Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, left, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., arrive before a procedural vote on the Women's Health Protection Act to codify the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, May 11, 2022. President Joe Biden called on Congress to pass legislation that would guarantee the constitutional right to abortion services after the disclosure of a draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade. Credit: J. Scott Applewhite / AP

WASHINGTON — The Senate Armed Services Committee has called on the Defense Department to halt its programs to prevent and root out extremism in the ranks.

The report accompanying the Senate’s National Defense Authorization Act, which was made public late Monday, states the committee’s view that “spending additional time and resources to combat exceptionally rare instances of extremism in the military is an inappropriate use of taxpayer funds, and should be discontinued by the Department of Defense immediately.”

The language has not previously been reported in the press. While not legally binding on the Pentagon, it appears to send a signal of congressional opposition to efforts to counter extremist narratives in the military — an initiative that was fueled largely by the fact that dozens of people charged with ransacking the Capitol on Jan. 6 were former or current service personnel, or about one in 10.

While the Senate report language suggests the committee as a whole supports halting counter-extremism training and analysis, the same document reveals that the committee approved including that section of the report by only the narrowest of margins: 14-12.

Every Republican on the committee voted for the motion, and every Democrat voted against it. A vote in favor of the language from Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats, tipped the balance in the GOP’s favor.

A King spokesperson cited a military review that found 100 cases of extremism in a total military force of over 2 million people or .005 percent, saying the efforts helped to determine “whether to invest further to confront a 1-in-20,000 issue.” 

But some veterans and other experts who study extremism among veterans and servicemembers were dismayed when told about the Senate language.

“What is the impact on morale, good order and discipline, and ultimately combat effectiveness, if the men and women in our incredibly diverse and all-volunteer military believe that the Department of Defense doesn’t have their backs when it comes to white supremacy, support for jihadism, misogynist extremism, or anti-LGBTQ+ extremism?” said Bill Braniff, director of the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, or START.

It is far from certain that the final NDAA that Congress sends to President Joe Biden’s desk will include the language, as solid Democratic opposition in both chambers could result in deleting or altering it during bicameral negotiations in the coming weeks. But the extraordinary expression of opposition to even minor efforts to root out extremism from the armed services represents the latest sign of an ongoing partisan row over a reckoning with race in America.

Republicans have systematically depicted even relatively modest efforts to talk about extremism in the military and screen out potentially dangerous recruits as attempts to police thought — efforts, some say, that are stacked against conservatives and that end up tarnishing the military’s reputation.

In these critiques, counter-extremism is often lumped in with diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives under the umbrella term, “wokeness.” These initiatives, the GOP argument goes, are diverting resources from military readiness.

Some on the left, meanwhile, have falsely represented the problem of extremism as driven largely by military personnel and veterans. The truth appears to be that while military-connected people are a small percentage of those convicted of extremism, their numbers grew after violent groups targeted recruitment efforts at veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, Braniff and other experts say.

The impact of these recruits in the extremist groups — and the effect of their actions on the military and on the community — are magnified far beyond their numbers, the experts said.

After the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, the Pentagon placed a major focus on countering extremism. One month afterward, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III ordered U.S. military leaders to take time in the subsequent two months to discuss the issue with troops.

In April, Austin set up a Countering Extremist Activity Working Group to tackle the issue. The group reported in December 2021 that it had found 100 cases of extremism in a total military force of over 2 million people — or .005 percent.

In February of this year, Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, wrote to senators that the Pentagon had spent at least $500,000 dealing with the issue and that each service member had spent an average of two hours per year discussing it.

“The committee believes that the vast majority of servicemembers serve with honor and distinction, and that the narrative surrounding systemic extremism in the military besmirches the men and women in uniform,” the new Senate report said. “The committee believes that when extremist activity does in fact occur that it must be dealt with swiftly and appropriately; however, the case incident rate does not warrant a Department-wide effort on the issue.”

But the Pentagon working group’s December 2021 report did not just say that extremism is rare. It also said that “even the actions of a few can have an outsized impact on unit cohesion, morale and readiness.”

Story by John M. Donnelly. BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.