The Pentagon on Wednesday said it was still uncertain how to grapple with the problem of extremism in its ranks and announced a military-wide pause to allow troops and commanders a chance to focus on the issue.
Lloyd Austin, the first Black secretary of defense who recently took over at the Pentagon, ordered each branch of the military to stand-down at some point over the next 60 days to discuss the threat posed by white supremacy and similar extremism, said Pentagon press secretary John Kirby.
The Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, when a pro-Trump mob stormed the building and attacked police, was “a wake-up call” for the Department of Defense, Kirby said. Current and former members of the military took part in the siege, and the Pentagon is under scrutiny over how it vets recruits and tracks extremism within the ranks.
Austin delivered the order at a meeting of the leaders of each military service Wednesday that included the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Mark Milley, and vice chairman Gen. John Hyten, according to Kirby.
“There wasn’t one being in the room that didn’t agree that there wasn’t a problem,” he said.
The order was designed to allow military leaders to make clear that white supremacy and other extremist ideology had no place in the armed forces and to hear from troops about how they view the problem, Kirby said.
Although the Pentagon had studied the issue over the years and issued directives, the department still doesn’t have a full understanding of the problem, he said.
“We don’t know how we’re going to be able to get after this in a meaningful, productive, tangible way and that is why he had this meeting today and that is why he certainly ordered this stand-down,” Kirby said.
He added: “There may be cultural issues we have to deal with here.”
In the U.S. military, “stand-downs” are designed to focus the attention of the entire force on a serious problem or issue that requires every unit and every rank to pause their daily activity to discuss the problem.
The military has previously announced stand-down orders to address other problems plaguing the force and to raise awareness among the ranks over suicide, sexual assault and racism. Commanders can decide when to schedule the discussion over the 60-day period outlined by the defense secretary.
The Pentagon has yet to offer data outlining the scale of the problem, and neither the Defense Department nor the FBI have released information about roughly how many service members have been disciplined over extremist links in recent years or how many potential recruits show an affinity for extremist groups.
Lawmakers at a House hearing a year ago expressed grave concern over the problem and urged the Pentagon to take more decisive action and to gather more data to address the issue.
Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California recently urged President Joe Biden in a letter to issue an executive order that would ensure that security clearances for federal employees, and military troops in particular, include a review of social media posts for any ties to white supremacists or similar violent extremists.
Speier, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, wrote that it was “inexcusable” that authorities do not examine social media accounts when granting security clearances to military recruits or other federal employees “despite collection and reporting of other intrusive, private data, such as financial and behavioral health information.”