Two years after the Defense Department formed a working group to investigate cases of extremism within the ranks of the U.S. armed forces, the Pentagon has barely moved to implement its recommendations. That comes even as there have been repeated cases of violence or attempted violence by active-duty military members.

CNN reports that the Pentagon has only enacted one of the Countering Extremism Working Group’s six recommended measures on fighting extremism, which the DoD defines as, among other things, participation in or pushing for violence against people of other races, genders or national origins. Created in April 2021 by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, the working group was formed in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, which also spurred the U.S. military to hold a a service-wide stand down in March 2021 to address extremism.

Although the working group released six recommendations on how to combat extremist ideology in the ranks, the urgency behind the creation of the group seems to have passed.

Pentagon Deputy Press Secretary Sabrina Singh told reporters in a May 18 press conference that only the recommendation tied to training — outlining to service members what constitutes extremist activities and why that is prohibited — has been implemented and “continues to be implemented across the department.” The other elements, involving screenings of recruits, updating military justice measures and notably oversight on potential insider threats have not. 

When asked when, if ever, those would be implemented, Singh added that “all recommendations have been assigned are with the appropriate principal staff, but at this time, I just have nothing more to announce.”

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Alongside that, an outside group failed to complete an independent study on extremism in the service. The Institute for Defense Analysis hasn’t finished its report, even though it was due in June 2022, per CNN. 

One of the major challenges identified in the Pentagon’s efforts to counter extremism is political pressure from lawmakers in Congress. Conservatives have heavily criticized and condemned counter-extremism policies, as well as efforts to boost diversity and inclusion, in the armed forces are “woke” and a detriment to  both military readiness and recruiting. 

Officials including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley have repeatedly pushed back against these attacks.

“I personally find it offensive that we are accusing the United States military […] of being ‘woke’ or something else because we’re studying some theories that are out there,” Milley said at a House Armed Services Committee hearing in June 2021. 

That political pressure appears to have stalled any progress on adopting those measures. A major target of the criticism was the working group’s leader, Bishop Garrison, who became a target of conservative pundits and lawmakers for allegedly pushing “left-wing extremism.” Austin initially defended him, but per CNN, that support dwindled in the summer of 2021 and ultimately led to the working group’s efforts losing importance to Pentagon leadership. 

CNN also found that the Pentagon continues to struggle with its definition of “extremist activities.” At the time of the working group’s establishment, there was no clear department-wide understanding of what constitutes that. One was created since spring 2021, but has done little to weed out extremists, per those CNN talked to. 

Despite criticisms from conservatives, there have been repeated instances of crimes including violent acts carried out and planned by active-duty members of the military, often tied to far-right ideology. The overall percentage of extremists within the military remains small, but also a threat. Many extremist groups have encouraged members to enlist in order to receive combat training as a way to make their plots more effective. Extremist groups also try to recruit veterans to their ranks for the same reason.

One of the most notable cases involving an active-duty service member was Ethan Melzer, an Army private who pledged loyalty to a Neo-Nazi organization and plotted to ambush his fellow soldiers while on deployment. He was sentenced to 45 years in prison.

Another case involved Steven Carrillo. In May and June 2020, while serving as an Air Force sergeant with a Phoenix Raven security team, he killed a federal agent and later a local deputy. Carrillo had ties to the Boogaloo movement, which aims to start a second American Civil War. 

Most recently there has been the case of Jack Teixeira, the Air National Guardsman accused of leaking classified and sensitive information on two Discord servers did so apparently not for any whistleblowing reason but to curry favor with far-right users. He is facing trial. 

“Individuals that engage in this behavior make the department less safe internal and make its external work more difficult,” Garrison said in a statement to CNN. “That’s true whether their actions are of a violent nature or damage the trust in DoD as an institution like Airman First Class Jack Teixeira’s classified leaks. The department should be vocal about the productive policies it had out in place while acknowledging it can and should do more.”

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