Home > Uncategorized > Radley Balko at Reason Magazine interviews Stewart Rhodes ex-Ron Paul staffer and founder of "Oath Keepers", a group trying to train military and police in the Bill of Rights

Radley Balko at Reason Magazine interviews Stewart Rhodes ex-Ron Paul staffer and founder of "Oath Keepers", a group trying to train military and police in the Bill of Rights

I have earlier commented on the interesting Oath Keepers group. I hope everyone will take a good read through the entire interview of Stewart Rhodes by Radley Balko at Reason Magazine, and give their support to Rhodes, Oath Keepers and others trying to keep the military and police honest.

Here are the first few paragraphs that lead into the interview, and a few other portions of interest to me (emphasis mine)

When you run down the list of issues the Oath Keepers are worried about, it reads a lot like a bill of particulars from the American Civil Liberties Union. The Oath Keepers don’t like warrantless searches. They’re upset that the executive branch has claimed the power to classify American citizens as enemy combatants, detain them indefinitely, and try them before military tribunals. They worry that a large-scale terrorist attack similar to 9/11 could lead to the mass detention of Arabs or Muslims, just as Japanese Americans were detained during World War II. They worry about crackdowns on political speech, protest, and freedom of assembly. 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. And yet the group is a frequent target of the left.

Oath Keepers was founded in 2009 by Stewart Rhodes, a Yale Law School graduate and a former staffer for Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). Rhodes, 44, considers himself a constitutionalist and a libertarian. His organization’s mission: to persuade America’s soldiers and cops to refuse to carry out orders that violate the Constitution. On its website, Oath Keepers lists 10 orders its members will always refuse, including commands to conduct warrantless searches, to disarm the public, blockade an American city, or do anything that infringes “on the right of the people to free speech, to peaceably assemble, and to petition their government for a redress of grievances.” According to Rhodes, the group has about 30,000 dues-paying members.

Unlike the ACLU, the Oath Keepers are staunch defenders of the Second Amendment. They worry about the forcible disarming of American citizens, as happened after Hurricane Katrina, and as they fear could happen again after another terrorist attack or major natural disaster. The Oath Keepers are also federalists, vowing to disobey orders that violate state sovereignty. Most of their members are conservative or libertarian. Some of them espouse conspiracy theories that doubt President Barack Obama’s citizenship or blame the federal government for the September 11 attacks.

These latter positions have drawn suspicion and, at times, outright contempt from liberal 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 some prominent conservatives, including Bill O’Reilly and Michelle Malkin.) Last year Mother Jones accused the organization of promoting treason.

Senior Editor Radley Balko spoke with Stewart Rhodes about these criticisms and more in January.

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. 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: So are Oath Keepers encouraged to refuse to enforce federal drug laws? 

Rhodes: We try to focus on the sorts of issues that could fundamentally alter our constitutional system. So we’re focused right now on the big picture stuff, the sorts of orders that could lead to the imposition of martial law, for example. So that’s what our “Ten Orders We Will Not Obey” mostly address. But if a member asks, I’ll tell them point blank that the drug war is unconstitutional. Under the concept of enumerated powers, most criminal law should be left to the states. 

reason: Oath Keepers seems to be primarily focused on the federal government. But state and local governments are certainly capable of violating the Constitution. Do you think the 14th Amendment allows the federal government to intervene if, say, a local sheriff is violating the rights of the residents of his county? 

Rhodes: I don’t think it allows it; I think it compels it. But that’s not incompatible with the idea that the states should be left alone to make and enforce their own criminal laws. They should be free to do that. But if a state or local government isn’t respecting the Bill of Rights, then yes, the federal government should intervene and investigate. Take Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona. I think he’s a terrible sheriff. And I think it’s really unfortunate that he’s held up as some kind of a hero in parts of the freedom community. He’s a constitutional disaster, a Bill of Rights disaster. So yes, in that case, you have a sheriff who’s violating due process and who’s violating the Eighth Amendment. There’s definitely a role for the federal government to come in and say no. …


reason: There’s one criticism of your group that’s similar to those directed at the Tea Parties. You’ve said that Bush was just as hostile to the Constitution as Obama has been, indeed that most of the worst executive power grabs began under Bush. So why did Oath Keepers spring up only after Obama took office?

Rhodes: I just hadn’t gotten the idea yet. I got the idea during the 2008 election campaign. I worked for Ron Paul during the primary, and when it became clear that he wasn’t going to get the nomination, I started to think about what I wanted to do next. And that’s when the idea came to me that I wanted to do something involving the military and the police. And that was no matter who became president. At the time we didn’t know if it would be McCain, Obama, or Hillary Clinton

But it’s true. All of this began or really started to get worse under Bush. That’s when you had this wave of unconstitutional federal power. In particular, I was worried about this claim that the president could detain American citizens as unlawful enemy combatants. A president who would make that claim assumes powers that could be used in so many other ways too. I wrote a paper on that issue while I was at Yale Law School, during the Bush administration, which actually won the Yale Prize for best paper on the Bill of Rights. I was an outspoken critic of Bush then. I had a blog at the time that was very critical of Bush and his assumption of unconstitutional powers. I called the neocons in the Bush administration “national security New Dealers.” They expanded the power of the federal government at least as much as the New Deal did, but they did it through the lens of national security. The warrantless spying was unconstitutional. The detention of José Padilla was unconstitutional. The detentions without trial were unconstitutional. Most of the new powers Bush claimed were unconstitutional. 

