Watchdog to Audit Military's Screening for Extremists at Enlistment

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A recruit division marches in formation at Recruit Training Command
A recruit division marches in formation at Recruit Training Command, March 15, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Spencer Fling)

The Department of Defense inspector general has begun an audit of how the military is doing at screening out extremists during enlistment, the latest move in a new push to root out the activity, according to a publicly released memo.

The watchdog audit comes only weeks after the Pentagon unveiled its latest report on extremism in the ranks. That report created new guidelines on activities banned for service members by adding more detail and clarity on what constitutes extremist activity, as well as active participation.

Military extremism was pushed to the forefront last year when some troops and veterans participated in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. A mob clashed with police before breaking through doors and windows and stalking lawmakers in an attempt to stop the official vote count in the 2020 election after former President Donald Trump lost.

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"The objective of this audit is to determine whether Military Service recruiting organizations screened applicants for supremacist, extremist, and criminal gang behavior, according to DoD and Military Service policies and procedures," the Jan. 3 inspector general memo said.

In April, the Defense Department said it would add questions about current or past extremist behavior to screening questionnaires given to troops during the accession process.

However, throughout the past year, defense officials have repeatedly noted that many of these processes are passive -- relying on either honest self-reporting or reporting by others -- rather than actively investigating and confirming a lack of extremist activity.

During the rollout of the new social media rules, the Pentagon's chief spokesman, John Kirby, stressed that the department is not planning systemic surveillance of service members' social media accounts to find infractions.

The approach has led to at least one public failure of the process to catch an extremist before they enlisted.

In November, federal officials announced that they arrested and charged a 19-year-old man for his actions during the Jan. 6 riot -- but not before he enlisted and shipped off to basic training for the Air Force. Aiden Bilyard was undergoing basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, when FBI agents showed up to question him about his participation in the riot.

The military has struggled to remove some members from its ranks even after they were identified and charged.

A National Guardsman who was part of the mob is still serving in Wisconsin despite having been sentenced by a federal court to probation and a fine for his actions. Fellow soldiers and his commander wrote letters of support ahead of his sentencing.

William Braniff, the director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), told reporters at an event on extremism in the military last month that "when military individuals or veterans participate in violent extremism domestically, they really punch above their weight, having an outsized impact."

Furthermore, Braniff's data shows that these veterans "were affiliated with no fewer than 120 different organizations around the country [like] local militia groups or local white supremacist groups without a national footprint."

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

Related: A Year Later, a Guardsman Who Responded to the Capitol Riot Recalls Delays and Uncertainty

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