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Disinformation, division ‘true constitutional threat,’ top Air Force general warns



NEWSMAKER INTERVIEW

Russian social media disinformation campaigns and the increasingly hostile political battles they’ve 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 this week.

In an exclusive interview, Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, the Air Force‘s deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements, warned that the internal divisions on display in America could fundamentally weaken the country and chip away at American moral leadership around the world. He spoke as the Pentagon was trying to formulate guidelines to define and weed out what officials call extremist and anti-government views in the ranks.

The outspoken Gen. Hinote made headlines earlier this year after saying that “we are in danger of losing our republic” following the Jan. 6 Capitol riot seeking to block the ratification of the November 2020 election results. He offered similarly bleak assessments this 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, including a controversial anti-extremism push in the Air Force and other military branches. As one of his first orders of business after taking office, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin last February ordered a military-wide “stand-down” that saw U.S. units all over the world spend a day discussing extremism, discrimination and related issues.

The Pentagon is expected to soon release formal definitions of what constitutes an “extremist” or “extremist behavior,” specifically. Those definitions will be important, as some critics have warned that the anti-extremism push as currently constructed could inadvertently target political conservatives and Catholics.

Pentagon officials have rejected that criticism and insist that the effort is aimed only at identifying service members who actively participate in White supremacist or other extremist groups, and especially those who may be willing to engage in violent, anti-government attacks.

Inside the Defense Department, military leaders also view political divisions and extremist behavior as a key national security threat that can at least partially be blamed on U.S. enemies, 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 that 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, media and other cornerstones of society.

That lack of faith, he said, has shown up in skepticism toward COVID-19 vaccines, which has proved a problem for both the military and America as a whole. In the Air Force, nearly 8,500 active-duty personnel have yet to receive the vaccine, blowing past the first deadline for troops to get vaccinated on Nov. 2.

Of those who are not, 800 simply refused, according to Air Force officials. Another 2,753 haven’t started the vaccination process. Another 4,933 have applied for religious exemptions that haven’t yet been processed.

Air Force officials stressed that about 97% of the service’s personnel have gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Still, Gen. Hinote conceded that there’s a deeper problem that’s 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, 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

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