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Probe of Oath Keepers finds hundreds of public servants in its ranks

A leaked roll call of the far-right militia group shows law enforcement and elected officials, some of whom hold top-secret clearances within the U.S. government.

(CN) — The Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League sifted through 38,000 names on leaked Oath Keepers membership lists and identified more than 370 people believed to work in law enforcement, more than 100 current military members and more than 80 people who were running for or served in public office as early as August.

One day after the center released its report, Oath Keepers’ founder Stewart Rhodes appeared Wednesday afternoon for an emergency hearing in the government’s seditious conspiracy case against him and 10 other members believed to have engineered last year's insurrection, a siege on the U.S. Capitol that wound up delaying the certification of the presidential election results.  

Just three weeks out from trial, Rhodes fired his legal team this week, citing a “near-complete breakdown of communications,” and hired a new attorney, Edward Tarpley. At the hearing Wednesday in Washington, Tarpley insisted that the development requires a delay of the proceedings initially slated to kick off Sept. 26. 

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta, an Obama appointee, rejected that claim. Ruling from the bench, Mehta took issue with Tarpley’s suggestion that, three weeks before trial, Rhodes’ attorneys Phil Lindner and Lee Bright, who have been representing him since he was indicted in January, are suddenly “so ill-prepared” that they must be removed. 

“Forget about the public’s interest in having this case tried,” Judge Mehta said. “And forget about my own docket. I wouldn’t be able to possibly try Mr. Rhodes until next summer.” 

Given all those factors, he asked Tarpley if he still believes the case should be bumped to next summer.  

“I do,” Tarpley responded. 

“I’m not going to do it,” Judge Mehta said.

If Tarpley wants to stay in the case and if Rhodes wants him in this case, the judge said, “that’s fine … but Bright and Lindner are going to be there.” 

The complexity of the case clearly weighs against a continuance, he said, given the serious nature of the charges, the volume of discovery, and what Mehta said is a public interest here that is “above and beyond” the typical case. The court already pushed the trial date back twice, and there are other defendants waiting to have the case adjudicated. Three have already pleaded guilty

If Tarpley wants to join and it is amenable to Rhodes and his current counsel, Judge Mehta said, “we’ll make room at the table” but that’s about as much as “I’m willing to give.” 

Tarpley said he respects the ruling but objects on behalf of Rhodes. Judge Mehta said he will take the objection into consideration.  

At the end of the hearing, Bright told Judge Mehta they will “make every effort … to rectify the concerns” Rhodes has over communication and discovery issues, and they will “bend over backwards” to ensure they are trial ready. 

In the government’s case, Rhodes is painted as the ringleader of the Oath Keepers’ plot to disrupt the Jan. 6, 2021, ceremony in which Congress would certify that President Donald Trump had lost the election to his Democratic rival, Joe Biden. Rhodes and other Oath Keepers are said to have communicated about the plan through encrypted chats, stocked up on weapons and traveled across the country to “oppose by force the lawful transfer of presidential power.” 

Stewart Rhodes, founder of the citizen militia group known as the Oath Keepers, speaks during a rally outside the White House in 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Rhodes founded the Oath Keepers in 2009 as an anti-government militia. The Center for Extremism states in its latest report that the group's goal is to gain institutional power by targeting recruitment efforts toward current and former law enforcement, military, and emergency services personnel for their skill sets and with the hope that the mere presence of such individuals in these institutions will obstruct any law or action that the group deems unconstitutional.

“Even for those who claimed to have left the organization when it began to employ more aggressive tactics in 2014, it is important to remember that the Oath Keepers have espoused extremism since their founding, and this fact was not enough to deter these individuals from signing up,” the report states.

The Center on Extremism identified 373 people in the Oath Keepers database that is believes currently serve in law enforcement agencies in various positions, including at least 10 chiefs of police and 11 sheriffs.

Because members of law enforcement and the military are “frequently privy” to sensitive or classified information, the report calls it possible that members linked to the Oath Keepers “could use this information to advance their anti-government agenda or even disrupt an investigation.”

The right-wing group has also scored elected officials in its recruitment efforts.

At least 42 people on the leaked membership list were up for election across all levels of government this year. As of Aug. 8, at least 21 had gone on to the general election, 13 lost their primary race and four already won their general election, which the report says is “of particular concern.”

Teachers, religious leaders, business owners and government employees are also signing up. And many of those people have roles that make them trusted members of the community who are theoretically in positions “to influence people or access sensitive materials or sites,” the report states.

Some people also reported holding top-secret clearances, according to the report, or jobs that provide them access to critical infrastructure, like nuclear facilities.

“The diversity of the membership list illustrates the success the Oath Keepers experienced in spreading their beliefs, and the thousands of comments offering assistance only underscore the strength of their supporters’ conviction that the Oath Keepers were necessary to fix perceived problems,” the report states.

The report does not include people who only joined local Oath Keepers chapters or who are members but did not officially sign up.

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