Ill-defined 'extremism' probes in national security ranks raise fears of ideological cleansing

"It would be hard to conclude that there's not political bias" motivating these investigations, said Lora Ries, former acting DHS deputy chief of staff.

Updated: May 11, 2021 - 10:13pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

Both the Department of Defense and, more recently, the Department of Homeland Security have announced internal investigations into domestic "extremism" within their ranks as urgent priorities of the Biden administration, but what exactly they mean by "extremism" remains elusive — and that sets off alarm bells for many.

Max Abrahms, a professor political science at Northeastern University, fears the term will be too broadly applied within U.S. defense and national security agencies to target those with "political views which are unpopular."

"I'm not confident that they're going to limit [the parameters of the term 'extremism'] to violent [methods]," Abrahms said in an  interview on "Just the News AM" last week. "I think that it might be much more inclusive, and that would be problematic."

Michael Waller, the vice president of the Center for Security Policy, says there is confusion within military ranks because of the ambiguity surrounding what specifically the department leadership may be searching to root out and why.

"There's no command guidance on what what is considered extremism … Not even the commanding officers understand what is meant by 'radical' or 'extremism,'" said Waller. "They're just being told to shut everybody up. It's built up a lot of resentment ... by our military professionals against the senior leadership in the Pentagon."

Both the DOD and DHS have contextualized their investigations as responses, at least in part, to the Jan. 6 Capitol breach. Announcing the internal investigation in a memo to employees, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas wrote, according to CBS News, that "recent events, including the January 6th attacks on the U.S. Capitol, have highlighted that domestic violent extremism poses the most lethal and persistent terrorism-related threat to our country today." 

If the investigations within the national security agencies "use a more stringent and accurate definition" of extremism, "they're not going to find much," said Abrahms. This reality, he believes, opens the door for the politicization of these investigations. 

"The idea grew that the domestic extremism problem isn't just part of the broader American fabric in terms of the general citizenry, but that it's disproportionately represented within the government itself," said Abrahms, citing the Pentagon's decision to highlight at the time of the "stand down" announcement the number of active duty service members and military veterans who participated in the Jan. 6 breach.

Critics charge the military's crackdown on "extremism" is a well-packaged plan to suppress politically conservative ideology. A series of training resources recently obtained by former Justice Department voting rights lawyer J. Christian Adams reveal how the Biden DOD is framing the extremism issue in its consciousness-raising efforts among active duty military.

The materials, including a training guide and a slide presentation, focus on language which could be construed as fomenting a climate of "racism, injustice, indignity, and disrespect." The examples of extremism cited in the documents are confined to far-right groups, with no mention of ANTIFA or other allied leftist extremists associated with much of the political violence and rioting that swept American cities in 2020.

"It's not cultural Marxism" being targeted, said Waller. "It's not Jihadism. It's anything considered to be right-wing extremism. And what they seem to mean by that is mainstream American conservatives, all the way to neo-Nazis and white supremacists. They lump them in all together." 

Waller fears a campaign to marginalize the mainstream right through association with a far-right fringe. "While there are a lot of mainstream conservatives in the military, there are a very, very tiny number of anti-constitutional Nazis or white supremacists and extremists," he said. "And people are already on the lookout for them, so everybody knows this is an effort against mainstream [conservative] people in the military."

For Abrahms and others, the prospect of a Biden administration ideological cleansing of the military raises grave civil liberties concerns.

"It's not illegal in this country to have political views which are unpopular," emphasized Abrahms. "It's not even actually illegal to associate with unpopular domestic groups, even ones that are seen as being extreme."

"What's alarming here is that they [DHS] are expanding the definition of domestic violent extremism," agreed Lora Ries, former acting DHS deputy chief of staff and current Heritage Foundation senior fellow for homeland security.

It is historically not unusual for a U.S. national security agency to assess "insider threats" like foreign agents or terrorist sleepers, Ries readily acknowledges. But the Biden "extremism" scare "is all so gray and so vague, they can be pursuing whatever or whomever disagrees with their narrative," she warned.

"It would be hard to conclude that there's not political bias" motivating these investigations, said Ries, particularly as Biden administration federal law enforcement agencies fail to "prosecute Antifa and BLM rioters and looters, and ignore the daily violence going on in Portland."

Ries sees a pattern on the left of altering the meaning of words to suit their political agenda. To that end, she believes the new DHS and DOD leadership groups are planning to keep their definition of "extremism" to themselves for now so that it may be applied when strategically most convenient to those running the show.

These investigations with loosely-defined parameters are "intended to have a deterrent effect within the federal government," said Abrahms, "to say, 'Look, if you openly have these kinds of views, you might actually be targeted.'"