News   Reform

DOD Using Multitiered Approach to Weed Out Extremist Ideologies

Feb. 12, 2020 | BY Claudette Roulo , DOD News

New technologies, testing and screening techniques are assessing the mental and physical fitness of potential recruits for military service, including whether those recruits have extremist ties, the Defense Department's director of accessions policy said yesterday during a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee's military personnel subcommittee.

In conjunction with screening by recruiters, background checks, and traditional testing — such as the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery —  the new techniques can help accessions officials determine how successful a potential recruit is likely to be in their military careers, Stephanie Miller said at yesterday's hearing.

Enlistees raise their hands during a mass enlistment ceremony in Times Square in New York.
Times Square Enlistment
Enlistees raise their hands to take the service oath during a mass Army enlistment ceremony in New York's Times Square, Nov. 10, 2018. The Army was hosting a week of activities in the city for Veterans Day.
Photo By: EJ Hersom
VIRIN: 181110-D-DB155-003

''This multitiered screening process enables a holistic view of each applicant,'' she said. ''And, using the tools available, we believe we have been effective at screening for individuals that have extremist ideologies or support extremist groups, but we continuously review our policies, our practices, and our methods for improvement.''

DOD recently launched a centralized screening capability that vets all accessions to identify and resolve ''indicators of questionable allegiance,'' she said, noting that over the summer the new vetting process successfully identified unique adverse information that was not available from the standardized background investigation form, the SF-86.

Our high standards and screening processes help ensure only the most qualified and deserving individuals are allowed to serve.''
Stephanie Miller, director of accessions policy

''These tools can be utilized as part of a 'whole person' applicant screening process and can tell us a great deal about the likelihood of successfully completing initial entry training, the first term of enlistment, and the ability of that individual to adapt to the rules, regulations and requirements of military culture,'' she said.

About 400,000 people apply to join a military service each year, Miller said, but only about 250,000 applicants make it through the screening process and sign a contract. The department's data shows that only about 29% of 17-to-24-year-olds meet the standards without some type of accession waiver.

Despite these challenges, ''the department has been steadfast that the services should and will adhere to our established policies and only enlist ... candidates that actually meet our high standards,'' she said. ''Our high standards and screening processes help ensure only the most qualified and deserving individuals are allowed to serve.''

Defense officials said DOD is continuously exploring how to appropriately use advancements in technology to better inform recruiting and accession decisions.

Two Marines hold up their right hands while a large group of Marines surround the two.
Sunlit Oath
Marine Corps Cpl. Elias C. Maxwellaguilar recites the oath of enlistment during his reenlistment ceremony at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., June 26, 2019.
Photo By: Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Corey Mathews
VIRIN: 190626-M-CM018-1012C

For example, the officials said, a research project commissioned in 2016 to consider including an applicant's social media accounts in the accessions screening process identified a number of potential problems with any data such a program might gather. And before considering conducting a pilot, the officials said, DOD would have to coordinate extensively with the Office of General Counsel and the Defense and Civil Liberties Division to ensure it complied with federal laws and DOD policies.

For the past three years, however, all personnel who complete an SF-86 have given their consent to limited monitoring of their publicly facing social media accounts, Garry Reid, DOD's director for defense intelligence, said at the hearing.

''We cannot go behind passwords. We cannot look in private chat rooms, etc.,'' he said. “We don't do that [level of review] on scale for every background investigation right now. We have the ability to do it if there are investigative leads...''

Reid said the department is still developing the tools to review social media information during every background investigation, but warned that there are a number of pitfalls to such an approach.

''There's false information, of course, online,'' he said. ''There's identity resolution, there's use of handles and avatars that you sometimes don't quite know what you have. ... We're in the midst of another pilot to figure out how to do this. There are great returns on personal conduct and some on allegiance — making disparaging remarks where you think you're in private — and it's associated with an anti-government attitude. So we see promise there.''