Adviser to Pentagon Counter-Extremism Group Warns of Protected Speech Crackdown

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An adviser to the Pentagon’s Counter-Extremism Working Group (CEWG) is warning the Biden administration’s efforts to purge the military of “extremists” could violate individual First Amendment rights.

Mike Berry, general counsel for First Liberty Institute and Marine Corps reservist, first sounded the alarm in a recent op-ed that said the CEWG is looking to formulate a new definition of extremism that could include constitutionally protected speech. He wrote in the Washington Examiner on June 19:

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.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin set up the Counter-Extremism Working Group (CEWG) in April after vowing to root out extremists and ordering the entire military force to spend a day discussing “extremism.” Since there is no Pentagon definition for “extremism,” Austin tasked the CEWG, led by Bishop Garrison, to come up with a definition and to define activities that would be considered “extremist.”

Berry, who is part of an outside group of experts appointed to help the CEWG, told Breitbart News in a recent phone interview some of the things the group discussed on a recent hour-long conference call were “eyebrow raising or alarming.” He said members of the advisory group are bound by “Chatham House rules” in where they can discuss what was said on the call, but not who said it.

Berry said he asked the CEWG how it intended to define “extremism” and the answer he got was something to the effect of: “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.”

As Breitbart News recently reported, 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.”

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.

He said he does not know about any current effort to monitor social media posts and that the group just discussed future plans to do so.

The Intercept recently reported the Pentagon was considering using private contractors to monitor service members’ social media accounts to circumvent First Amendment concerns, but the Pentagon denied the report was true.

In addition, Berry said monitoring social media accounts sounds like an “intelligence collection type activity,” which is problematic since the Defense Department cannot conduct intelligence collection on U.S. citizens. 

He revealed one hypothetical discussed on the call for how social media information could be used — if a service member was found to have an “88” tattoo — which could potentially stand for “Heil Hitler,” since “h” is the 8th letter of the alphabet, or refer to something benign, such as someone’s birth year.

Participants speculated that if the service member denied it was linked to white supremacy, social media could be used to “cross-reference” the claim. Berry said the notion that a service member would have to effectively prove his or her innocence was odd.

“The social media monitoring thing really reminds me of what China does with its social credit system,” he said.

Berry said he was also alarmed that a number of questions raised by some of the participants showed they had preconceived notions of who extremists were — namely, white people.

“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.”

He said the group also discussed the need for more data collection and the creation of a reporting mechanism for extremism cases in the military.

Even for members of the advisory group, details of the inner workings of the CEWG are scarce. Berry said the members of the advisory group do not even know who is on the CEWG, other than Garrison.

Berry said he is not sure how he came to be appointed to the advisory group, and that he did not even know he had been appointed until a reporter called him to ask about it. He also said it seemed he was the only conservative in the advisory group, and one of few who had military experience. He also acknowledged in his recent op-ed that speaking out could result in 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 would tell them to “be on guard.”

“Watch your back,” he said.

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