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Rep. Brown, who pushed to address extremism in military, reacts to Pentagon report

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For reaction to the Pentagon report, we are joined now by Congressman Anthony Brown of Maryland. He is a Democrat and a retired colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve. Congressman Brown has been urging the military to root out and address extremism in its ranks. Good to have you with us.

ANTHONY BROWN: It's great to be on. It's an important topic, and I'm glad that you're covering it today.

SHAPIRO: So we just heard that under this guidance, service members are not disqualified from membership in a group like the KKK. Defense officials say they want to penalize actions rather than ideology. What do you make of that?

BROWN: So for starters, I'll say that the Pentagon took a good step forward today. There's no doubt about it. The regulations that prohibit certain extremist active behavior and participation is important, but I don't think it's gone far enough. And the point that I've been making to the secretary of defense, the deputy secretary, my colleagues in Congress is that Congress has to make a really firm, definitive statement that membership in an extremist organization, with or without active participation, but membership, whether it's the KKK, whether it's a gang organization or the Oath Keepers, is enough to disqualify you from participating in the military. And they didn't go that far.

SHAPIRO: When you pushed Congress to put this language in the National Defense Authorization Act, you said there were, quote, "blanket statements made by military leaders that deny the reality of extremism in the ranks." Why do you think that denial is happening?

BROWN: I'm not sure why it's happening, but it's just disappointing that it is. Senior leaders of, you know, flag rank do not acknowledge that there are extremists in their ranks. And the data, whether it's the Army Criminal Investigation Division, whether it's certain media outlets that have done surveys of military members, reports by the Department of Defense Inspector General, clearly demonstrate that there is a level of extremism - members who engage in and who are members of extremist organizations that are in the ranks. It doesn't characterize the men and women who serve, the vast majority of whom are loyal, patriotic Americans, but one extremist in the ranks is just one too many.

SHAPIRO: You refer to members who engage in and are members of extremist organizations, and so I wonder how you address this problem without violating constitutionally protected freedom of expression. This guidance seems to say, well, it's not OK to engage in extremist organizations, but it's OK to be a member of. Where would you draw that line?

BROWN: Listen, I think the courts have drawn the line a long time ago when it comes to the military. Men and women who sign up, whether they enlist or commission in the military, do not sort of, you know, lose all constitutional rights and protections. But the courts have recognized that when the military, whether it's the president through orders, whether it's Congress through statute, restrict the First Amendment right in order to maintain good order and discipline, that is found by the courts to be acceptable, and there are a number of examples where that has happened.

So in this case, if the Congress or the president says, if you're a member of the Ku Klux Klan, if you're a member of the Proud Boys, then you cannot be a member of this - of the military, that would be in order to preserve the good order and discipline, right? Imagine the African American service members who constitute, you know, more than 20% of the ranks having to serve side by side with a member of the KKK.

SHAPIRO: Well, on that point, I know that this is personal to you as a veteran. Just in our final moments, can you tell us what your firsthand experience of this was like when you were serving in the army?

BROWN: You know, I don't have firsthand experience. Yeah, I don't have firsthand experience of extremist activities. But I know that, you know, Secretary Austin has had. We know that through surveys and studies that too many service members do. And that's why we're trying to get after this problem by prohibiting members of extremist groups to participate in the military.

SHAPIRO: That's Congressman Anthony Brown, Democrat of Maryland. Thank you for speaking with us today.

BROWN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "KIARA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.