Oath Keepers Use a Dystopian Fever Dream to Snare Police Forces, Military Vets

·12 min read
Pro-Donald Trump group holds a rally - Credit: Getty Images
Pro-Donald Trump group holds a rally - Credit: Getty Images

When a notorious militia group’s private records suddenly spill into public view, the flood of information can be challenging to interpret.

The Oath Keepers are an anti-government organization, steeped in conspiracy theories, that recruits from the military and law enforcement. Its members were a prominent part of the Jan. 6 insurrection, for which more than 20 have been indicted.

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The group was hacked, and its electronic records leaked to a transparency group called Distributed Denial of Secrets. DDoS has recently made many of those documents — including troves of Oath Keeper emails — available to the general public. More sensitive information, including the group’s purported membership rolls, have been made available to media organizations and researchers. Rolling Stone has been reporting on alleged Oath Keeper members, including public officeholders and government employees.

Alex Friedfeld is an investigative researcher at the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League, and an expert in militia movements. He has been combing through the leaked records and was able to independently validate some of the group’s leaked communications. ADL’s own review of the purported Oath Keeper membership found 133 members had signed up using email addresses affiliated with the United States military.

Friedfeld spoke to Rolling Stone at length about the Oath Keepers ideology, its aims, and what the leaked materials tell us about how much of a danger the militia poses going forward.

For the uninitiated, how would you describe the ideology of the of the Oath Keepers? What is the “oath” that they’re keeping?
The Oath Keepers start with the oath that police and military took when they signed up — “to protect the Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic.” The key word for them being domestic. The Oath Keepers also have a different oath that they ask people to take. It’s actually an oath of orders that they will refuse. It’s a list of 10 orders that are just a right-wing fever dream of what they think is coming down the pike. So number one is, “We will not obey orders to disarm people.” Which is pretty much in line with traditional militias — they believe that guns are the thing that balance the power between the people and the state.

But then [the Oath Keeper’s pledge] starts going on to: “We will not obey any order to blockade American cities, thus turning them into giant concentration camps.” And: “We will not obey orders to impose martial law.” And: “We will not obey orders to detain American citizens as unlawful enemy combatants.” These are all based off right-wing conspiracies. The trap of the Oath Keepers is that they talk about “constitutionality.” But it’s not rooted in any legal merit, right? It’s just shaped by conspiracy. It creates the possibility that a law could be passed by the Congress, upheld by the Supreme Court to say it’s constitutional. And yet one of Oath Keepers decides: “No, I’m not doing it because it goes against my oath as an Oath Keeper.” That the worst-case scenario.

And that’s why having active-duty military and police signed up is problematic?
These guys are diverting their allegiance away from the oath that they signed to the United States and then putting their faith in this other organization that has its own warped agenda. When you’re operating in the military, or as part of law enforcement, you need everyone on the same page. And this obstructs that from happening. It creates opportunities for dissent in lawful situations. It creates places where where legal orders could be inhibited, or people may decide to take matters into their own hands in dangerous ways.

Throughout the Oath Keepers history, they have this pattern of vigilantism. Of basically deciding that they know what the law is and that they are the ones who will enforce it — whether it was during the BLM protests or whether it was storming the Capitol because they believed that the election was stolen. These guys have demonstrated that they’re not afraid to get their hands dirty.

How are the Oath Keepers different from other militia groups?
Usually the militia movement is skeptical of the military. They’re skeptical of law enforcement. They idolize them, but they fear them as arms of the government. The Oath Keepers have made a unique effort in trying to recruit them directly. And it creates opportunities for them to marry their ideology with power in a way that a lot of other groups won’t ever get a chance to do.

The Oath Keepers may not be super successful [in their recruiting], but the folks that they do get have power. Whether it is the basic fact that they have a gun, or that they are part of the military, or law enforcement, or sheriffs, or maybe they’re elected officials. We’re increasingly seeing, in these [leaked] rolls, current and former members of a public office that are Oath Keepers. Which means at some point they had a hand in shaping laws, and they could actually start to shape the world in a way that accords with their extremist agenda. This is really concerning, because it has real impacts on ordinary people’s lives.

You’ve been looking at these leaked materials. You told me you were able to independently validate some of the leaked Oath Keeper communications. You’re comfortable that the membership rolls are authentic as well?
I think it’s telling that journalists all over the country have been checking in on local officials who have shown up in this list. And many have said, “Yeah, that was me.” Sometimes they say, “Yeah, I may have, at one point, signed up. I never really did anything.” But again, it points to the fact that it is real. I have yet to see someone come out and deny that they were part of it, or say, “I don’t know how they got my information. That wasn’t me.”

You’d think the Oath Keepers would be the first ones to shout — ‘Big Media fabrication’ — if the rolls were inaccurate …
Right. That’s already an established trope they have, and they haven’t been playing that. I don’t think the Oath Keepers have even commented on this.

Going through the membership list, what are you learning?
This has been an eye-opening moment — pulling back the curtain on the Oath Keepers and getting a sense of just how many members of law enforcement and the military actually are part of this. The Oath Keepers have always touted the fact that they have active members of law enforcement, active members of the military. But [Oath Keeper founder] Stewart Rhodes has always been aware that that they could be subject to backlash for participating in the organization. If you are an organization that is trying to recruit active members of these forces — so that they are prepared to refuse and resist any “unconstitutional orders” that they might receive — it doesn’t do you any good if they get fired.

