The prosecution of more than a dozen Oath Keepers members and affiliates in the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol and potential legal troubles looming over founder Stewart Rhodes since Jan. 6 have significantly disrupted the right-wing paramilitary group.
Oath Keepers members have expressed frustration about lack of vetting, unresponsiveness and remoteness of leadership on the group's private chat forum, which was set up in March, after the previous forum was taken down in January following the Capitol attack. The chats, which include 22,000 exchanges from March through mid-September of this year, were released by the transparency collective Distributed Denial of Secrets as part of massive breach of roughly 5GB of data, also including emails and membership rosters, that were obtained through a reported hack.
Gary Landers, a military veteran from Massachusetts who joined after Jan. 6, complained in the chat on May 8 that "things move extremely slowly here" in the Oath Keepers, which targets military veterans and retired law enforcement for recruitment.
Referring to Rhodes by his initials, Landers continued: "Who knows, maybe being loosely organized is part of the strategy at the top? That might be just what saves SR's ass from the frying pan regarding Jan. 6th."
In another comment two days later, Landers said, "I would like to see a much higher degree of vetting. Background checks & the whole 9."
Dave Emrick, an Oath Keeper member in the Charlotte area who took it upon himself to reorganize North Carolina after the state's previously leadership broke ties in January, commented around the same time: "Hopefully national is more organized than we think."
Emrick, who like Landers mentions combat experience in Iraq in the chats, shared that he felt the Oath Keepers needed to prepare for what many members believe is a looming civil war.
"I have been waiting 8 years for some action," he wrote on May 9. "The security details and after-disaster stuff has been great, but I feel we need to do more before or if it goes kinetic.
"I agree [Rhodes] needs to come in here when he can," Emrick added. "When he does it lights up in here. Need to address the troops every so often."
Rhodes' participation in the chats is limited, with the exception of two extensive debriefs to address the organization's legal woes shortly after the forum was established in March.
Rhodes' comments among unvetted members of the Oath Keepers largely mirror his public statements.
"Look, I am NOT happy that some of our men went off mission that day and went into the Capitol," he told the members on March 17, shortly after the arrests of Joshua James and Robert Minuta — two members who served on Trump confidant Roger Stone's personal security detail before storming the Capitol. "They made a tragic mistake that is now being used to persecute them, and also to demonize all of us. I didn't want them to do that, and didn't tell them to do that, but they did it, and we need to deal with it."
Despite repeatedly calling on Donald Trump to invoke martial law so that he could hold on to power, Rhodes emphatically insisted to his members: "What I do know is that there was no damn insurrection."
Consistent with his public statements, Rhodes' forward-looking statements are more warlike than his depictions of events on Jan. 6, which he described as "simply pissed-off patriots demonstrating" and "a 'mostly peaceful' protest."
"We are in a parallel to what the founders faced," Rhodes told members of the private chat on March 17. "They faced a foreign power where they had no representation, who ruled over them through domestic puppets they had no control over, passed what they called 'pretend legislation' and violated their natural rights, and a massive international corporation called the East India Company that had special grant of power by the government to do as it pleased. We are in a very near exact parallel. We have a foreign power (China, international globalist elites), and the 'Five Eyes' as an international deep state/shadow government."
Rhodes counseled the Oath Keepers members in the chats to follow the example of the founders by raising local militias and refusing compliance with government orders, but to do so in a way that baits the federal government into acting as the aggressor.
The chats reveal that some members are becoming increasingly impatient as they wait for the organization to sort out its legal troubles.
"I think we're falling behind the situation & with each day we sit with no strategy or (active) command structure in place, we are slowly 'self-screwing,'" a member with the username Denbo wrote on May 10. "I'm disappointed that zero OK leaders frequent this board & zero comms on any subject from them." He went on to complain that $120 per year for lifetime membership "is a lot to pay for just private chat membership."
"I'm patient, but I'm beginning to think we're in the 'wrong outhouse' for the crap that is unfolding in front of our eyes," Denbo continued. "I'm concerned we're quickly running out of time to be an 'effective' organization to counter this growing nightmare!"
Despite their volume, the chats reflect participation from a relatively modest number — a fact not lost on the members themselves.
"The member directory indicates a total of 4,884," Michael M. Brennan, a member from Texas, wrote on March 12. "There are maybe a dozen members who are active on the chat. Were these numbers ported over from the old forum, and are not indicative of the people who actually registered?
"The chat compared to the old forum is like a Biden rally compared to a Trump rally," he added. "Maybe the Alphabets [federal agencies] are picking off the easy targets and working their way up to the cream at the top."
Participation in breakout channels for states was even more dismal.
Landers took it upon himself to count members in the New England region, and provided a report on state-level participation on May 19: Four members on the Connecticut channel, three in Maine, three in Massachusetts, three in Rhode Island, and three in Vermont. Even the mid-Atlantic states Pennsylvania and New Jersey charted only a dozen and seven, respectively.
In the absence of guidance from the top, the chats show members organizing themselves.
In May, Landers circulated a proposed plan for responding to anticipated gun confiscation by the federal government — a perpetual bogeyman among the Oath Keepers and other far-right militia groups going back to the Obama administration. He also sent the proposal to Rhodes and other top leaders. Landers said he worried that gunfights with law enforcement would be counterproductive, and instead advised that they should stash guns in multiple locations.
"We will not survive a shootout from our homes against overwhelming numbers of LEOs [law enforcement officers] and feds," Landers wrote. "Not to mention that Rambo mentality will get our loved ones killed along with us." Instead, he wrote, they should "Regroup & Respond."
"Instead of us being caught at home in the middle of dinner or sound asleep, we can apply the upper hand," Landers wrote. "Anything that can be taken can be retaken if not multiplied."
The proposal received no response from Rhodes.
But Brennan, another rank-and-file member, expressed enthusiasm.
"In my meetings and seminars, I have stressed that patriots must start to identify all members of any local/state/federal agency who would ignore their oath and conduct unconstitutional actions/operations," Brennan told Landers. "All these are members of our communities and are well known. Identification of both the good (patriots) and the bad (traitors) should be known to the patriot groups as part of strategic planning. I have always stressed: You do not conduct an assault on a high-value asset target without first identifying all defenses and the tactics to neutralize them."