Oath Keepers: How a militia group mobilized in plain sight for the assault on the Capitol

The FBI calls the Oath Keepers an anti-government militia with current and former law enforcement and military members among its members. 60 Minutes profiles the group, which has become a central focus in the ongoing investigation of the January 6 attack on the Capitol.

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More than 400 people have now been charged in one of the most complex investigations the Department of Justice has ever faced – the January 6 attack on the Capitol. The FBI has called it 'an act of domestic terrorism' and one group has grabbed investigators' attention for their role – the oath keepers.

The FBI describes them as an anti-government militia movement. Among them, current and former military and law enforcement. Their name is a reference to the oath they took to defend the U.S. Constitution.

But unlike most other militia groups, we learned the oath keepers haven't been hiding. They've been armed and in plain sight -- broadcasting plans to mobilize.

If you were looking for a roadmap to January 6, all you had to do was listen.

Zello transmission from the Capitol on January 6: OK guys, we're on an open channel here now…

These are the voices of far-right extremists communicating with each other in real-time from homes across America and on the ground in Washington…

Zello transmission from the Capitol on January 6: Godspeed and fair winds to us.

As some of them made their way to the Capitol.

Jess Watkins on Zello, January 6: Trump's been trying to drain the swamp with a straw. We just brought a shop vac.

Zello transmission from the Capitol on January 6: Stop the steal!

They were talking on a phone and computer app called Zello. It's unencrypted, like a walkie-talkie, and has an international user base of around 150 million. It's popular with truckers, disaster relief groups, activists, and extremists.

Zello transmission from the Capitol on January 6: Be safe, be alert, and stay in groups.

Anyone can listen to Zello and Micah Loewinger did.    

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Micah Loewinger

Loewinger, a WNYC radio reporter, started working with the online extremist research group militia-watch to understand how militia groups liked to use Zello to recruit and communicate.

Micah Loewinger: Leading up to January 6th we uncovered examples of militias saying things like, revolution or bust. That they were using Zello to plan their travel to Washington D.C. That they were going to have separate channels for people gathering intel and separate channels for boots on the ground.

And they did. On January 6, Micah Loewinger found an open 'stop the steal' conversation going on among 100 people on Zello and started recording. 

Micah Loewinger: It wasn't until a couple days later that I started to realize how much planning must have gone into this event. And that's when I heard this mysterious woman narrating her march to the Capitol and eventually inside.

Jess Watkins on Zello, January 6: We have a good group. We've got about 30, 40 of us. We're sticking together and sticking to the plan.

That mysterious woman is Jessica Watkins, a 38-year-old Army veteran. She's the leader of a self-described Ohio militia group and member of the Oath Keepers.   

Jess Watkins on Zello, January 6: We're moving on the Capitol now, I'll give you a boots on the ground update here in a few.

Watkins is seen in video from the Capitol with goggles and nine other Oath Keepers in battle gear. They move in a 'stacked' military formation, methodically working through the crowd up the Capitol steps towards the doors just as the Capitol doors are breached.

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The riot on the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty

On Zello, others cheer her on...

Zello transmission from the Capitol on January 6: You are executing citizens' arrest!

…as she offers a play-by-play.

Jess Watkins on Zello, January 6: We are in the main dome right now. We are rocking it. They're throwing grenades. They're freaking shooting people with paint balls, but we're in here. 

Zello transmission from the Capitol on January 6: Get it Jess. Do your s**t. This is what we f***ing lived up for. Everything we f***ing trained for.

Oath Keeper Donovan Crowl cell phone video: Overran the capitol! 

Jess Watkins: We're in the f***ing Capitol bro! 

For weeks, extremist watchdogs like the Anti-Defamation League, national news outlets, and journalists like Micah Loewinger had been warning of possible violence on the 6th.

Micah Loewinger: If they had been paying attention to the whole network of far-right groups online that were extremely vocal and very public about what they wanted to happen, I don't believe we would have seen so many people break into the Capitol.

