As experts and lawmakers examine the prevalence of extremism in the armed forces following the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection by a pro-Trump mob, one thing is clear: Nobody knows just how much they don’t know.
Witnesses told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday that although the Pentagon has publicly acknowledged that the military has a problem with extremists, including white supremacists and those who are radically anti-government, there is little data to help Americans better understand the issue.
“The most immediate problem is the absence of good data,” said Audrey Cronin, professor of international security at American University. “The Pentagon claims the number of extremists is small, but nobody truly knows.”
The lack of reliable data has divided lawmakers. Republicans on the committee claimed during the hearing that the issue of extremists in the military is being blown out of proportion, and that increased pressure within the services to root it out could hurt morale.
“It's also important to point out that we lack any concrete evidence that violent extremism is rife in the military, as some commenters claim,” Mike D. Rogers of Alabama, the committee's top Republican, said. “This is far from the largest military justice issue facing our armed services — anecdotes and online polls should not be our guide.”
But the panel’s top Democrat, Chairman Adam Smith of Washington, pushed back on that idea, arguing that the purpose of the hearing is to better understand the extent of the problem.
Smith, citing recent reporting on the deadly Jan. 6 riot, said that 20 percent of those arrested that day had a history of serving in the military.
“And just because it doesn’t line up with your world view doesn’t mean we’re not going to talk about it. We are,” Smith said.
In the wake of the riot, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III ordered a 60-day, military-wide effort to address extremism in the ranks, mostly focused on group conversations among troops and commanders.
Despite disagreements over the scope of the extremism problem, witnesses did suggest some steps the Pentagon could take to mitigate the problem — many of them surrounding the screening of new recruits.
“At the moment, the Defense Department is less willing to look at open source material than many employers, even those just vetting interns or students at my university, for example,” said Cronin.
Cronin suggested the Pentagon institute a policy of screening the social media profiles of new recruits for various key words or even memes that might indicate involvement with extremist groups.
Cronin stressed that servicemembers and veterans are high-value targets for recruitment by extremist groups.
Lecia Brooks, chief of staff for the Southern Poverty Law Center, agreed. She suggested that the military commanders and high-ranking Pentagon officials must be highly visible when speaking out against extremism, and that there should be better protections for whistleblowers.
“Military veterans are targeted by extremists. They bring social capital, legitimacy, weapons training, leadership skills and an increased capacity for violence to these groups,” Brooks said.