WASHINGTON - With election activity steadily picking up, defense officials are in the process of issuing regular election-year guidance to remind military and Defense Department civilians that they're subject to rules regulating their involvement in political activities.
This issue - one the department regularly addresses during election periods - came to light earlier this week after an Army Reserve Soldier in uniform appeared endorsing a political candidate.
Several sets of rules help to protect the integrity of the political process, DOD officials said. DOD Directive 1344.10 applies to members of the armed forces, whether they serve on active duty, as members of the reserve components not on active duty, as National Guard members in a nonfederal status and military retirees.
In addition, the Hatch Act applies to federal civilian employees, and employees also are subject to widely published DOD guidance that discusses participation in political campaigns and elections.
These rules are designed to prevent military members' or federal civilian employees' participation in political activities that imply - or even appear to imply - official sponsorship, approval or endorsement, officials said. The concern, they explained, is that actual or perceived partisanship could undermine the legitimacy of the military profession and department.
That's not to imply, however, that military members and civilian employees can't participate in politics. In fact, DOD has a longstanding policy of encouraging members to carry out the obligations of citizenship, officials said. DOD encourages its military and civilian members to register to vote and vote as they choose, they said. Both groups can sign nominating petitions for candidates and express their personal opinions about candidates and issues.
However, officials emphasized, they can do so only if they don't act as - or aren't perceived as - representatives of the armed forces in carrying out these activities.
Beyond that, the list of dos and don'ts differs depending on whether the employee is a member of the armed forces, a career civil service employee, a political appointee or a member of the career Senior Executive Service, officials said.
Military members, for example, may attend political meetings or rallies only as spectators and not in uniform. They're not permitted to make public political speeches, serve in any official capacity in partisan groups or participate in partisan political campaigns or conventions.
They also are barred from engaging in any political activities while in uniform.
A combat engineer assigned to the 416th Theater Engineer Company potentially violated these rules Jan. 3 when he stepped onto a stage at Ron Paul's headquarters in Ankeny, Iowa, during the Iowa Caucus to offer a personal endorsement. Although he was wearing his uniform, the Soldier was not in an active status at the time, Army Maj. Angela Wallace, an Army Reserve spokeswoman, confirmed.
Wallace emphasized that the Soldier "stands alone in his opinions regarding his political affiliation and beliefs, and his statements and beliefs in no way reflect that of the Army Reserve."
His chain of command is aware of the issue and is considering appropriate disciplinary action to take, she said.
Most civilian DOD employees, whose political activities are governed by the Hatch Act, are permitted to be active in and speak before political gatherings and serve as officers of political parties or partisan groups, officials said. These activities, however, cannot involve fundraising.
Civilian employees also are permitted to manage campaigns, distribute literature, write political articles or serve as a spokesperson for a party or candidate.
There are, however, exceptions to this, including but not limited to Senior Executive Service.
While the dos and don'ts concerning political activity may vary, the basic tenets hold true for all DOD employees.
The bottom line, officials said, is that they should steer clear of any activity that may be reasonably viewed as directly or indirectly associating DOD or the military with a partisan political activity, or that "is otherwise contrary to the spirit or intent" of the rules described.