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US Army survey results underline ongoing struggles to combat extremism after Pentagon made it top priority

By Oren Liebermann, CNN

(CNN) — An internal US Army survey illustrates the challenges the military is facing to combat extremism in the ranks even after the Pentagon made it a top priority at the beginning of the Biden administration.

The internal survey, carried out last year and obtained by the Project on Government Oversight through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, found that nearly half of the respondents incorrectly identified how to report extremist behavior. Meanwhile, a third of those who responded weren’t sure how to report such behavior.

In addition, one in five didn’t realize that donating money to an organization that advocated the superiority of a racial group is banned. Perhaps more worryingly, one in ten didn’t identify using force, violence or unlawful means to deprive individuals of their rights as prohibited.

The survey was conducted as part of an audit into how Army leaders were incorporating extremism awareness and prevention into day-to-day operations. It was carried out by the US Army Audit Agency and completed in June 2023, but it was not made public.

Combatting extremism in the military was a top priority for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin early in the Biden administration. One of Austin’s first orders was to order a standdown across the military to address extremism and extremist behavior. The Pentagon also established the Countering ExtremismWorking Group, which made a series of recommendations at the end of 2021 on how the military should handle the issue of extremism.

The survey found that Army leaders had incorporated extremism awareness and prevention into their command climate, but it said the process still need to be improved. Part of the challenge was that the Army didn’t clearly define extremist behavior or activity, the survey said.

As part of the effort to combat extremism in the ranks, the Defense Department put out a more specific definition of what constituted extremist behavior and activity in December 2021. The update came in the form of a Department of Defense instruction. But the Army had two separate regulations about extremist activity, which the survey said were “unclear and outdated.”

“Inconsistent definitions caused personnel we interviewed and surveyed to be unsure of what was and wasn’t extremist behavior,” the survey found.

But the Pentagon’s extremism effort was quietly abandoned as it came under increasing Republican attacks, as CNN has previously reported. As of May 2023, only one of the six recommendations from the Countering Extremism Working Group had been implemented, the Pentagon said.

According to a November report from the Defense Department inspector general, the vast majority of allegations of extremist activity in the previous fiscal year came from the Army. Of 183 formal allegations of extremist activity, 130 came from the Army.

The survey recommended using the updated Defense Department definition of extremism throughout Army policy, a suggestion which the report said the Army is implementing. The survey also recommended providing better access to materials on extremism awareness and prevention.

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