This story was updated at 10am EDT on Aug. 8, 2023, with comment from the Pentagon.
Military recruiters sometimes skipped steps to screen out enlistees affiliated with criminal gangs or political extremist groups, increasing the likelihood of disciplinary problems and security risks within the armed services, according to an audit released Monday by a Pentagon watchdog.
The department’s Office of Inspector General investigated the military’s recruiting process to determine whether the service branches were applying policies ordered by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in April 2021 to stamp out extremism in the ranks. The watchdog found that recruiters completed the screening steps inconsistently, sometimes skipping the required interviews, questionnaires, tattoo reviews, fingerprint checks and background investigations. The screening shortfalls may mean recruits with extremist or gang associations were allowed into active duty, the report states.
“If the military services are not completing required applicant screening steps, recruiters may not identify all applications with extremist or criminal gang associations during the accessions screening process, increasing the potential for security risks and disruptions to good order and discipline within the joint force,” Inspector General Robert Storch said in a statement.
The inspector general’s office called on the Pentagon to issue a new memo to recruiters, reiterating the importance of screening for applicants’ ties to extremist groups and gangs. The watchdog also recommended that each service branch conduct its own regular review of the screening process. Each branch agreed to establish periodic reviews by early 2024.
As a result of the lapses, recruiters may not have identified all applicants with extremist or criminal gang associations during the screening process, said a defense official on Tuesday, speaking on condition of anonymity under rules set by the Pentagon. The official said the Pentagon “takes extremist activity seriously” and is working to implement extremism-prevention tactics approved by Austin in 2021.
The screening shortfalls may mean recruits with extremist or gang associations were allowed into active duty.— Department of Defense Inspector General Report
The inspector general’s findings are “deeply concerning” and underscore the need for the military to modernize its recruiting and screening processes, said Joseph Shelzi, an analyst at The Soufan Group, a global intelligence and security consultancy.
“Military training is highly valued by extremist groups and criminal gangs, both of which make deliberate efforts to infiltrate their members into the military,” Shelzi said. “The spread of online disinformation and extremist content is a societal problem and the military cannot ignore or insulate itself from these kinds of challenges.”
Austin updated DoD policy regarding extremist behavior following the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, when myths about voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election drove supporters of former President Donald Trump to try to stop Congress from certifying the results. About 14% of the rioters charged in the attack were veterans or service members, according to George Washington University.
The DoD created a standard screening questionnaire in 2021 to solicit specific information from recruits about their current or former affiliations with extremist ideologies. The service branches updated their screening that year to include questions about applicants’ membership in racially biased or other extremist groups and their participation in violent activities. Applicants can seek waivers for previous affiliations with extremist groups and for tattoos of gang or extremist symbols, but they’re ineligible for service if they’re denied waivers or if they have criminal histories associated with extremist activity or gangs.
While recruiters generally followed the new policies and screened applicants for extremist and criminal gang behavior, they were sometimes lax with the process, the inspector general’s office found.
The office reviewed a statistical sample of recruits from 2021 and 2022 and found that 53 of them, or 41%, weren’t asked according to policy about their ties to extremist groups or gangs. Recruiters didn’t administer screening forms in 40% of cases when they should have, and they didn’t complete required tattoo screenings nor fingerprint checks for 9% of applicants. In one case, a recruiter didn’t initiate a background investigation into an applicant who should’ve been subject to one.
While Navy recruiters were found to have completed the screening process consistently, inspectors found instances in which Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force recruiters didn’t follow the new policies, the audit states.
Army and Air Force recruiters are required to ask all applicants if they’ve ever had associations with extremist or hate organizations or gangs, and check their responses as “yes” or “no.” Air Force recruiters didn’t check either box in 22% of applications the inspector general’s office reviewed, and Army recruiters didn’t check either box in 45% of applications.
As a result of the audit, Jeffrey Angers, deputy assistant secretary of the Army, sent a memo July 10 to U.S. Army Recruiting Command, reminding recruiters to ask applicants about their affiliations with extremist groups or gangs.
“Extremist and hate organization ideologies and affiliations are antithetical to Army core values,” Angers wrote in the memo. “It is important to follow all the required steps for screening applicants for extremist, hate and criminal gang associations during the accessions process... Applicants associated with these beliefs and/or organizations are neither permitted nor suited to access in the United States Army.”
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.