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Army struggles to identify, report violent extremism, newly released audit shows

Army personnel can’t always identify extremist behavior, and almost half the time they don't know to whom they are supposed to report such activity, according to an internal audit obtained and released this week by an activist group.

The audit further illustrates shortcomings first identified in a USA TODAY investigation last year, which found the armed forces could show almost no progress on orders to eliminate extremism in the ranks, despite an effort launched in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection.

The newly released audit was completed in July 2023. It was obtained by the Project on Government Oversight under the Freedom of Information Act and released Thursday. It shows researchers with the U.S. Army Audit Agency interviewed more than 400 people from July 2022 to July 2023, including commanders at 11 commands across the country, active duty soldiers and civilian Army personnel.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered a full military effort to combat extremism after the events of Jan. 6, 2021.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered a full military effort to combat extremism after the events of Jan. 6, 2021.

Auditors found Army leaders had held “stand-downs” and counseling on extremism, had discussed extremism in training and “took the topic seriously.”

But despite the training, Army personnel couldn’t always identify extremist activity. For example, the audit notes, 10% of those interviewed did not identify that “using force, violence, or unlawful means to deprive individuals of their rights under the U.S. Constitution” is considered extremist activity by the Army. Further, 21% of survey respondents “didn’t identify donating money to a group advocating the superiority of one racial group as prohibited behavior.”

In addition, 43% of the respondents incorrectly identified where they were supposed to report extremist activity, and 36% of respondents were unsure to whom extremist activity should be reported.

"These internal Army findings show that the need to address extremism inside the military remains urgent,” said Liz Hempowicz, vice president of policy and government affairs at the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan government watchdog group. “There continues to be a lack of basic awareness of what extremist acts are and how to report them. This is unacceptable.”

Army officials did not respond to requests for comment on the audit.

Problems identifying and reporting extremism

Identifying and reporting extremist activity was a major focus of the reforms suggested by the Pentagon’s Countering Extremist Activity Working Group, which was created by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in April 2021.

As USA TODAY reported last year, that working group released a final report in December 2021 that made at least 20 recommendations for the military to follow to tackle extremism. As of last summer, the military had taken significant action on only two of those recommendations.

The working group called on the military to create what one expert described as a “supercharged internal affairs unit” to deal with reports of extremism.

It recommended creating a Behavioral Threat Analysis Center staffed with experts who would research and understand new trends in domestic extremism. That center would be combined with a Defense Insider Threat Management and Analysis Center, which would use the military’s up-to-date knowledge about domestic extremism to seek out insider threats, as well as receive tips about service men and women via a hotline.

“That was where the sauce was made − that was where things were really going to happen,” said Andrew Mines, formerly a research fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, who consulted with the working group.

But there’s no evidence the military ever created these centers. In the absence of those new systems, almost half of the Army personnel surveyed for the audit said they didn’t know to whom to report extremist activity.

“The inability to properly recognize, respond to, and report extremist conduct or indicators of extremism could increase the Army’s risk of not addressing inappropriate behavior,” the audit says. “These missed opportunities increase the danger of such misconduct damaging unit morale and cohesion and the Army’s reputation.”

Confusion over how ‘extremism’ is defined

The Pentagon in Washington, in a file photograph. The U.S. military embarked on a major new initiative to safeguard its ranks from the influence of extremist groups in 2021.
The Pentagon in Washington, in a file photograph. The U.S. military embarked on a major new initiative to safeguard its ranks from the influence of extremist groups in 2021.

In April 2021, Austin called for a review and update of the military’s official definition of extremism.

The Countering Extremist Activity working group concluded in its final report that this had been completed − one of the only extremism-related tasks the Pentagon had completed.

But the Army audit shows there is still significant confusion about what activities soldiers are, and are not, allowed to engage in. The Army still uses “various unclear and outdated definitions of extremist activity,” it says.

Rather than relying on the updated Department of Defense definition of extremism − codified in “Department of Defense Instruction 1325.06,” the Army instead uses two of its own codes that define extremism. And they’re different from each other.

“Inconsistent definitions caused personnel we interviewed and surveyed to be unsure of what was and wasn’t extremist behavior,” the audit says. “When asked if they had witnessed such behavior, 41 survey respondents (10%) said they were unsure if they’d witnessed extremist behavior in their current unit.”

The two definitions also give diverging instructions on how to report extremist activity, according to the audit. One says soldiers should report it to a security manager or commander, while the other says the reporting channels should be law enforcement and a counterintelligence agency.

The audit mentions the updated Defense Department definition of extremism, pointing out that the Army hasn’t yet rewritten its own codes to comply with the department's definition. It should do so “within 2 years,” the audit states (or within four years of the Defense Department changing its definition).

The audit recommends the Army update its definition of extremism to reflect the Defense Department's definition change from 2021.

“This is really just embarrassing for the armed forces,” said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. “It sounds like it’s still complete chaos over there and these are just basic things − what the definition of extremism is, how to report extremism − this is just simple stuff.”

Training soldiers on extremism

Though the audit found that training on extremism is being carried out in the Army, it also notes that commanders aren’t “using all available resources to conduct unit-level training on extremism awareness and prevention.”

The Army made equal-opportunity professionals available to commanders to help train their personnel on extremism, the audit notes. But none of the commanders interviewed for the audit knew this resource was available to them.

And 10 of the 11 commanders interviewed for the audit suggested improvements to the training materials that were currently available to them.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Army audit reveals more shortfalls on stopping extremist activity