Lawmakers moved this week to abolish a Pentagon working group aimed at preventing extremism in the military, a decision some advocates said reveals a lack of concern about the issue from Congress.
House and Senate negotiators included a measure in their compromise draft of the annual defense policy bill to stop federal dollars from going toward the Countering Extremist Activity Working Group. That body was established by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in 2021 to address an increase in concerning behavior among troops. Members had proposed a host of reforms the Pentagon could make to better track, prevent and respond to cases of extremism, which the department is still working to implement nearly two years later.
But earlier this year, Rep. Mark Alford, R-Mo., introduced the measure to halt the working group, describing its work as unnecessary. He argued his proposal was key to “eliminating the ‘wokeness’ in our military,” referring to what he sees as a rise in radically progressive policies at the Pentagon.
Alford was one of a handful of House Republicans who introduced multiple measures to restrict the Defense Department’s extremism-prevention efforts and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives through the annual defense policy bill. Negotiators stripped away the harshest of those provisions, but several made it into the final draft.
Now, the end of the Countering Extremist Activity Work Group would mean the Pentagon will face less accountability as it works to implement the group’s recommended reforms, argued Wendy Via, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism.
“It was clearly a concession – one we wish hadn’t been made,” Via said. “We were pursuing to keep that working group because once it’s gone, we’re never going to get it back.”
The compromise measure is expected to be voted on by the full House and Senate by the end of next week.
If the bill is approved, the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security would gain the responsibility of overseeing the military’s extremism-prevention efforts and the implementation of the working group’s proposed reforms, according to an explanation from House and Senate negotiators that accompanied the final draft of the bill.
Via believes that separating those duties between two under secretaries would make it more difficult to implement the reforms. As of last month, the Pentagon was still struggling to track and report extremism data in a cohesive way.
The Pentagon’s Office of Inspector General published a report Nov. 30 that found the service branches investigated 183 allegations of extremist activity among troops in the past year, including 78 cases of service members advocating for the overthrow of the U.S. government. While leaders were able to report the number of allegations investigated, they did not track how many allegations of extremist activity were received but not investigated.
The IG’s office found that the Army, Navy and Air Force had separate reporting structures and used different electronic systems for tracking allegations of extremism. The lack of data about allegations that weren’t investigated made it difficult for the IG to gauge how effectively the Defense Department prevented and responded to extremist activities during the past year, the report states.
Without the working group, Josh Connolly, the senior vice president of Protect Our Defenders, said he would expect to see future reports showing more problems that haven’t been addressed. Protect Our Defenders is a nonprofit that works to end sexual violence and racism in the military and urged lawmakers to keep the working group intact.
“It’s clear that combating the very real threat of extremism within our ranks does not seem to be a priority of Congress, even when all evidence points to persisting problems,” Connolly said.
The advocacy group Human Rights First also pushed Congress to maintain the Pentagon’s extremism-prevention efforts. While some advocates believe the work wouldn’t go far without the working group, Liz Yates, a researcher with Human Rights First, said she was reassured by the explanation from House and Senate negotiators that claimed the group’s reforms would still be implemented.
Yates believes that negotiators shifting the oversight of the reforms to the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security was an attempt to “hold that progress” made by the working group.
“It ensures the implementation of those provisions will be continued,” Yates said.
However, the Pentagon should be more transparent about its progress to implement the reforms, Yates argued. While the Defense Department has taken incremental steps – such as expanding the list of extremist activities prohibited by the military – multiple news outlets reported this summer that the department abandoned most of the working group’s recommendations. Pentagon spokesmen have not answered whether the working group had ended its efforts or held additional training to focus on how the military’s core values run counter to extremist ideologies.
Human Rights First, along with dozens of veterans and military family advocacy groups, anti-extremism groups and individual extremism experts, sent a letter to Austin in September, criticizing him for the lack of transparency about the Pentagon’s progress.
“There’s a lot of work left to do and a lot more that needs to be done,” Yates said Dec. 8. “We definitely want to see more transparency and understanding.”
Nikki Wentling covers disinformation and extremism for Military Times. She's reported on veterans and military communities for eight years and has also covered technology, politics, health care and crime. Her work has earned multiple honors from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, the Arkansas Associated Press Managing Editors and others.