What kind of person signs up for an antigovernment militia with a government-issued email address? The answer is surprising, revealing — and, as one extremism expert puts it, “really alarming.”
The purported membership of the Oath Keeper membership rolls — obtained in a hack and leaked to the transparency group Distributed Denial of Secrets — include more than 38,000 names. The vast majority of alleged members are enrolled in a way that leaves them somewhat anonymous: Their registrations are associated with a gmail or other private email address.
But a review by Rolling Stone identified nearly 40 memberships linked to public-sector work emails, from domains like nasa.gov, dmv.virginia.gov, and city.pittsburgh.pa.us. Rolling Stone then matched these individuals to public-source information — from LinkedIn accounts, government websites, public salary databases, etc. — to compile a list of everyday Americans who appear to have been dues paying members of the notorious right-wing organization.
Think of them as the Oath Keepers next door. Their ranks include more than a handful of law enforcement officers. But, in full, they cut across a broader cross section of society, including employees of the Treasury Department, Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Veterans Administration, as well as local government workers ranging from fire fighters to auto mechanics to public school employees.
“This is an organization that recruits from law enforcement and military. That is kind of their cause,” says Alex Friedfeld, an investigative researcher at the Center on Extremism, housed at the Anti-Defamation League. “Yet civilians are signing up — not folks who you would normally think would be part of the target demographic. What this shows,” he says, “is how the Oath Keeper ideology, and the broader militia-movement ideology, has permeated through society.”
Making exceptions for individuals who hold, or have held, high-ranking jobs of public trust, Rolling Stone is not individually identifying these purported Oath Keepers by name. But these records underscore how the militia group has gone mainstream.
The Oath Keepers ideology is steeped in conspiracy theories. The militia asks its members to defend America from federal tyranny, and swear to defy “unconstitutional orders,” which they imagine with feverish foresight. (For example: “We will NOT obey any order to blockade American cities, thus turning them into giant concentration camps.”) Membership in the organization is not illegal. But militia activities by Oath Keeper members have long been suspect. The Oath Keepers are infamous for vigilantism — including showing up toting guns in moments of social unrest. More than 20 Oath Keepers have been charged for participating in the siege of the U.S. Capitol on January 6th that sought to block President Joe Biden from assuming office.
The Oath Keepers organization has not responded to questions about the hack or its data. The leaked records, which date back as far as 2009, do not indicate which memberships are current — although some individuals are listed as “life” members. (Oath Keeper memberships today cost $50 a year, or $1,000 for life.) The leaked rolls have been reported on by media outlets including USAToday, ProPublica and Oregon Public Broadcasting, as well as by Rolling Stone. This reporting has identified dozens of members of the military and law enforcement, as well as Republicans in elected office, as Oath Keeper members. A number of these individuals have gone on record confirming their affiliations.
At least one individual who appears to have signed up for the Oath Keepers using his public work credentials made no secret of his ideology. Robin Cole is the former Sheriff of Pine County Minnesota, north of Minneapolis. The leaked records show him joining in 2013, when he was sheriff — about the same time he sent an open letter to constituents pledging not to enforce any new federal or state gun restrictions, decrying them as an erosion of freedom and a “moral sin.” Reached by telephone, Cole confirmed his identity but hung up after this reporter began asking about his inclusion on the alleged Oath Keeper rolls. The Pine County Sheriff’s Department — reached on the telephone number listed with Cole’s apparent membership — declined to comment for this story.
Several less-high ranking officers also appeared to sign up for the Oath Keepers with their government-issue email addresses. They include an officer in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, police department; a recently retired police detective from Wyoming; a former member of the sheriff’s department from Hamilton County, Tennessee; and a former member of the Texas State Guard, who noted on his purported membership that he was, “Extremely worried about the current state of government and the disdain for the US Constitution and general US and WORLD Rule of LAW.”
Leaving aside law enforcement members, the list becomes professionally diverse. There are current and former firefighters from Seattle; Columbus, Ohio; Huntsville, Alabama; and Lexington, Kentucky. The list includes a supervisor with the federal Department of Homeland Security, and a county-level homeland security director in Tennessee.
The other federal employees on the purported Oath Keeper rolls are a grab bag. They include a research engineer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a communications professional from NASA, an FAA air traffic systems specialist from Arizona, a staff member at the Treasury’s Department of Public Debt in West Virginia, a physician at the Veterans’ Administration in Alabama, and a retired Air Marshall from Las Vegas.
State workers are similarly eclectic — including a supervisor at California’s Department of Water Resources, an assistant supervisor in the Kentucky Department of Corrections, an instructor at a state rehabilitation center in Virginia, and a criminal investigator with the Louisiana Department of Justice.
At the local level, the purported Oath Keeper list includes a school resource officer from central Indiana; individuals with school-district emails from central North Carolina and the Florida panhandle; a former recreation services employee from Wasilla, Alaska; an auto mechanic in Cincinnati, Ohio; a superintendent of solid waste management in Maryland, and civilian employees in the police departments of Huntsville, Alabama, and Washington D.C.
Rolling Stone emailed each of the public employees at their work addresses seeking comment. Nobody wrote back. (A few are now defunct and could not be delivered.)
Friedfeld, the extremism investigator, says the Oath Keepers’ recruiting rhetoric sometimes draws in people with a limited understanding of the group’s militant M.O. “On the surface, the way these guys talk of patriotism and constitutionality, can seem reasonable,” he says. And there are some people, Friedfeld adds, “who sign up initially and then learn a little bit more about what’s actually happening and go, ‘Oh, no. I’m out.’”
One prominent Texas public employee, contacted by Rolling Stone, can’t figure out how he ended up on the alleged Oath Keeper rolls in the first place. The state comptroller’s office has a criminal division that investigates tax fraud. Institutionally pro-government, its mission is to ensure that Texas isn’t cheated out of lawful revenue. Jim Harris, now the criminal division’s Chief of Police, appears on the leaked membership list as having joined in 2013, using an email with the bureau’s internet domain at the time, cpa.state.tx.us.
Harris didn’t respond directly to Rolling Stone, but Chris Bryan, a spokesperson for the comptroller’s office, says Harris denies participating in the group, or ever paying dues: “Chief Harris is not a member of the organization, and doesn’t recall ever being a member of the organization,” Bryan says, adding: “His position is that he may have put his email address on a form at some point 10 years ago, but has never been a member of the organization.”
Yet many other Americans appear to join the Oath Keepers with their eyes wide open. The NASA employee, for example, added a note about how he might be useful to the militia, bragging of: “Firearms training, general preparedness, wilderness first aid [and] general combat training.” The Pittsburgh police officer appended a note highlighting his experience as a firearms instructor, and adding that he would “spread the word to my students.”
“It’s really alarming,” Freidfeld says. “Seemingly ordinary people are signing up for the Oath Keepers because they think that tyranny is coming.” They’ve adopted a conspiratorial worldview, he says, 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.”
These folks want to stand up, Friedfeld adds, but they don’t see any avenues for action in politics, community organizing, or other facets of civil life. “They think the solution is joining with this militant group — to protect their way of life.”