But now you have Obama, who has not only not renounced those powers but has expanded them. He also now claims the power to assassinate American citizens his administration deems enemy combatants with no oversight. That’s just frightening. 

At this point I do really wish I had started Oath Keepers during the Bush administration. It would have been a good test. My guess is that I’d have started with a lot of liberals joining up, and you’d have seen conservatives and neocons howling that I’m a traitor. I think it’s just human nature and the cycle of politics. When the left is in power, they forget about the Constitution because it limits what they can do. So they characterize people who stand by the Constitution as reactionary or dangerous. But when they were out of power, they were citing the Constitution all of the time.  …

reason: Do you have any leftists or left-libertarians in your membership? 

Rhodes: We have some, but they’re few and far between right now. I wish we had more. And I suspect that when we get a Republican president again, we’ll get more members who identify with the left. I do think more and more people are understanding that neither party has any fidelity to the Constitution, and you are starting to see some honest liberals and some honest conservatives who are more willing to criticize their own side while in power. I think you saw a lot of that in the Ron Paul campaign, where he ran on a platform that was very critical of his own party’s president. On the left, you’re seeing it now with people like Glenn Greenwald. I hope there’s more of that.  …


reason: Let’s talk about a conspiracy theory often batted around on the right that’s more aligned with your mission. Do you think the Obama administration is secretly planning to set up detention camps through the Federal Emergency Management Agency? 

Rhodes: Well, something like that has already happened. Look at the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. That was done very quickly. All they had to do was string some wire up around old military barracks. So do I think there are detailed plans sitting in an office somewhere? I don’t know, but that really doesn’t matter. I’m concerned about the structures in place that could enable it to happen. So what I am concerned about is the creation of NORTHCOM, which for the first time in our history is a standing military command for the deployment of standing military troops domestically. That’s very dangerous.

And there is reason to worry about FEMA. From its start in the Reagan administration, FEMA was never just about emergency relief. It was about continuity of government, about governing during a disaster. The structures put in place by people like Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Oliver North during the Reagan administration, they contemplate the executive branch taking over all three branches of government during an emergency. I think that’s very dangerous. And we saw later the limitless power Cheney thought the executive should have to fight terrorism. FEMA has always been part of that. And you have things like Garden Plot, which are actual plans to impose martial law in the event of a civil disturbance. 

And remember that during the Bush years we saw prominent conservatives such as Michelle Malkin openly defend the internment of the Japanese Americans during World War II as being necessary—as though that would make it constitutional—with an eye toward doing the same thing with Muslim Americans. Malkin even wrote a book called In Defense of Internment.

So it isn’t really about whether President Obama has specific plans for that sort of thing. It’s about questioning the constitutionality of the structures in place that could allow it to happen, no matter who is president. And for us, it’s about making sure soldiers and police know that if they’re ever ordered to carry out something like the Japanese internment camps again, their duty is not to follow orders but to respect the constitutional rights of their fellow citizens.  ….


reason: The scenarios Oath Keepers are most worried about seem like those that are least likely to happen. If you’re worried about constitutional rights, wouldn’t you do more good to educate police officers about Bill of Rights violations like stop-and-frisk searches, SWAT raids for consensual drug crimes, civil asset forfeiture, and other ongoing, everyday abuses? 

Rhodes: You have to start somewhere. Certainly the long-term militarization of the police, which I know you’ve covered, is a disturbing problem. And I think the drug war in general has been destructive of freedom in America. One thing to remember is that the 10 orders Oath Keepers won’t follow isn’t a comprehensive list. There are countless possible unlawful orders I’d hope our members wouldn’t follow. But when I was thinking about starting Oath Keepers, I tried to think of what sorts of policies the Bush administration could implement that would do long-term, irreversible damage to the Constitution, and what orders officials would have to give to the military to implement them. So I think when we’re talking about where to start, you start with the most potentially damaging policies, things like internment camps, martial law, detaining American citizens without a trial.

It’s part strategy too. These are also the issues where I think it’s easiest to build a consensus. So we should start there. But the bigger idea is to get police and soldiers to at least start thinking about the Constitution, and that their first loyalty is to the Constitution and the rights of American citizens. Their first loyalty shouldn’t be to their commanding officer. It isn’t really about me coming down from the mountain with tablets inscribed with what orders you should and shouldn’t obey. But there some core principles, things that should never happen, and things that the government should know we will never allow to happen. 

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