism a leadership issue, from the smallest unit all the way to the Secretary of Defense’s office. 

Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who served during the Obama administration from 2011 to 2013, equated the January 6 storming of the Capitol with 9/11.

“I think that similar to what happened on 9/11 and the threat from foreign terrorists became real as a result of that attack, the threat from domestic terrorism has certainly become very real as a result of what happened on January 6, and clearly how the military works with law enforcement to be able to deal with domestic terrorism is going to be a priority for the secretary,” Panetta said.