Russian social media disinformation campaigns and the increasingly hostile political battles they have fueled across America represent a “true constitutional threat” to the nation, contributing to COVID-19 vaccine skepticism and other serious issues in the military and beyond, a top Air Force general told The Washington Times.
In an exclusive interview last week, Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, the Air Force‘s deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements, warned that the internal divisions could fundamentally weaken the country and chip away at American moral leadership around the world. He spoke as the Pentagon was formulating guidelines to define and weed out what officials call extremist and anti-government views in the ranks.
Gen. Hinote made headlines by saying “we are in danger of losing our republic” after the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol while Congress was trying to ratify the presidential election results. He offered similarly bleak assessments last week.
“As somebody who studies threats around the world and has pledged to defend the Constitution of the United States, one of the things that gives me the most concern is the lack of unity that is represented by something … like Jan. 6,” Gen. Hinote said. “I worry deeply that some of the norms that have kept us strong and have put us in a position of leadership around the world have eroded over time. … We’ve got to be honest with ourselves. We’re playing with fire if we can’t figure this out as a people and come together and figure out a way to work out our differences peaceably.”
The Jan. 6 riot sparked immediate action inside the military. As one of his first orders of business after taking office, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered a “stand-down” in February for all U.S. military units around the world to spend a day discussing extremism, discrimination and related issues.
The Pentagon is expected to soon release formal definitions of an “extremist” or “extremist behavior.” The specifics will be significant because some critics have warned that the fight against extremism could inadvertently target political conservatives and Catholics.
Pentagon officials, however, insist that the effort is aimed only at identifying service members who are active in White supremacist or other extremist groups, especially those who may be willing to engage in violent, anti-government attacks.
Defense Department leaders also view political divisions and extremist behavior as critical national security threats that can be blamed at least partially on U.S. adversaries, chiefly Russia. Gen. Hinote recounted to The Times one of his first briefings years ago about the extent to which foreign disinformation campaigns were targeting the American political system and amplifying domestic political differences.
“I remember going out to my car that’s out here in front of the Pentagon … and I remember thinking to myself as I closed the door, ‘I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a true constitutional threat to the United States,’” he said. “I believe that when Russian bots are attacking our conversations with each other in ways that are meant to drive us to poles and separate us right down the middle, I worry a lot that that is a threat to the Constitution of the United States. I still believe that today.”
Aside from the Jan. 6 riot, Gen. Hinote said, a troubling “symptom” of those attacks and subsequent political turmoil has been a drastic decline in Americans’ faith in the country’s institutions, such as the government and media.
That lack of faith, he said, has shown up in skepticism about COVID-19 vaccines. In the Air Force, nearly 8,500 active-duty personnel have not received a vaccine, even after the troops’ first deadline of Nov. 2.
Air Force officials said 2,753 haven’t started the vaccination process and 800 others have simply refused. Another 4,933 have applied for religious exemptions that haven’t been processed.
About 97% of the service’s personnel have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Still, Gen. Hinote said, a deeper problem is keeping Americans — both civilians and those in uniform — from vaccinations.
It’s “a symptom of a problem,” he said. “I think the problem we are seeing … is this idea of the lack of trust of institutions, that institutions have for whatever reason lost trust. And even [for] the Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention], which by any measure prior to the pandemic was the gold standard of anything having to do with infectious disease.
“Because of the disinformation, because of the lack of trust of institutions and the fact that that gives disinformation a place to take hold and to grow, yeah, I think when we see ourselves, we don’t trust institutions like we did,” Gen. Hinote said.