When you run down the list of issues the Oath Keepers are worried about, it reads much like a list of concerns from the American Civil Liberties Union. They don't like warrantless searches. They fear the powers the executive branch has claimed to classify American citizens as enemy combatants, to detain them indefinitely, and to try them before military tribunals. They worry that a large-scale terrorist attack similar to the one on September 11, 2001, could lead to the mass detention of Arab Americans or Muslims, just as Japanese Americans were detained during World War II. They worry about government crackdowns on political speech, protest, and freedom of assembly. Like the ACLU, they are concerned about the Army 3rd Infantry's 1st Brigade Combat Team, a military unit that is training to deploy domestically in response to terrorist attacks or other national emergencies.
Oath Keepers was founded in 2008 by Stewart Rhodes, a Yale Law School graduate and a former staffer for Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). Rhodes, 44, labels himself a libertarian or constitutionalist. His organization's mission is to persuade America's police officers and soldiers to refuse to carry out orders they believe are unconstitutional. On its website, Oath Keepers lists 10 orders its members will always refuse, including orders to conduct warrantless searches, to disarm the public, to blockade an American city, and "orders which infringe on the right of the people to free speech, to peaceably assemble, and to petition their government for a redress of grievances." Rhodes says his organization has about 30,000 dues-paying members.
The Oath Keepers are also staunch defenders of the Second Amendment. They worry about the forcible disarming of American citizens, which they say happened after Hurricane Katrina. They fear it could happen again in the event of another terrorist attack or major natural disaster. The Oath Keepers are pro-federalism, vowing not to carry out federal orders that violate state sovereignty. They ground their concerns in reverence for the Constitution, and they frequently cite the American founding as their inspiration. Most of them are conservative or libertarian. Some buy into conspiracy theories about President Obama's U.S. citizenship, or about the federal government's complicity in the September 11 terror attacks. Furthermore, they have put themselves in the national spotlight while a Democrat occupies the White House.
These latter positions have drawn suspicion and, at times, outright contempt from leftist groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, which lumps Oath Keepers in with militias and hate groups. (The Oath Keepers also have been denounced by conservatives such as Bill O'Reilly and Michelle Malkin.) And in its March/April issue last year, Mother Jones published a scathing exposé that accused the organization of promoting treason.
Reason Senior Editor Radley Balko spoke with Rhodes by phone last month.
Reason: What is the purpose of Oath Keepers?
Stewart Rhodes: The mission of Oath Keepers is to persuade the guys with the guns not to violate the Constitution. I look at it as constitutional triage. I worked for a congressman; I've worked with judges. And it seems clear to me that judges and politicians don't really care about our rights that the Constitution is supposed to protect. So I'm focusing on the guys with the guns, the ones who ultimately enforce the laws, on educating them about the Constitution. I think most of them are honorable people, but there's an ethos, especially in the officer corps in the military, that focuses on following orders. It's almost as if they're taking the oath to uphold the Constitution to mean that you should categorically defer to the president. Now I think civilian authority is important, but if the president asks the military to do something that isn't constitutional, their loyalty is to the Constitution, not the president.
In the police context, some have the mistaken idea that you're always to enforce the law—leave it up to the politicians, lawyers, and judges to figure out what's right and what's wrong after the fact. That's not what the Founders intended, and that's not what the Constitution calls for. So the point of Oath Keepers is to remind the military and law enforcement that they are supposed to be thinking about the Constitution, and especially the Bill of Rights, and they need to be thinking about the lawfulness of the orders they're given. And they actually have a duty to refuse when it's unlawful or violates fundamental human rights. The military has learned this overseas, with the Nuremberg trials, with My Lai, with Abu Ghraib. And they get training in the laws of war, so they know when to refuse unlawful orders in the context of a foreign battlefield.
But cops get very little training in the Bill of Rights. And when the military is used domestically—as we saw with Katrina, and as we're seeing more and more, they're also now butting up against the rights of American citizens. And they need to know what those rights are, and how they can be sure they don't violate them. They're not getting that training either. And I find that disturbing.
Reason: Oath Keepers has been described has a militia group, a hate group, even as an organization that promotes treason. Do you advocate violence or overthrow of the government?
Rhodes: Absolutely not.
Reason: Is there any scenario under which you would encourage your members to respond to a government policy with violence?
Rhodes: No. That's the strange thing about the criticism we get. The entire point of Oath Keepers is to advocate nonviolence. We're telling police and soldiers that if they're asked to do something unconstitutional, or asked to violate the rights of Americans, that they put down their guns. We just saw this with the Tunisian military, by the way, when it refused orders to fire on protesters.
Reason: One example you've given is the government's disarming of New Orleans residents after Katrina. So your advice to those officers would not have been to forcibly oppose the disarmament, but to simply refuse to participate in it?
Rhodes: That's correct. In fact, that happened during Katrina. There was a sergeant in the National Guard from Utah, Joshua May, who was deployed to Louisiana after Katrina. His unit was initially deployed in a rural area and got along fine with the residents there. But he was then deployed to New Orleans, and he had heard about the gun confiscations. And so Seargent May, on behalf of his entire unit, did a pre-emptive refusal. He sought out his commander and he told him, "If you give us orders to confiscate guns, we will refuse to enforce them." This was at least half the company. This went up the chain of command, and when it came back, they were told not to worry, that they wouldn't be asked to do that. Basically, Big Army blinked. There were no courts martial. No one was shot at dawn.