Walter Shaub: This podcast is sponsored by the Project On Government Oversight, a nonpartisan independent government watchdog.
Virginia Heffernan: Welcome to The Continuous Action. I’m Virginia Heffernan.
Walter Shaub: And I’m Walt Shaub. Virginia, Congress created the Department of Homeland Security after the terrorist attacks on 9/11. That department, DHS, is supposed to protect us from violent extremists. It’s not supposed to employ violent extremists, and Homeland Security officials are not supposed to quit the government to go join extremist groups. But a leaked document from one militant group called the Oath Keepers shows that hundreds of its members identify as current or former DHS employees.
Virginia Heffernan: What a disaster for DHS, that there are links between the government department and the Oath Keepers. Their leader, Stewart Rhodes, was convicted of seditious conspiracy for his role in the January 6th insurrection.
Walter Shaub: Here’s what one of the Oath Keepers’ former members told the January 6th committee last year.
Jason Van Tatenhove: I spent a few years with the Oath Keepers, and I can tell you that they may not like to call themselves a militia, but they are. They’re a violent militia and they are largely Stewart Rhodes. I think, rather than try to use words, I think the best illustration for what the Oath Keepers are happened January 6th, when we saw that stacked military formation going up the stairs of our Capitol.
Walter Shaub: It wasn’t just Stewart Rhodes either. Several other members of the group, including a chapter president, were convicted of seditious conspiracy. And a number of other members have been convicted on other felony charges.
Virginia Heffernan: At Rhodes’ trial, a witness said Rhodes contacted him four days after the insurrection to try to pass a message to President Trump that it wasn’t too late to use paramilitary groups to stay in power. The guy recorded the conversation and prosecutors played it for the jury. Rhodes said the insurrection would’ve turned out differently if they’d brought guns, and he talked about how he would have murdered former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Walter Shaub: The kind of people who would sign up for this group just have no business being in government.
Virginia Heffernan: I mean, to put it mildly, these guys should be as kept as far away from DHS as possible. They should be in the sights of DHS, but the Project On Government Oversight has released a report on the more than 300 members of the Oath Keepers who said they had worked for DHS.
Walter Shaub: Most of them said they were no longer with DHS by the time they joined, but some of them said they were still with the department.
Virginia Heffernan: Even after they leave government, they have contacts inside DHS, so that doesn’t make me feel better at all. Also, what had to go wrong with the hiring process that DHS couldn’t screen out the kind of people who would sign up to be led by someone like Stewart Rhodes?
Walter Shaub: That’s the question. Also, this list is from 2015, so there may be more we don’t even know about.
Virginia Heffernan: One of the things in POGO’s report that jumped out at me was that when POGO called the Secret Service, a spokesperson there said they just didn’t know. They may not even have a handle on it yet.
Walter Shaub: That’s not good. The Secret Service is part of DHS, and there were definitely Oath Keepers members who said they’d worked for the Secret Service. That’s a really big problem. How the Secret Service handled the insurrection itself is a complicated issue. On the one hand, we know that agents refused to take Trump to the Capitol that day, and had they taken him, things could have been much, much worse. On the other hand, Vice President Mike Pence refused to let them put him in a car. He said he knew they’d take him away from the Capitol, which could have prevented him from certifying the election.
And then there’s the destruction of all of these texts between Secret Service agents on that day. The January 6th Committee came looking for those and the Secret Service conveniently destroyed them. I think there’s plenty of legitimate explanations for what the Secret Service did. There are also some concerning explanations for what they did, and the fact that we even have to ask these questions is made much worse when you find out there are links to domestic extremist groups.
Virginia Heffernan: And then there’s a witness at Stewart Rhodes’ trial who said that the Oath Keepers claim to have a contact in the Secret Service, an indirect link to the Trump administration. Whether or not the Secret Service was actually compromised, you can see how even the perception that the agency was compromised can undermine its effectiveness and public trust.
Walter Shaub: That’s exactly what experts POGO interviewed told us.
