RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There is a reckoning afoot in the U.S. military. President Biden is expected to visit the Pentagon today just as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered a massive review of extremism within the force. Austin has called for a so-called stand-down, a pause in operations, in order to understand the scope of the problem of extremism, which is more urgent after it was revealed that veterans were part of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is with us this morning. Hi, Tom.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: So there's going to be this stand-down within the next 60 days. What exactly does Secretary Austin hope to accomplish here?
BOWMAN: Well, he wants a couple of things, first of all, to get an idea of the scope of the problem and then ways to deal with it. So Secretary Austin ordered military leaders to spend one training day discussing with the troops the importance of their oath of office to support and defend the Constitution, to be aware of any unacceptable behavior, such as advocating violence or active participation in hate or supremacist groups, also ways to report suspected behavior. And a lot of this, of course, again, was driven by the participation of veterans in that Capitol insurrection. An NPR analysis found that some 15% of those under investigation by the FBI were former military. And, Rachel, I was at the Capitol during the riot and talked to a few veterans, including a member of the Proud Boys. They're labeled an extremist group by the FBI. And this guy told me that he served two tours in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division. So again, a number of veterans there.
MARTIN: Wow. So you said part of this, a big part of it, is understanding the scope of the problem of extremism within the U.S. military. How exactly can they measure that?
BOWMAN: Well, you get statistics. So first of all - and Austin himself acknowledged it's a problem getting those statistics. Now, top military leaders are trying to get numbers about extremism. How many were kicked out of the military? How many recruits are turned away for extremist ties? And it's proving to be difficult. So far, all I've been able to gather is a few statistics. The Marine Corps told me that in the last three years, they found 16 cases of substantiated extremist behavior, mostly postings on social media. But no sense, at this point, whether any were kicked out. Also, the FBI told the Pentagon that last year, they'd opened about 143 investigations involving mostly former military members. And of that, about half had to do with domestic extremism. And that's about all we know so far.
MARTIN: So Tom, how do they distinguish extremism from political ideology? Or maybe in this case it's one in the same. I mean, we all know President Trump retweeted conspiracy theories and was consistently evasive, shall we say, in condemning hate groups. And the rioters that stormed the Capitol that day did so in his name.
BOWMAN: Right. And this could be difficult. And some conservative commentators have questioned all this as maybe being anti-Trump. Pentagon officials say this is not about who you voted for or your political beliefs. It's how you act on certain beliefs. Do you advocate extremist views or call for violence? But there is some difficult political and free speech issues here. Right now, you cannot be an active member in something like that far right-wing group the Proud Boys. But the current regulations allow just membership. Here's Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby.
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JOHN KIRBY: Membership is not considered inconsistent with service in the military. And it really is really about what you do with that membership. I'm not going to be predictive one way or the other about where this discussion is going. But I think membership in these groups is certainly something that I would expect for them to look at.
BOWMAN: So you can see how they're wrestling with this, Rachel. And there are other issues. For example, let's say a soldier wears a T-shirt saying - reading, stop the steal. You could argue that soldier says the election was a fraud. And therefore, his commander in chief is illegitimate. That could be illegal under military law, which prohibits contempt toward officials. A lot to sort out.
MARTIN: Yeah, indeed. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thank you for this.
BOWMAN: You're welcome, Rachel.
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