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The Pentagon has announced new rules to counter extremism within the U.S. military


The Pentagon has released a long-awaited update to how it should handle extremism within its ranks. The Defense Department initiated the review early this year after learning that several current and former military members participated in the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. NPR's Odette Yousef covers domestic extremism and joins us now. Hi, Odette.


CHANG: So as we mentioned, this guidance has been anticipated for months and months now. Can you just give us some of the highlights of what the Defense Department issued today?

YOUSEF: Well, you know, the top line of this is that the updated policy does not prohibit membership to an extremist group. So, for instance, you know, Ailsa, if you're a member of the Ku Klux Klan, that would not automatically disqualify you from military service.

CHANG: Interesting.

YOUSEF: But it does expand on what prohibited extremist activity is and what constitutes active participation in an extremist group. It also provides for training and education on prohibited extremist activities, deeper screening of people that are looking to enter the armed services and - perhaps most notable - that for the first time, it clarifies that service members are responsible for what they do on social media.

CHANG: So I'm curious. What is not addressed at all in the guidance?

YOUSEF: Well, you know, this guidance didn't actually list which groups would be considered extremist. But I also checked in with some experts on this who felt that the recommendations could have gone further in some areas. You know, for example, there's a lot of emphasis in here on leveraging something called the Insider Threat Program, which is an internal program designed to identify individuals who've displayed concerning behavior in the military - so lots of attention to identifying people that engage in extremist activity but really nothing about what to do with them, Ailsa. So, you know, is the only option simply to remove someone from service? Or will there be some sort of counseling to try to offramp them from an extremist sort of path?

And some also shared with me that they feel the recommendations fall short, particularly when it comes to people that are, you know, retiring, you know, transitioning out of the military service. You know, these are people that are particularly vulnerable to recruitment. But there are ways to inoculate them against recruitment, and these recommendations don't really offer that kind of tailored approach.

CHANG: It's fascinating. Well, if we could just take a step back for a moment, what do we know now about, like, how much of a problem extremism is within current ranks in the military and among veterans? How much do we know?

YOUSEF: Well, you know, this has been such a big question since January 6. You know, we know, as you mentioned earlier, that active and former military were allegedly involved in some of those activities. And this might be in part why the defense secretary established a working group back in April, which put out today's report. You know, the report itself puts the number at around 100. That's active military with substantiated cases in the past year. But it's been a problem for decades. The Southern Poverty Law Center has been begging the Department of Defense to address this issue. And so they're pleased the reports come out and hope it's just the beginning.

CHANG: Just the beginning. But all right. Well, what's next after this report?

YOUSEF: Well, Ailsa, there are 3.2 million active duty military and National Guard personnel, so this is just a small fraction of those involved. The Department of Defense will be putting out future reports still trying to figure it out.

CHANG: That is NPR's Odette Yousef. Thank you, Odette.

YOUSEF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.