Virginia Heffernan: All of this is extremely dangerous. Last fall, DHS and the FBI told Congress that “domestic violent extremists represent one of the most persistent threats to the United States today.” I mean, there was another story by a reporter who went undercover with an armed group down at the border. Several years ago, Shane Bauer wrote about this for Mother Jones. He talked about how he personally witnessed the militants coordinating with Border Patrol agents and palling around like old friends.
Walter Shaub: I’m going to drop a link to that story in the show notes. What POGO discovered about the Oath Keepers membership is not an isolated thing or a one-off situation. DHS needs to grapple with the threat of infiltration by extremists.
Virginia Heffernan: I think one big indicator of how safe extremists feel inside the government, how hospitable it is to them, is that some officials have been using their official government email addresses to sign up for extremist groups. Let’s go to our interview of the author of POGO’s report on this leaked Oath Keepers membership list. He’s Nick Schwellenbach, a senior investigator at the Project On Government Oversight.
Nick Schwellenbach: The Oath Keepers are a militant group founded in 2009 by Stewart Rhodes. Mr. Rhodes has an interesting history. He briefly served in the U.S. Army. He worked for Representative Ron Paul in the ‘90s, and then he became a lawyer in the early 2000s. When he founded the Oath Keepers in 2009, its mission on a very surface level was an admirable one. It was to defend the Constitution. And the group explicitly aimed to recruit members of the law enforcement community and the U.S. military, including people who are retired from these two different communities. In practice, the group has been anti-government.
It has faced off against federal law enforcement officers, upholding court orders at places like the Bundy Ranch in Nevada in 2014. It’s become aligned with forces that are against Black Lives Matter protests, which are protesting law enforcement brutality. Some of those stances even prompted divisions within the group. Some people have left the group because of racism within the ranks and because some of the stances it’s taken. Rhodes has claimed that the group has tens of thousands of members.
Now, we here at the Project On Government Oversight and our partners at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project obtained a leaked Oath Keepers membership list from 2015 that does validate that claim that tens of thousands of people have signed up for the group.
Walter Shaub: You found a link between some members on that membership list and the Department of Homeland Security.
Nick Schwellenbach: Yeah. We’re not the only ones who’ve been able to get ahold of leaked membership records from inside of the Oath Keepers, but we were the first to really focus on the overlap between membership in the group and people who are either current employees or former employees of the Department of Homeland Security. The reason we focused on DHS was DHS is one of the few agencies in the federal government, the only one in addition to the FBI, that has the explicit mission of countering domestic violent extremism. This group has a track record of being involved in domestic violent extremism, notably during the attack on the Capitol on January 6th.
When we looked at these tens of thousands of leaked membership records, we found more than 300 people, we found 306 people on the list, who claimed to either be former employees or current employees of different parts of the Department of Homeland Security. Most were former employees, but that doesn’t mean they don’t pose some sort of heightened risk. They may have contacts still working inside of DHS that may leak them information or give them a heads up about enforcement actions that may be targeting the Oath Keepers or aligned extremist groups.
We found people in the Secret Service, including current Secret Service agents, who have been Oath Keepers members who have been part of the presidential protective detail. We found people who work in the Border Patrol, as well as other parts of DHS like the Coast Guard and the Transportation Security Administration, Immigration and Customs — I’m sorry, immigration, or ICE. We’ve found people who have been members of the Oath Keepers throughout DHS.
Walter Shaub: You mentioned folks who no longer work there. One of the most alarming examples in your group involve a man named Rinaldo Nazzaro. He left DHS and wound up leading another extremist group.
Nick Schwellenbach: Right. Our investigation focused predominantly on the Oath Keepers and people who’ve worked at DHS, including current employees, who have been members of the Oath Keepers, but there are a whole host of other domestic extremism organizations, particularly on the far right, that have intersections with DHS.
Rinaldo Nazzaro represents one of those groups. He founded and led a group called The Base, a very rabidly white supremacist organization, encouraged a lot of violence. He set up shop in St. Petersburg, Russia. He took a lot of steps to obscure who he was and other steps to protect the security of The Base’s operations from U.S. federal law enforcement.
