The Biden administration’s efforts to purge “extremists” from the military could violate First Amendment rights, warned an adviser to the Pentagon’s Counter-Extremism Working Group (CEWG).
The alarm was first sounded by Mike Berry, a general counsel for First Liberty Institute and Marine Corp reservist. A recent op-ed stated that CEWG is looking to formulate a new extremism definition that could include constitutionally protected speech.
He wrote in the Washington Examiner on June 19th.
Instead of monitoring external threats, the Pentagon is on a mission to identify and remove whomever it labels as extremists from America’s armed forces. Ironically, the CEWG has yet to define what it means by ‘extremism.’ Extremism is usually defined as the threat or use of violence to achieve an ideological agenda. But the Pentagon is now poised to expand upon that definition to include constitutionally protected speech. In other words, sticks and stones may break our bones, but words are the biggest threat.
The Counter Extremism Working Group (CEWG) was set up in April by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Austin vowed to root out extremists and ordered the entire military to discuss “extremism. There is no Pentagon definition for “extremism,” the CEWG, under the direction of Bishop Garrison, was tasked to come up with a definition as well as to define activities deemed “extremist.”
Berry is part of an outside group of experts who have been appointed to help with CEWG; he has told Breitbart News some of the things discussed were “eyebrow-raising or alarming.” Berry said members of the advisory group are bound by “Chatham House rules” to discuss what was said on the call, but not who said it.
Berry reported he asked the CEWG how it intended to define “extremist,” and the answer was something like, “We’re still working on that; we’ll probably take the existing definition and expand it.” Berry said that response was “problematic.”
“The existing definition — which has been around for years and has developed really through a law enforcement perspective — it seems to be pretty adequate,” he said. “It sufficiently captures what needs to be captured. And if they want to expand it, they’re really going to expand it to things that have been traditionally protected by the Constitution.”
A senior Biden administration official said on a background conference call with reporters that the Pentagon was working “quite hard” to come up with a definition that “ratchets up the protections but also respects expression and association protections,” as Breitbart News recently reported.
Berry said he was also alarmed by what sounds like a plan to monitor service members’ social media accounts for signs of extremism — which he feels crosses the line between defining extremism by one’s actions — which the Pentagon has said it would stick to — and defining extremism by one’s “thoughts or beliefs.”
“I just don’t know how you can reconcile the Constitution with trying to criminalize someone’s thoughts and beliefs,” he said. Berry added questions were raised about it, and there was no adequate answer.
“When somebody asked how does DOD intend to reconcile the social media monitoring with First Amendment issues, the response was, ‘Yeah, we need to figure that out; it’s really complicated.’ So then why are you looking to do it when you haven’t even figured it out, the legality of it?” Berry said.
Berry said he does not know of any current efforts to monitor social media posts; the group just discussed plans to do so in the future.
The Intercept recently reported the Pentagon was considering using private contractors to monitor service members’ social media accounts to circumvent First Amendment concerns. Still, the Pentagon denied the report was accurate.
Additionally, Berry stated social media accounts being monitored sounds like an “intelligence collection type activity,” which is problematic since the Defense Department cannot conduct intelligence collection on U.S. citizens.
“The social media monitoring thing really reminds me of what China does with its social credit system,” he said.
Berry is alarmed by several questions raised by some participants showing perceived notions of white people being extremists.
“They would phrase their questions such as, ‘Well, how is this working group going to eliminate white supremacists and white extremists from the military? Isn’t that why we’re really here?’” he said.
Berry said statistics did not show that extremism was a widespread issue in the military:
If you look at the data, over the last five years, there have been 21 service members who have been separated for extremist activity. Twenty-one over five years, and yet that’s what they want to focus on. And you have the president saying that white supremacy is the No. 1 threat to national security when…I think we should be focusing our attention and our resources, and our energy on China, Russia, Iran, North Korea. Those are quaint, old-fashioned ideas now.
“We really need to focus on what unites us,” he said. “True extremists have no place in the military, but it’s fewer than one percent, according to the defense secretary.”
The need for more data collection and a reporting mechanism to be created was also discussed by the group.
Berry reported the details of the inner workings of CEWG are scarce; members do not know other group members other than Garrison.
Berry is the only conservative in the group, and he has acknowledged speaking out in his recent op-ed could lead to his removal from the group.
But, he wrote, “I love my country too much not to sound the alarm. And if my love of America is what leads to my removal, then so be it, as long as my discharge papers state ‘discharged for love of country.’”
Asked what advice he would give service members given what he has heard so far, he said he would tell them to “be on guard.”
“Watch your back,” he said.