Military sharpens lookout for extremism

Screening for recruits to include assessment of tattoos, affiliation questions

The U.S. Department of Defense has updated its screening process for new recruits to include questions about membership in extremist organizations and any "questionable tattoos" that might suggest affiliation with those groups.

In a 21-page report detailing the Pentagon's plan to root out extremism within its ranks, the defense department spelled out efforts to ensure "only the best qualified recruits are selected for services." The report was spurred in large part by the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol -- which included some retired and active-duty service members.

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said the "overwhelming majority" serve with "honor and integrity."

"We owe the men and women of the Department of Defense an environment free of extremist activities, and we owe our country a military that reflects the founding values of our democracy," he said in a Dec. 20 news release.

The report listed four action items completed by the Pentagon since April and an additional three recommendations moving forward. It includes a broadened definition of extremist activities, which now accounts for social media and other online behavior, as well as better training for service members leaving the military who may be recruited by supremacist organizations.

While the defense department didn't list specific organizations that would be considered extremist, the agency identified six behaviors that constitute "extremist activities" as well as 14 examples of what constitutes "active participation" in those activities.

Knowingly displaying any sort of paraphernalia, words or symbols that support extremism or groups that are vocal proponents of extremist ideology is considered "active participation" under the new guidelines. According to the Pentagon, that includes "flags, clothing, tattoos and bumper stickers" on or off a military installation.

Officials also took a closer look at the screening process for new recruits, citing "several tragic incidents involving people with access to Department of Defense installations."

The report mentions shootings in 2009 at Fort Hood and in 2013 at the Washington Navy Yard, both of which were carried out by current of former service members.

Defense department officials outlined new efforts to ferret out recruits with potentially dangerous extremist ideologies, starting with updating screening questionnaires to include specific questions about whether recruits have joined "racially biased entities and other extremist groups."

The forms will notify recruits that any involvement in criminal gangs or extremist organizations is forbidden.

Recruiters and the Military Criminal Investigative Organizations also now have access to an FBI portal with "information on local gangs, white-supremacy and nationalist groups, gang signs, and extremist symbols and tattoos," the report states. Officials said the portal will allow recruiters and investigators to better assess "questionable tattoos and branding that suggest propensities to extremism and violence."

If a recruit either attests to being a member of an extremist organization or has a tattoo that's been flagged by the FBI, senior leadership will have to issue what's known as a "Morals Eligibility Determination" that allows them to move forward in the application process, the defense department said.

During a background briefing, a senior defense official outlined the screening process for applicants, which includes a recruiter interview, a look at their criminal history or past involvement with law enforcement, fingerprinting and an FBI name check.

"We look at that and the city, county, and state of residence at the time of enlistment," the official said. "We also look for any offensive, racist, supremacist tattoos, including those that may reflect gang affiliation. Then, we have a robust partnership with the FBI Cryptology and Racketeering Records Unit to be able to look at symbology as it may be evolving across the United States because, again, that's one of the things that we found is that this changes so quickly and it can vary a lot region-to-region, state-by-state."