But Nazzaro has an interesting past. He used to work for DHS, in its Office of Intelligence and Analysis, for a few years back in the early 2000s. He then went on to work as a military contractor employee. So, extremism experts that we talked to during the course of our reporting on the Oath Keepers list pointed to Nazzaro as an example of the threat that these individuals may pose. They can learn ways to protect their operational security, to fend off and defend themselves against law enforcement efforts to stop the violence that they may be planning or may be involved in.
Nazzaro is, I think, a really interesting case study, even though there’s no evidence he was ever part of the Oath Keepers, but he was part of another very disturbing domestic extremist group that even had international ties as well. He may have learned some of his tactics in obscuring his actions during his time at DHS.
Walter Shaub: You know, the Border Patrol is part of DHS. In your report, one quote from a Border Patrol agent just sent chills down my spine. He said, “Most Border Patrol agents are Oath Keepers. We just haven’t signed up yet.” Do you think the Border Patrol’s fertile ground for groups like Oath Keepers and others?
Nick Schwellenbach: Yeah, absolutely. The Oath Keepers have really targeted law enforcement and people who’ve come out of the military and still are in the military. The Border Patrol has sort of a reputation at this point of attracting a lot of people who are willing to engage in excessive use of force, who’ve committed abuses. Now, I don’t want to paint everyone in the Border Patrol with a broad brush here. Certainly there are a lot of people who don’t engage in that kind of misconduct and in that kind of wrongdoing. Probably a majority of people in the Border Patrol don’t. But there’s ample evidence at this point, because there have been a number of criminal cases involving Border Patrol agents who espouse racist, sexist, extremist views privately with their coworkers.
So the Oath Keepers and other militant groups — after 9/11, experts told me and my colleague who wrote our stories that these militant groups really targeted the border after 9/11. There’s been a lot of reporting that these militant groups have even coordinated quite explicitly with the Border Patrol. There’s just a lot of interactions between the Border Patrol and militia groups, including the Oath Keepers. We found people on this membership list who are Oath Keepers who are inside the Border Patrol.
Now, we talked to the person who wrote that quote. We can’t use his name. He asked us not to use his name and we agreed, but I had some correspondence with him. He did say that quickly after he signed up with the Oath Keepers, he discovered that they were more extremist for his taste, that he wasn’t interested in those kind of activities. I don’t know what the true story is. This is just what he’s telling us. But based on our interactions with other people, there does seem to be a pattern of a lot of people who did sign up for the Oath Keepers initially and when they learned more what the group was about did distance themselves from the group.
That’s maybe a silver lining to the story here, is that people may have exercised poor judgment and initially signing up, but wised up eventually. But it doesn’t take a large number of insiders to really create a real problem for the government and the public at large. If you have a person who’s well-positioned to get access to confidential law enforcement information, and they leak it to a group like the Oath Keepers, a lot of damage can be done to ongoing law enforcement investigations into extremists. There’s a lot going on here, but there’s a real threat here, and the Department of Homeland Security has been slow to the threat.
But finally, in 2021, during the early months of the Biden administration, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, he convened this working group internally at DHS to deal with this problem of domestic violent extremists within DHS. They put out a report in the spring of 2022, and it was a step forward, for sure, but there were things that were in the report that I think disturbed a lot of experts who’ve been looking at these issues for a long time.
One of the most disturbing things is that DHS doesn’t even have a solid definition of what is domestic violent extremism. The reason that’s so disturbing is that this is one of the agencies tasked with dealing with that problem.
Walter Shaub: It’s hard to deal with it if you can’t even define it.
Nick Schwellenbach: Right, right. There’s another big elephant in the room, so to speak, which is people have a right to believe what they want to believe, even if their beliefs are abhorrent, et cetera. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t call them out. Sometimes those beliefs can raise questions about their fitness for their position, because these are positions of great responsibility within federal law enforcement. We talked to a lot of experts. One expert, former FBI Mike German, who infiltrated white supremacists and extremist groups before he left the federal government about 20 years ago. What he told me was, “Look, the key thing is not to focus on people’s beliefs.
