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After membership documents were leaked, we have new insight into the Oath Keepers

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Today on the show, we begin by talking about the Oath Keepers, an extremist group you might never have heard about before January 6. Federal prosecutors have now charged numerous members of the group in connection with the attack on the U.S. Capitol. And newly leaked documents indicate dozens of state and local government officials have ties to the far-right militia organization. We'll hear from one of them in just a bit. But we begin with Isaac Arnsdorf. He's a reporter for ProPublica who's been looking through those documents.

ISAAC ARNSDORF: So the Oath Keepers started in 2009, and the idea was to specifically recruit law enforcement and military veterans on the idea that the oath that they swore when they joined to defend and uphold the Constitution never expired. And on its face, who could argue with that? But then the pledge that they signed is kind of a swirl of right-wing conspiracy theories. It's that if the government orders you to impose martial law or to take people's guns away or to invade a state, then you will refuse. So it starts to go down this path that the federal government is just on the verge of tyranny.

KHALID: So talk to me about the membership info. My understanding is it was an incomplete list, but it had some 35,000 current and former members. Who did you find among them?

ARNSDORF: You know, there's a range of the involvement. But what was interesting to me was part of when they signed up, they could kind of enter, you know, like, here's a little bit about me and, you know, what I have to offer to the organization. And people would say things like, you know, here is a retired NYPD cop. And his entry was pistol shooting, police street tactics, county Republican committee member. So what you see there is both, you know, an understanding of the violent side of this organization but also the political side of this organization - county Republican committee member.

KHALID: And I notice that you also interviewed a North Carolina state rep. What do you make of the fact that he is now a part of the government, given the Oath Keepers anti-government positions?

ARNSDORF: Well, not only that, but his - what he said was, you know, back at the beginning, I went to a few meetings, and the way that I participate in the Oath Keepers organization now is through my service as a state lawmaker. And the significance of that, according to the people I spoke with who monitor extremism is, you know, it wasn't that long ago when being associated with Oath Keepers was not something that any politician would want. And now there are all these politicians who are themselves Oath Keepers and are actually proud of it.

KHALID: The fact that a number of the officeholders on this list are Republican - does that indicate to you that the Oath Keepers ideology has found roots in mainstream Republican politics?

ARNSDORF: It clearly has, not only because of the Oath Keepers themselves who are Republican officials, but also, I talked to a lot of Republican Party officials. And a lot of these party officials took the position of, this isn't something that we as a party need to disavow or reject.

KHALID: That was Isaac Arnsdorf. He covers national politics at ProPublica. One of the people on the list of current Oath Keepers is David Eastman, a Republican state representative from Wasilla, Alaska. When we spoke yesterday, he suggested he hasn't been particularly active with the Oath Keepers lately but stands by the group's mission and told me he joined the group years before taking office.

DAVID EASTMAN: I've been a volunteer firefighter and EMT in the military and law enforcement, and they are one of the few organizations, at least at that time, that was encouraging all those public servants in those categories to be very conscientious about the oath that you take to support and defend the Constitution, so help you God.

KHALID: So prosecutors have charged more than a dozen Oath Keepers or associates in connection with the attack on the U.S. Capitol. To be clear, you have not been charged with anything yourself. But group members were involved and some charged with conspiracy suggesting there was some coordination with those events.

EASTMAN: I don't know of any of the individuals that were charged as Oath Keepers. Anytime someone is violating the law, that's a reason for concern. I think it would be a very different reason for concern if you did have, you know, leadership of an organization that was being charged with a crime. I'm not aware of that happening or any plans for that to happen.

KHALID: Did you support any of the actions that took place at the Capitol in terms of the actual storming of the U.S. Capitol?

EASTMAN: No.

KHALID: I want to understand how you square the fact that the FBI has called the Oath Keepers a paramilitary organization and how you, at the same time, are an elected representative there in the state of Alaska. And do you feel that there is any contradiction in that?

EASTMAN: You know, I've never been asked to engage in any illegal activity or engage in violence, and my personal experience doesn't match the political narrative.

KHALID: And so do you think the FBI is incorrect?

EASTMAN: You know, I think a lot of the things that the FBI has made statements about recently have had some political aspects to them, which is unfortunate.

KHALID: The Oath Keepers swear to disobey certain orders that they say are unconstitutional, for example, like putting people in concentration camps. Anti-hate groups say that these oaths have spread rumors that the U.S. is about to impose some martial law. Did you take these oaths yourself? And what do you make of them?

EASTMAN: There is no oath to become an Oath Keeper other than, you know, taking the oath to the Constitution, which is written in law. But, you know, the Oath Keepers are unique in that they don't have any kind of loyalty pledge to the organization or anything like that, but they do have those and orders that they're not going to follow. And I think it's a very good thing, you know, starting with things like, you know, we're not going to engage in warrantless searches of American citizens in violation of the Fourth Amendment. That's absolutely where I stand.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOHN SONG, "SIGNAL")

KHALID: Representative David Eastman is a Republican state representative in Alaska and a member of the Oath Keepers, known as one of the largest anti-government extremist groups in the far-right patriot militia movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOHN SONG, "SIGNAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.