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VA may start confronting ‘extremism’ among vets nationwide

Police clear the hallway inside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
July 07, 2021

Lawmakers in the House Appropriations Committee want the Department of Veterans Affairs to develop a plan for countering extremist recruiting efforts within the veteran community.

In its $270 billion budget proposal for the department, the Appropriations Committee wrote in a June 30 summary, “The Committee is concerned by foreign and domestic actions to exploit veterans through the use of online misinformation and manipulation. These efforts to spread extremist views and conspiracy theories among the veteran community have severely damaging effects, such as spreading conspiracies that may have motivated participation in the Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021.”

The Democrat-controlled House committee’s language is in reference to the Jan. 6 incident in which demonstrators entered the U.S. Capitol and delayed a joint session of Congress called to certify the results of the 2020 U.S. Presidential election for Joe Biden. The incident saw some demonstrators enter the building as some Capitol Police stood by, while on other parts of the Capitol grounds demonstrators clashed violently openly with other police officers. Ashli Babbitt, a 14-year U.S. Air Force veteran, was among several military veterans within the group of demonstrators who entered the building. Babbitt was ultimately shot and killed by a Capitol Police officer

About 500 people have been arrested since the Jan. 6 incident, including current and former U.S. service members.

In their report for the VA budget proposal, lawmakers said the department “should engage with the veteran community to better understand the unique vulnerabilities that Veterans face online, and that the Department should establish a comprehensive, evidence-based program to educate veterans about malign influences, transition assistance to include specialized counseling services, as well as research into operations and methods to discern against disinformation.”

“This should include developing evidence-based social media and internet propaganda literacy programs that are appropriately targeted to different veteran populations and an understanding of appropriate counseling options,” the report reads.

The committee said the VA should work with the Departments of Justice (DOJ) and Homeland Security (DHS) and other “civil society partners” to develop its plan for addressing extremism within the veteran community.

The proposed budget legislation, if enacted, would also require the VA to report back to Congress “within 60 days of the enactment of this Act on
its plans to implement this program, including a cost estimate of
additional resources that would assist in implementation.”

The committee’s call for the VA to enact this new counter-extremism plan comes after Biden’s Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered a 60-day Department of Defense-wide stand-down for military commands to address extremism within the ranks.

Military Times reported VA officials have been relatively quiet about extremism, compared to their DoD counterparts. In May, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said the department was looking into ways to the involvement veterans had in the Jan. 6 incident, but has yet to announce any new anti-extremism measures.

Military Times also reported the VA counter-extremism proposal could ultimately be dropped from the budget language during negotiations on the Senate side.