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The Pentagon is taking steps to stop extremism within its ranks

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

All right. Now let's talk with the military about this report. On the line is Pentagon press secretary John Kirby. Good morning.

JOHN KIRBY: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

MARTINEZ: All right. Sure. Now let's begin with membership or affiliation. The new rules don't provide a list of extremist organizations that are not allowed. So why go about it that way, ultimately allowing membership to continue?

KIRBY: Yeah, we wrestled with this one. This was not an easy thing to come around, and the working group looked at this very hard as well as our folks in our personnel and readiness division. And the idea here is it's not that we're - we want to encourage people to join an extremist group or that we're telling them it's OK to join, we've actually written the rules, the active participation requirements and what we define as extremist activity pretty stringently. In fact, they're written in such a way that it would be pretty hard for you to be a member of a group and not run afoul of these new rules.

The second thing that I think is important to mention here is that these groups - you know, yes, some of them, like the KKK, are - have been around a long, long time and have not changed their stripes. But a lot of the newer groups, they do. They morph. They change. They change names. They change their ideology. And so if we were to come up with a list of groups today, I guarantee you that next week, we'd probably have to update that. And it would be a never-ending task as these groups come and go.

The last thing I'll say on this is that what we found as we looked at those substantiated cases of extremist ideology and activity amongst members of the military was that a lot of them didn't affiliate themselves with a group per se. Some of them just self-radicalized, or they adopted the ideologies of several groups. And so there was never - like, you know, they weren't just all card-carrying members. So group identity is - we understand the concern over that, but we didn't want to get fixated on that because we were afraid it would actually limit our ability to deal with this problem.

MARTINEZ: So is it fair to say that the Pentagon is thinking, OK, well, we can't police people's thoughts, but we can make sure that their thoughts don't get in the way of doing their job?

KIRBY: This is exactly the point. It is all about activity. It's not about trying to get between somebody's ears or trying to figure out what they're thinking or what they're feeling about a given issue or a group or an identity. It's about what they do with those ideas. And if they act on those ideas in such a way that it harms good order and discipline, that it hurts unit cohesion or, worse, that it hurts one of their teammates with violence, then that's a behavioral issue that we have to address.

MARTINEZ: One thing on social media - I realize the Pentagon probably is not interested in trying to look at everyone's social media activity. But since a military member could get in trouble for liking a post espousing extremist views, what determines if the view qualifies?

KIRBY: Yeah, great question. So a couple of things - we don't have the capability to monitor everybody's personal social media, nor would we want to do that. It would have to be an instance that that came to light, either reported from somebody who saw it or caught as part of another investigation into another incident, something that came to light. And certainly, if it was, you know, the matter of liking something - I mean, I think we would first go under the assumption that maybe it was innocent, and we would evaluate that. If it wasn't an innocent liking or forwarding or sharing, you know, then we're into a whole different realm here of activity that would have to be dealt with. But they would be dealt with by the unit level.

One of the things about the new instruction that I think is important is the degree to which it invests in commanders, their authorities and their responsibility. So it's delegated down to their level at the unit level to investigate these cases and determine whether or not, in fact, punishment is, in fact, warranted.

MARTINEZ: Well, 'cause - yeah, I ask that only because I guess it all depends on who's in charge - right? - or who's making that determination because there could be someone that thinks that a group advocating for social justice is an extremist group. And then it seems like or it sounds like we're down a slippery slope.

KIRBY: Well, again, it's not about just the group. And this is why we didn't want to get fixated on groups, A. It's about the activity that the group or the identity or the organization is espousing. If that activity - and it's all laid out in the instruction - if that activity calls for the overthrow of the government, if it calls for the use of violence against a certain group or identity, a religion or a political party, if it calls for the establishment of values that are antithetical to the oath that we all take to the Constitution, well, then you might have a case here for extremist prohibited activity that you have to deal with.

MARTINEZ: That's Pentagon press secretary John Kirby. Thank you very much.

KIRBY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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