“What you really want to do, what the federal government should do is focus on their actions and what they’re trying to do, especially if what they’re trying to do is violent.” That’s where you go beyond First Amendment protected issues or associations or speech. But just because you’re associated with a group like the Oath Keepers, say you were a member for just one year, but you didn’t do anything, that’s probably not going to lead to you having your security clearance taken away. But what it should lead to is it should prompt more questions about your involvement in that group, what you really believe.
Walter Shaub: I think a lot of people don’t realize that the Secret Service is a component of the Department of Homeland Security.
Nick Schwellenbach: Right. The Secret Service is — it’s a secretive agency. I mean, it’s in the name, but it has this extraordinarily important mission to protect the president, the vice president, people close to the president and the vice president, to protect the White House complex.
The reason this intersected with our Oath Keepers work is the Secret Service has talked to the Oath Keepers over the years for some very good reasons. The Oath Keepers have unofficially provided security at Trump campaign events during the time Trump has been president back in 2019 and 2020. And the Secret Service has to be in touch with people that may be armed in close proximity to the president.
Very good reasons for that. But people have also raised questions about, “Well, what do those communications look like? Was it too cozy? Was the Secret Service overly deferential?” I mean, there are a whole lot of questions that are coming out of those communications.
This also came up in the course of our investigation because there are people who are current Secret Service agents who have been members of the Oath Keepers in the past. We’ve talked to experts such as Gordon Heddell, who used to be the head of the vice presidential protective detail back in the ‘90s. He told us that, “Look, you do not want agents in the Secret Service who are part of these militant groups.” It creates a conflict of interest, and it creates optics concerns at a minimum about their loyalties.
If you really want to imagine a worst case scenario, worst case scenario is you have someone on the Secret Service presidential or vice presidential protective detail who’s somehow connected to a militant group that wants to do something to a president or a vice president or wants to engage in some sort of illegal action to benefit a president or a vice president. Having an insider may help that militant group achieve their goals. That person could leak security information to the Oath Keepers or to another militant group and compromise the security of the vice president or president.
That’s why you really want to make sure Secret Service agents really just don’t have any of these kind of associations that raise questions about their ability to do their job.
Walter Shaub: What’s the top line takeaway from this report?
Nick Schwellenbach: Our review is pretty limited, actually. We were only looking at the Oath Keepers, and we had a list from 2015. That’s a seven-year-old list. At this point, it’s almost eight years old. There may be numerous people, some of whom may be current DHS employees, who’ve signed up since then that weren’t part of our tally. We found one person after our story came out that we missed. The 306 number that’s in our story is probably an undercount, even if you’re just talking about the Oath Keepers. Then there are all these other groups out there, like the Three Percenters is one.
Our review is probably just a fraction of the number of employees inside of DHS who may pose concerns. I just want to make that point because I didn’t make that point earlier, and I think it’s an important one. There have been people who I’ve talked to during the course of the reporting and since then are like, “Oh, 306, I would’ve thought the number would be in the thousands.” And it very well could be. And then there are all the people who may be smart enough not to sign up as a member, but who may have sympathies or other kinds of connections to militant groups. That is probably a much bigger universe.
Virginia Heffernan: That’s it for this week’s episode of The Continuous Action. We’ve put a link to POGO’s Report on the Oath Keepers in the show notes. Give it a look.
Walter Shaub: I hope folks will take time to read it. This is really disturbing stuff. At least one member of Congress has followed up on POGO’s report by demanding answers from DHS. I’d like to see even more congressional oversight.
Virginia Heffernan: Oversight is your middle name, Walt. I appreciate your watchdog tenacity. The more people become aware of this issue, the more chance the public can push for Congress to dig into it. Thanks for listening, folks.
The Continuous Action is hosted by me, Virginia Heffernan and Walter Shaub.
It’s produced by Myron Kaplan, and as always, sponsored by the Project On Government Oversight, POGO. See you next week.