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Matthew G. Butler is a Celina High grad and is presently an U.S. Air Force officer and, in his personal capacity, a member of the Defense Council at Truman National Security Project. His views are his own and do not reflect the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the Truman Project.

(4-14-21) The 2017 National Security Strategy of the United States of America espoused an “America First” agenda that equated a favorable balance of power with national security. Focusing on great power competition and international terrorism, the 2017 National Security Strategy did not directly address internal threats to the United States in the form of domestic-influenced extremism.[1] The proliferation of misinformation via social media continues to radicalize, alienate, or isolate American citizens across demographics, including specific targeting of military veterans. Misinformation-fed emotional and psychological effects can drive these individuals toward forming virtual and in-person communities of shared worldviews. The insurrection against the U.S. Congressional certification of the Electoral College results on January 6, 2021 demonstrated the power of misinformation to drive mass violence. Many of the insurrectionists were connected to the U.S. military, including retirees and veterans. The next National Security Strategy writers should attempt to answer: How does the United States counter misinformation within its military community?

The insurrection against the U.S. Congressional certification of the Electoral College results on January 6, 2021 demonstrated the power of misinformation to drive mass violence.

The U.S. military community comprises several million people, including active duty service members, civilian employees, family members, military and civil service retirees, and veterans whose active service might have ranged from months to more than a decade. This community includes all demographics and is influenced by internal and external societal factors. The U.S. military community’s attitudes are shaped by institutional values, environmental values via society and media, and the values individuals might still hold from their upbringing. While a service member is indoctrinated with service values throughout their career, they are still susceptible to destructive influences such as misinformation through analog or virtual social interactions, media consumption, and individual experiences. The “battlespace” is cognition, or the human mind’s processes of making sense of their environment. The “weapon system” to assure they remain above the fray of adverse influence is the critical thinking abilities of every member of the military community. The “key terrain” includes touchpoints of fact-based reality rather than narrative conformity.

Misinformation, and its disinformation subset, is not new. Dezinformatsiya was a common information warfare tactic used by the Soviet Union.[2] Russia, as led by Vladimir Putin, continues to employ it across the globe. The distinction between misinformation and disinformation is essential so the National Security Strategy can steer the national security enterprise towards the appropriate ends, ways, and means of its next strategy. Misinformation includes false news and incorrect facts spread throughout a group or population. Disinformation is the deliberate spread of misinformation for an intended purpose. The next National Security Strategy should focus on misinformation within the military community due to its disastrous effects, such as the January insurrection and its impacts on military readiness, order, and discipline.

In this January 6, 2021 image from video provided by the Associated Press, a line of men wearing helmets and olive drab body armor walk up the marble stairs outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington in a formation known as “Ranger File.” (Robyn Stevens Brody/AP)

Recruits bring diverse experiences, education, and cultures as varied as the United States into the military. They enter military service indoctrination as digital natives, never knowing a time without smartphones or the Internet, while also experiencing varying technological access or exposure levels before they arrive.[3] Recruits are always screened for rudimentary physical and mental fitness, but examining their digital personas for extremism is relatively new. As of 2020, approximately 250,000 recruits pass the screening required to enter the military from a 400,000-person applicant pool.[4] That leaves 150,000 applicants denied entry due to myriad reasons. Previous attempts to screen applicant social media presence encountered legal concerns regarding data collection.[5] More laws are not required. However, a strategy is needed to detect and prevent military community members from participating in extremist organizations and political violence. The next National Security Strategyshould provide the institutional backing within the U.S. Government to enable policymakers and leaders at all levels to operationalize an anti- and counter-radicalization strategy.