Before now, we’ve had some anecdotal evidence of a sheriff here or a soldier there or a police officer here. People get caught with Oath Keeper hats or with a T-shirt. But again, anecdotal evidence. It’s been really difficult to get a full sense of just what’s out there. But the membership roll has made it really easy. We found 133 people who signed up for the Oath Keepers with “.mil” emails. Now some caveats: We don’t know if they’re still active military. We don’t know if they’re still active within the Oath Keepers. But the fact that, at some point, someone with a .mil [email] signed up for the Oath Keepers is deeply problematic and something that needs to be investigated.

And that’s before we even get to the question of veterans. We saw that play out with the insurrection. Many of the Oath Keepers who participated on Jan. 6 are former military, trained in combat, trained in how to operate in a chaotic environment. If you’ve seen the videos, it is really easy to pick out the Oath Keepers, because they’re moving through that crowd with purpose, in that stacked formation, while fully kitted up. Everybody else is kind getting thrown every which way, but they’re able to move methodically through the crowd and breach the Capitol. Deeply concerning. This group has access to a wide range of people with skills that were taught to them in one context that could be used to dangerous effect in an entirely different one.

Are you finding police as well?
As we’re going through the rolls, we’re finding people who are active police officers. And that’s really alarming — that these people in some places still carry a gun and still carry a badge. They’re out there policing and doing jobs that are supposed to protect the whole community. And yet they’re part of an organization that is teaching them that a good portion of the country is dangerous and can’t be trusted. And more than that: Wants to wage war on you and destroy your way of life. And that raises serious questions about their ability to uphold their oath properly and protect everyone.

Can you speak about the problem of Oath Keeper sheriffs?
These “constitutional sheriff” guys generally believe they have the final say in terms of their domain, right? The federal government doesn’t get a say. They are the ultimate arbiters of what is, and what is not, constitutional. And the risk of these folks being Oath Keepers is that there may be laws that pass through the proper channels, are determined to be constitutional, and these guys can just decide “No.” A lot of these guys also have deeply conspiratorial beliefs; the sense that there are shadowy forces that are trying to destroy America and take away people’s freedoms.

They usually have specific enemies in mind — the people that are responsible for the “degradation of America.” It tends to fall into similar camps. It’s usually the left. It’s frequently groups like Black Lives Matter. And these sheriffs, we’ve given them a gun, we’ve given them a badge. We expect them to keep everyone within a community safe. That’s a lot of power. And their affiliation with these groups and movements puts their ability to use that power in question.

Looking through the rolls I’m struck by the number of folks who used their work emails to sign up. People with school-district addresses, for example.
This is an organization that recruits from law enforcement and military, right? That is kind of their cause. And yet there’re people who are civilians who are signing up. Not the target demographic. What this shows is how the Oath Keeper ideology, and the broader militia-movement ideology, has permeated through society. The Oath Keepers can make themselves seem reasonable. We do find that there are people who sign up initially and that learn a little bit more about what’s actually happening who go, “Oh, no, I’m out.” That is a thing that does happen, right?

On the surface, the Oath Keepers speak in the same way that a lot of people do these days — especially on the right — in terms of patriotism and constitutionality. And so they’re able to kind of blend in and obscure what they’re really about, and make themselves more reasonable to get people to join. “They’re for the Constitution, I’m for the Constitution. Let me put my name down.” Others are true believers — which obviously is also a thing.

It’s interesting that many of those true believers don’t appear to have tactical training or skills that would be pertinent to a militia.
When you read the comments, you see plenty of people who are like: “I have no experience, but I want to help.” I actually think that’s really alarming. These seemingly ordinary people are are signing up for the Oath Keepers because they want to participate in this movement, participate in this cause, because they think that tyranny is coming.

They think that the federal government has been co-opted by forces that are planning to do bad things to them or their family or their communities. So they are ready to stand up and do what they think is right — in this organization that we know is extremist. They think that this is the solution. It’s not politics, it is not community organizing. It is joining with this militant group to protect your way of life.

The guardrails that used to keep this stuff from normal people, that kept it on the fringes of the internet, are starting to come down, and it’s starting to permeate all throughout society. And this goes to the bigger role of extremists in America today. So many people are looking for purpose and looking for guidance. And here comes a group that says, I can give you that purpose. I can give you that role. If you feel powerless, don’t anymore. Join us and together we will help fight the tyranny that’s coming. You could be a hero, too.

There’s a cartoonish aspect to it that doesn’t seem to faze people…
But we love that story: The ordinary person becomes a hero. It’s Harry Potter, it’s The Hunger Games — every franchise. That’s the way that these groups get their hooks into people. They give them purpose and they say, “You are special. You’re part of the secret brotherhood that’s in the good fight against evil.”

But the scary thing is: Who do they decide is evil? For these types of groups it’s the federal government, although increasingly it’s becoming the left and Democrats. We’re seeing that play out where seemingly ordinary Americans are getting caught with guns at the White House or bombs in the Library of Congress, or caught trying to kidnap the governor of Michigan and execute her on live TV. It’s wild.

Do you worry about an Oath Keepers uprising?
My fear with a group like this is not necessarily that you’ll see an Oath Keeper army. But it’s that you’ll have a few people, who are part of the Oath Keepers and adhere to this extremist ideology, that believe that the country is on the brink of ruin. A small group of them will get together and say: “We need to do something here.” That’s the fear for me. It’s really deeply alarming.

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