Military personnel cautioned about joining political activities ahead of inauguration

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

In the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and in advance of expected demonstrations across the country Wednesday as former vice president Joe Biden is sworn in as president of the United States, military leaders are reminding active-duty troops of prescribed limits on their political activity.

Earlier this week as authorities were tracking down people involved in the violence at the Capitol and determine the extent of involvement by former and current troops, the chiefs of all America's military services signed on to a letter affirming Biden's election as president.

The letter signed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff goes on to remind service members that "(a)ny act to disrupt the Constitutional process is not only against our traditions, values, and oath, it is against the law."

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"We witnessed actions inside the Capitol that were inconsistent with the rule of law," the letter tells service members. "The rights of freedom of speech and assembly do not give anyone the right to resort to violence, sedition and insurrection."

More pointedly, the letter tells military personnel that "(o)n January 20, 2021, in accordance with the Constitution, confirmed by the states and the courts, and certified by Congress, President-elect Biden will be inaugurated and will become our 46th Commander in Chief."

Locally, perhaps resonating equally with the Joint Chiefs of Staff letter — given the heavy presence of the Air Force across Northwest Florida — Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett issued her own letter to airmen.

Also signed by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass, Space Force Gen. John W. Raymon and Roger Towberman, the Space Force's chief enlisted adviser, the letter notes that "the American people expect us to be disciplined and focused on defending our country. Our oath demands that we are unwavering in safeguarding American ideals."

Outgoing Secretary of the Air Force Barbara M. Barrett delivers remarks during her farewell ceremony Thursday at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, D.C. She will leave the post on Jan. 19, one day before the inauguration of new U.S. President Joe Biden. Among her last official acts, Barrett issued a letter to Air Force personnel reminding them of the limits on their political participation.

"We swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States," the letter continues. "On the 6th of January, the violent assault on our Nation's Capitol was an attack on the foundation of our great country."

The letter also reminds Air Force airmen and Space Force guardians to "(r)emain steady and stay focused on your duties to the country."

At Eglin Air Force Base, there was no specific guidance issued to airmen regarding expectations for their conduct nor reminders of the limits on service members in regard to political activities in the coming days, according to Ilka Cole, media operations chief for the 96th Test Wing, the base's host unit.

But Cole noted the guidance recently issued to all service members, and pointed out that limits on political participation are spelled out in Air Force instructions.

Telephone calls to the two other major area Air Force installations — Hurlburt Field, headquarters of Air Force Special Operations Command, and Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City — were not immediately returned Friday.

Elsewhere across the country, at least one Air Force base was providing guidance and cautioning its airmen.

At Oklahoma's Tinker Air Force Base, the Judge Advocate office released a statement noting a recent FBI announcement of plans for armed protests at state Capitols and the U.S. Capitol on inauguration day and in the days leading up to the inauguration.

"In light of this information, and considering the violence that transpired at the Capitol on Jan. 6, Department of Defense and Air Force military and civilian personnel must ensure they understand legal parameters for off-base demonstrations, thereby preventing inadvertent violations of standards while also honoring individuals’ constitutional rights of free expression," the Judge Advocate office at Tinker AFB stated.

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Tinker's Judge Advocate office then provided a synopsis of Department of Defense guidance for political participation by member of the armed forces.

"First and foremost, military members and DoD employees may attend peaceful political meetings or rallies only as spectators and cannot appear in uniform," the Judge Advocate office stated. "Military members are not permitted to make public political speeches, serve in any official capacity in partisan groups or participate in partisan political campaigns or conventions."

The statement referenced DoD and Air Force guidance on political activities and freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Participation in such activities, according to the statement, is prohibited in a host of circumstances, including when "the activities constitute a breach of law and order (for example, local curfew violations, active participation in organizations that advocate or espouse supremacist, extremist or criminal gang doctrine, ideology or causes)" and in instances "where violence is likely to result ... ."

Workers put up bunting on a press riser for the upcoming inauguration of President-Elect Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris, on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021, in Washington.

Military members who run afoul of that guidance are subject to punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), according to Tinker's Judge Advocate, "with a maximum sentence of dishonorable discharge, two years of confinement and total forfeitures of all pay and allowances."

Additionally, "failure to obey local, state or federal law subjects military members to UCMJ action or civilian criminal liability with follow-on adverse administrative action by the Air Force that could result in a discharge under other than honorable conditions," the Judge Advocate noted.