Once a person enters military service, however, security and law enforcement offices can monitor social media to varying degrees per federal law relating to security clearances and criminal investigations. For example, twelve National Guard members were removed from the 2021 Presidential Inauguration security detail due to alleged “security liabilities” discovered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation or making extremist statements as reported by their fellow service members.[6] Twelve people out of 25,000 troops is a relatively small ratio; however, those members were initially entrusted to protect a critical governmental event, attended by most senior federal leaders, while armed with automatic weapons. Throughout the Department of Defense, commanders can initiate a security information file to investigate a member who displays behavior(s) questionable to maintain access to classified information. Furthermore, the initial security clearance questionnaire––known as a Standard Form 86 – Questionnaire for National Security––specifically asks if the applicant has been involved in any organization “that advocates or practices commission of acts of force or violence to discourage others from exercising their rights under the U.S. Constitution or any state of the United States with the specific intent to further such action” as well as “engaged in activities designed to overthrow the U.S. Government by force.”[7] The January Insurrection appears to fit those criteria whereby citizens forcibly attempted to stop the Constitutionally-mandated certification of a legal presidential election. In addition, an aggressive Qanon acolyte could undergo a security clearance investigation due to the conspiracy theory’s basis in circumventing clearance safeguards and nondisclosure.[8] Americans’ trust in the discretion and reliability of military clearance holders is critical to national security.

Commanders and frontline supervisors have other tools to address extremism in the ranks. Besides employing the power of example and creating a command environment hostile to extremist views, military leaders can explore administrative and disciplinary courses of action for members unable to adhere to service values. For example, former Secretary of Defense Esper signed a policy that effectively ended the display of Confederate flags––a symbol of insurrection and racism for generations of Americans–on military bases. In addition, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin mandated conversations at the unit-level for leaders to learn the scope of the extremist problem and how to begin addressing the issue throughout all ranks.[9] Clear and loud senior leader support via the National Security Strategy is also necessary.

Addressing the well-documented problem of extremism within the military community, through the National Security Strategy, is not synonymous with singling-out that community.

The transition to civilian life can be difficult for many service members, as well as transfers from the active-duty force to the reserves or National Guard. Numerous January 6th Insurrectionists were military veterans radicalized toward extremist views and acts via disinformation. Ashli Babbitt, for example, was a U.S. Air Force veteran who deployed multiple times throughout her 14 years of active duty, reserve, and National Guard service, including tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the United Arab Emirates.[10] She left military service, unusually, only a few years short of earning a military pension and reportedly with the relatively junior rank of senior airman (one rank below the noncommissioned officer rank of staff sergeant).[11] Babbitt struggled outside of the military with relationships, court orders, and a failing small business.[12] Her social media presence depicts a woman spiraling through misinformation-fed conspiracy theories toward calls-for-action and, eventually, her violent death as part of “The Storm” she so eagerly anticipated would overturn the “stolen” 2020 U.S. presidential election.[13] The current Transition Assistance Program, required for all separating military members, was not enough for her.

A group of Oath Keepers march down the east front steps of the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, 2021. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

Addressing the well-documented problem of extremism within the military community, through the National Security Strategy, is not synonymous with singling-out that community. The U.S. military reflects American society, but there are additional risk factors related to military service. A veteran’s desire to belong to a group similar to their military unit can be powerful. This draw may be channeled into positive community service and camaraderie found through veterans service organizations such as The American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars. Some veterans, unfortunately, are instead recruited into fringe armed groups like Oathkeepers, Three Percenters, or Proud Boys. These extremist organizations provide a paramilitary atmosphere with mission statements and recruitment campaigns designed to appeal to patriotic veterans who might miss their prior profession’s higher purpose.[14]

Domestic terrorism can be foreign-influenced. In 2020, the Vietnam Veterans of America sponsored and published a two-year investigation led by veteran Kristopher Goldsmith. The report “documented persistent, pervasive, and coordinated online targeting of American service members, veterans, and their families by foreign entities who seek to disrupt American democracy.”[15] Foreign actors create social media entities and pages that closely resemble legitimate American veteran service organizations or military-related groups. These efforts included attempts at viral messaging to include politically partisan, extremist, and racist rhetoric, following the divisive Russian doctrine of disinformation.[16] This method works, in many cases, in gaining followers of those pages. The imposter Vietnam Veterans of America Facebook page received 60,000 more followers than the actual organization page and did so in about one-tenth the time.[17] Foreign influence to spur domestic extremism and radicalization, as well as the decisions of the electorate, is a national security concern.

