Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has ordered a staggered pause of operations across the entire US military so commanders can have “needed discussions” with service members about the issue of extremism over the next 60 days, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby announced on Wednesday.
Austin hopes the pause, known as a stand down, will accomplish two things — he wants leaders of each branch to be able to communicate their expectations of how their troops should behave, and leaders to “gain insight” from members on the “scope of the problem from their view,” Kirby said.
The issue of extremism in the military has been at the forefront since the January 6 riot at the US Capitol. At least 22 people either formerly or currently associated with the military were charged in connection with the riot, according to CNN’s latest analysis.
While Austin gave a 60-day timeframe for the stand down, Kirby said he expects the secretary will take “additional action” sooner than that to tackle the issue of extremism. Kirby said these discussions are meant to help inform Austin’s “decision-making going forward.”
“I suspect that that will certainly inform his future decision-making and the policies that he might want the services to start to implement and to enact,” Kirby said during an off-camera briefing.
Austin met with all of the service secretaries and service chiefs, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, earlier on Wednesday to discuss the issue.
The Department of Defense has not provided extensive data on how many service members over the past few years have exhibited extremist behavior, instead pointing to data provided by the FBI in 2020, where, out of 143 notifications of investigations of military members referred to the Department, 68 of those were related to domestic extremism. They have not provided data on cases or incidents related to extremism in the military beyond that.
Kirby acknowledged the Department of Defense does not have a full handle on the scope of the problem within the military, referring to January 6 as a “wakeup call” for the department.
“The events on January 6, which were extreme in and of themselves, in which there were members, sadly, of the active duty force, participating and espousing these radical beliefs, and I think that, I know that the events of January 6 served as a wakeup call for this Department,” Kirby said. “It certainly served as such for the secretary.”
Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who served under former President Barack Obama from 2011-2013, saw parallels in how Austin is responding to domestic terrorist threats after the riot to how the country responded to foreign terrorist threats after 9/11.
“I think that similar to what happened on 9/11 and the threat from foreign terrorists became real as a result of that attack, the threat from domestic terrorism has certainly become very real as a result of what happened on January 6th, and clearly how the military works with law enforcement to be able to deal with domestic terrorism is going to be a priority for the Secretary,” Panetta told CNN.