Military and Defense

Air Force Recruiters Mistakenly Said That Applicants Had Extremist Affiliations, Then Let Them Join Anyway

Air Force recruiters mistakenly marked 34% of a sample of future airmen as having a background in gangs or extremist groups, but the recruits still proceeded through the application process, the Department of Defense’s (DOD) watchdog found.

The DOD inspector general (IG) reviewed 76 Air Force applicants as part of an audit on the military services’ ability to weed out recruits with criminal gang or extremist affiliation, finding that in 26 of those cases recruiters accidentally checked “yes” in the application system indicating the usually disqualifying associations, according to the report. But a review of recruiter notes showed that none of those applicants had ever mentioned anything about gang membership or extremist activity in their interviews.

The recruiters’ mistakes did not impact prospects for the affected applicants because the Air Force’s recruit processing system did not filter out the extremist affiliation membership, according to the report. Normally, squadron commanders must approve special exceptions on a case-by-case basis.

Air Force recruiters are required to ask, “Have you ever had, or currently have, any association with an extremist/hate organization or gang?” in initial entrance interviews, according to the document. The Army has a similar requirement.

Officials, including flight chiefs, reviewed and commented on the annotated interview notes throughout the entrance process without noting any disclosure of prohibited activity, providing further evidence that the recruiters checked the wrong boxes.  In separate screening forms, none of the applicants marked “yes” in boxes that would show extremist or gang affiliation.

In 21 cases, the interviews and self-screening forms made clear recruiters checked “yes” boxes in error. The remaining five cases did not pass the initial interview for reasons unrelated to extremism or gang affiliation, but the IG could not conclusively determine whether the recruiters were wrong because they did not write down asking the applicant about their associations.

The cases came from 17 squadrons in 17 states, and none with the same recruiter, suggesting the problem was not systemic or confined to certain geographical locations.

Twenty recruiters acknowledged to the IG they accidentally checked the wrong box.

The Air Force agreed and implemented a fix in the processing system to block an applicant’s progress unless they get approval from a squadron commander.

All of the services agreed to send a memo throughout their commands reiterating the importance of completing all of the screening requirements.

The Pentagon has long prohibited servicemembers from expressing certain public political expressions and activities inconsistent with their service oaths. But, after the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol in 2021, in which several veterans and active duty members participated, the secretary of Defense placed a renewed emphasis on scourging ideological extremism from the armed forces.

The move received criticism from Republicans, who said it produced a vague, overly broad definition of extremism and fostered partisan divisions within the force.

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