There are approximately five million U.S. military family members, including two million children.[18] Education of that population is already considered critical to military mission success in operations security, anti-terrorism, sexual assault, domestic abuse, and suicide prevention and response. Detection and reporting of radicalization within that community are an extension of these educational outreach efforts by the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs upon completing active service. Someone close, such as a family member or coworker, is often the first to detect radicalization.[19] A teenager, for example, reported his father’s prior extremist statements to the Federal Bureau of Investigation as well as his participation in the January Insurrection.[20] The teenager stated he was not only trying to protect others but also protect his father, a member of the Three-Percenters, from himself.[21] In another case, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel had alienated friends through increasingly racist and radicalized rhetoric.[22] This veteran was later recorded sporting combat gear, carrying restraints, and directing fellow insurrectionists on the U.S. Senate floor.[23] Earlier that day, he posted on his social media, “Patriots on the Capitol. Patriots storming. Men with guns need to shoot their way in.”[24]

The next National Security Strategy must address misinformation within the military community. If the next National Security Strategy forces that introspection, military leaders can work toward possible solutions throughout the community.

The “ends” of the next National Security Strategyshould be a factually-informed military community, cognizant of the media landscape, and capable of critical thinking against misinformation campaigns. The “ways” include a continuum of learning throughout a military member’s lifetime, including outreach to families. The “means” are analog and digital, from commander and supervisor personal interactions to social media campaigns countering lies and misrepresentation with facts. Without meaningful action, the military community is a vulnerable target of misinformation campaigns and a desired asset to extremists. As social media influence expert Vladimir Barash testified to the House Veterans Affairs Committee, veterans are valuable misinformation targets because of their status as “highly respected members of society who positively influence their country and their community.”[25] Their consumption of and response to information is a contest for influence.

In conclusion, the next National Security Strategy must address misinformation within the military community. If the next National Security Strategy forces that introspection, military leaders can work toward possible solutions throughout the community. Secretary Austin committed “to rid our ranks of racists and extremists” during his Senate confirmation hearing.[26] Furthermore, Austin emphasized the criticality of fighting internal threats within the military to ensure the Department of Defense could fight external adversaries.[27] Misinformation creates fog and friction in the battlespace of the mind. The National Security Strategysets the tone throughout the national security enterprise and, specifically, provides senior leadership guidance to thwart misinformation among service members, veterans, and military family members. Lastly, misinformation must be addressed throughout the continuum of military affiliation, crossing multiple departments from Defense to Veterans Affairs and into broader society. Twenty percent of the arrested and charged January Insurrectionists were veterans spurred by misinformation to join hundreds of individual threats (in the form of fellow Americans) to national security.[28] The next National Security Strategy can serve as a response to a genuine need in the military community as well as defense against potential domestic insurgents.


NOTES:

[1] Donald J. Trump, National Security Strategy of the United States, U.S. Government, December 2017.

[2] I recommend Soviet Strategic Deception (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1987), edited by Brian D. Dailey and Patrick J. Parker, for further reading on the subject.

[3] For the origins of “digital native” and “digital immigrant,” see Marc Prensky’s article whereby he defines both terms: “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” originally published in On the Horizons (2001), https://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf.

[4] Claudette Roulo, “DoD Using Multitiered Approach to Weed Out Extremist Ideologies,” DoD News, United States Department of Defense, February 12, 2020, accessed January 12, 2021, https://www.defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/2082510/dod-using-multitiered-approach-to-weed-out-extremist-ideologies/.

[5] Roulo.

[6] James LaPorta, Lolita C. Baldor, and Michael Balsamo, “2 Guard members made extremist statements about inauguration,” AP News, January 19, 2021, accessed January 26, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/12-guard-removed-biden-inauguration-860c2c28bb3b45a28625352df50de294.

[7] U.S. Office of Personnel Management, “Standard Form 86 – Questionnaire for National Security,” 128-129, https://www.opm.gov/forms/pdf_fill/sf86.pdf.

