In the days after the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, the Oath Keepers gained notoriety almost overnight as a symbol of right-wing extremism in America.
Images of members in battle armor pushing their way into the Capitol went viral, clips of the group’s leader challenging the results of the 2020 presidential election surfaced, and within weeks FBI agents began arresting members of the Oath Keepers as part of the largest and arguably most important conspiracy case to come out of the insurgency.
Some active police officers and members of the US military apparently liked what they saw. In some cases ignoring strict policies prohibiting their membership in such groups, many reached out to the organization seeking information, according to leaked emails from the group.
“I was wondering what was required to become an oath keeper,” one soldier wrote to the group’s main email address on Jan. 19. He noted that he was “active duty army, 7 years in” and stationed at Fort Hood, Texas.
“I’m not liking what the world is coming to and have a growing concern for our nation,” the person added. “Please let me know how I can get involved.”
On Feb. 4, scarcely a week after three members of the Oath Keepers were indicted for their role in the Capitol riots, an email came in from someone identifying himself as Scott Langton, “a current Washington State Police Officer looking for information,” who added that he was “not looking to be on some Liberal hit list.”
Records confirm that there is a Scott Langton currently serving in the Ferndale, Washington, police department, and that he has been sued at least twice for allegedly committing civil rights and use of force abuses while in uniform. One of those cases was settled, and the other is currently pending in federal court.
Two weeks later, someone named Benjamin Payne wrote to the Oath Keepers, identifying himself as “active LEO” — or law enforcement officer — and a “lifetime member” of the group. He said he was trying to get in touch with Louisiana leadership for the group. Records and social media confirm there is a Benjamin Payne who works for the Denham Springs, Louisiana, police department; he was sued last week in federal court for alleged civil rights violations. That suit is pending.
Throughout 2021, as federal cases against members of the Oath Keepers continue to grow, interest among some in law enforcement or the military has not appeared to wane. In June, for example, someone calling themselves “active duty LE” in South Carolina wrote to the organization, asking, “how do I join?” And just over two weeks ago, someone claiming to be a Navy yeoman stationed in Fargo, North Dakota, inquired about getting involved with the group.
“Greetings, I am active duty Navy,” the person wrote under the name Ray Triboulet. “I love what my country is supposed to be and this tyrannical idiocy is crushing the freedom out of me and mine. Any opportunity y’all have for me to do something please let me know.” Navy records show there is a Ray Triboulet currently stationed in North Dakota.
None of these police officers or service members responded to requests for comment, and it is unclear what came of their inquiries or whether they ended up joining the group.
According to spokesperson Patricia Kreuzberger, the Navy “does not and will not tolerate supremacist or extremist conduct.” Any reports of misconduct will be investigated, she said, noting that the Department of Defense policy “prohibits military personnel from actively advocating supremacist, extremist, or criminal gang doctrine, ideology, or causes.”
An Army spokesperson said that under its policies “all credible allegations of Soldiers who actively participate in any type of extremist activity will be investigated.”
Ferndale Police Chief Kevin Turner said the department prohibits membership in groups such as the Oath Keepers. “Joining or participating with extremist organizations is not tolerated,” he said.
The Denham Springs Police Department did not respond to a request for its policies on extremist groups.
The emails were obtained by BuzzFeed News after an anonymous group claimed to have hacked the Oath Keepers’ servers and released the records to a group called Distributed Denial of Secrets, which posted much of the data publicly and shared some additional files with journalists and researchers.
Although the hacked Oath Keepers data does not appear to be complete, it provides an unprecedented glimpse inside the workings of the secretive organization, which was founded in 2009 by former Army paratrooper Stewart Rhodes and gets its name from the oath to uphold the Constitution sworn by all law enforcement and military personnel.
Rhodes did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the leak.
He and others in Oath Keepers leadership have long claimed that the group includes members drawn from law enforcement and military personnel, but because membership rolls were not public, the scope of such involvement was not known. In May, BuzzFeed News analyzed data from the Oath Keepers website indicating that some 3,000 people appeared to have been added to membership lists in the last two months of 2020, compared to 1,650 members in the first three months of 2021.
BuzzFeed News’ analysis of the newly leaked data, which includes membership lists, emails, and group chats, found more than 500 people associated with the organization who were identified in internal files as military or law enforcement personnel or whose email addresses indicated they may be or previously were employed by the military, state or local police, sheriff’s departments, or federal law enforcement. The leaked membership data does not appear to have been updated past mid-2020; many of the memberships appear to date back at least a decade, and some seem to have been inactive for years.
The group has previously inserted itself into moments of civil unrest, from disaster relief to Black Lives Matter demonstrations, but the events of Jan. 6 brought a higher degree of scrutiny to its activities. Rhodes, who frequently appears on Infowars and other far-right platforms, encouraged members to go to Washington. He was there in person on Jan. 6, and although he did not enter the Capitol, evidence in federal court shows he was in close touch with multiple members of the Oath Keepers during the siege of the building.
To date, 21 people associated with the group have been charged in federal court for alleged crimes on Jan. 6, including Jeremy Brown, a former Green Beret who was arrested this week. Four have pleaded guilty.
The leaked records — which include chat logs, membership rolls, donation receipts, and other information about the Oath Keepers — are largely limited to data from the past 15 months. Between March 2019 and July 2020, for example, the Oath Keepers appear to have received just over $66,000 in donations, with one donor in Texas giving exactly $1,776 — presumably in reference to the date of American independence.
Emails and chats sent in the wake of Jan. 6, meanwhile, reveal hundreds of people demanding that their memberships be canceled or their names removed from Oath Keepers' mailing lists. Two members of the Oath Keepers handling the group’s IT in that period saw their inboxes swamped by members complaining that they couldn’t log in or had other technical problems.
Collectively, the records paint a picture of organizational chaos slowed by technological snafus, poor communication, and a fragmented, aging membership unsure in many cases of what the group is up to.
The records also reveal significant anti-government sentiment from the Oath Keepers' members, unwillingness to accept the results of the presidential election, and sustained interest from active duty police and military service members.
A separate review by Gothamist found “dozens of names” connected to police, court, and corrections officers in New York state, spurring Mayor Bill de Blasio to open an investigation into the matter.
BuzzFeed News could not determine the current status of all the individuals it identified. Dozens appear to have purchased lifetime memberships to the Oath Keepers, which can cost upward of $1,000; others appear to have stopped paying dues and are listed as “expired,” while email communications indicate that some may have died and their family members asked for their names to be expunged from the group’s mailing lists.
When contacted by BuzzFeed News, some on the email rolls acknowledged having been members of the Oath Keepers in the past but said they had since left the group.
A deputy with the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office in Northern California, for example, said he had joined the Oath Keepers years ago because the idea of supporting the Constitution appealed to him, but he “started getting some weird stuff and let it go.”
He said he “never even thought about it after [he] quit getting emails” and hasn’t heard from anyone associated with the group in years.
An active officer for the Department of Defense Police reached out to the Oath Keepers via email just two weeks after Jan. 6, describing himself as “very pro-Trump and committed to defending the Constitution of the United States” and asking for more info on the group.
But the man, who said he has since retired, told BuzzFeed News he decided not to join the group after the person who called him in response to his email struck him as strange. The man described his decision not to follow through as akin to looking at a product on Amazon and deciding not to buy it.
Jeremy Singer-Vine contributed reporting to this story.