[8] The “Qanon” conspiracy theory is allegedly helmed by an individual codenamed “Q” based upon a level of clearance within the U.S. Department of Energy. Adherents (“Anons”) believe, at varying levels, that former President Trump fights a secret war against members of the “elite” (Democrats, unfavorable media, business leaders, Hollywood, Deep State, etc) who are involved in global pedophilia trafficking, satanic child sacrifices, and something about “lizard people.” Furthermore, Anons advocate and/or envision the mass execution of elites. Q’s identity has not been revealed but there is wide-ranging, credible speculation that Jim Watkins, owner of the platform hosting Qanon messaging, and/or his son Ron are Q.

[9] Corey Dickstein, “Defense secretary will order military-wide stand down to address extremism,” Stars and Stripes, February 3, 2021, accessed February 4, 2021, https://www.stripes.com/news/us/defense-secretary-will-order-military-wide-stand-down-to-address-extremism-1.660899.

[10] Ellen Barry, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, and Dave Philipps, “Woman Killed in Capitol Embraced Trump and Qanon,” New York Times, January 7, 2021, updated January 11, 2021, accessed January 18, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/07/us/who-was-ashli-babbitt.html.

[11] Barry, et al.

[12] Barry, et al.

[13] As of January 18, 2021, Ashli Babbitt’s Twitter profile was still operational as @CommonAshSense at https://twitter.com/ashli_babbitt.

[14] See Sebastian Junger’s Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (New York, NY: Hatchette, 2016).

[15] Prepared by Kristofer Goldsmith, “An Investigation Into Foreign Entities Who Are Targeting Servicemembers and Veterans Online,” Vietnam Veterans of America, 2019, 6.

[16] Goldsmith, 25.

[17] Goldsmith, 25.

[18] U.S. Department of Defense, “Military Families by the Numbers,” November 2015, accessed January 26, 2021, https://dod.defense.gov/News/Special-Reports/1116_familysupport/#:~:text=Infographic%3A%20More%20than%205%20million,kindergarten%20and%20high%20school%20graduation.

[19] Michael McGarrity, “What Comes After an Insurrection: The Future of the Domestic Terrorism Threat,” panel discussion, Atlantic Council, January 25, 2021, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/event/what-comes-after-an-insurrection-the-future-of-the-domestic-terrorism-threat/.

[20] Bryan Pietsch, “Son Tipped Off F.B.I. About His Father, Who Is Charged in Capitol Riot,” New York Times (January 24, 2021), accessed January 26, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/24/us/politics/jackson-reffitt-father-capitol-riot.html.

[21] Pietsch.

[22] Ronan Farrow, “An Air Force Combat Veteran Breached the Senate,” The New Yorker, January 9, 2021, accessed January 26, 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/an-air-force-combat-veteran-breached-the-senate.

[23] Farrow.

[24] CBS News, “Retired Air Force officer at Capitol riot intended ‘to take hostages,’ prosecutor says,” WRBL television station, January 14, 2021, accessed January 26, 2021, https://www.wrbl.com/news/retired-air-force-officer-at-capitol-riot-intended-to-take-hostages-prosecutor-says/.

[25] Dean DiCharo, “After Capitol riot, a call to protect veterans from disinformation,” Roll Call, January 26, 2021, accessed January 26, 2021, https://www.rollcall.com/2021/01/26/after-capitol-riot-a-call-to-protect-veterans-from-disinformation/.

[26] Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali, “Biden’s defense secretary pick pledges to ‘rid our ranks of racists and extremists,” Reuters, January 19, 2021, accessed January 19, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-biden-pentagon-idUSKBN29O2II.

[27] Stewart and Ali.

[28] Tom Dreisbach and Meg Anderson, “Nearly 1 in 5 Defendants in Capitol Riot Cases Served in the Military,” National Public Radio, January 21, 2021, accessed January 21, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/01/21/958915267/nearly-one-in-five-defendants-in-capitol-riot-cases-served-in-the-military.