Jess Watkins on Zello, January 6: Police are doing nothing, they're not even trying to stop us at this point.

Members told us at least 40 Oath Keepers were at the January 6 rally with some seen providing security to Trump associate Roger Stone.

Thirteen people associated with the Oath Keepers have been charged with federal crimes, including Jess Watkins who has pled not guilty. 

The Zello recordings are helping prosecutors make their case.

Zello has since deleted 2,000 of these extremist channels.

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  Javed Ali

Javed Ali: That is just a small demonstration of capability that luckily didn't turn into a more lethal threat.

Javed Ali is a former NSC senior director and was a counterterrorism official at the FBI under the Trump administration.

Javed Ali: I think what makes the Oath Keepers unique and challenging, beyond the fact that they are a formal group with chapters all over the country, is that a large percentage have tactical training and operational experience in either the military or law enforcement. That at least gives them a capability that a lot of other people in this far right space don't have.

The story of "Oath Keepers" is very much the story of this man.

Stewart Rhodes in 2009: Hooah! Alright. I am Stewart Rhodes, I am the founder of the Oath Keepers. 

In 2009, in Lexington, Massachusetts, where the first shots were fired in the Revolutionary War, Stewart Rhodes founded the Oath Keepers in response to the election of Barack Obama.

Stewart Rhodes in 2009: There is no expiration date on that oath. It is for life.

Rhodes enlisted in the Army at 18 and was honorably discharged at 24. He went on to graduate from Yale Law School and became a constitutionalist, later warning America was on the brink of government tyranny.

In 2010, he told Bill O'Reilly that it was up to current and former members of the military and police – who took an oath to defend the constitution – to stop that tyranny.     

Bill O'Reilly: The Commander in Chief is the President by our Constitution. If he issues an order, are you telling people not to obey the order if they don't like it? 

Stewart Rhodes: If it's unconstitutional, yes.  

O'Reilly: So each soldier makes up his mind whether the order he's given is constitutional or not? 

Rhodes: It's a heavy burden to meet. But if you obey an unlawful order, you can also be in trouble. 

The group recruited thousands, opening up chapters across the country. They formed a board of directors and ten orders to live by, elevating themselves to 'guardians' of the republic and the Constitution, vowing to protect against mass gun confiscation and a Marxist invasion.

In 2014, they took their fight to the Nevada desert. Rhodes sent armed Oath Keepers to defend the rancher Cliven Bundy – who was in a 20-year battle with the federal government about public land use. 

And in 2015, months after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Oath Keepers arrived with AR-15 style weapons saying they were there to protect businesses. But in 2016, the Oath Keepers believed they finally had an ally in the White House.

When President Trump warned of an invasion of undocumented migrants, the Oath Keepers called on members to patrol the border.

And this fall when President Trump warned of election fraud, founder Stewart Rhodes appeared on "Infowars," conspiracist Alex Jones' talk show, setting the stage for what was to come on January 6.

Stewart Rhodes on "Infowars": We have men already stationed outside D.C. as a nuclear option in case they attempt to remove the president illegally. We will step in and stop it. It's either President Trump is encouraged and bolstered and strengthened to do what he must do, or we wind up in a bloody fight – we all know that. The fight's coming.

But for some Oath Keepers, the rhetoric was too much. Former board members told us Rhodes adopted a more violent, militia-style ideology and it was tearing apart the group. 

Chapters in Virginia and North Carolina broke ties with national well before the 6th, citing a departure from the original mission. Others distanced themselves after the insurrection, including the country's largest chapter in Arizona, where Jim Arroyo is vice president. While Arroyo doesn't think the election was legitimate, he doesn't think anyone should have stormed the Capitol.

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  Jim Arroyo

Jim Arroyo: I wanna congratulate Stewart Rhodes and his ten militia buddies for winning first place in the ultimate dumbass contest, 'cause that's what it was. That goes against everything we've ever taught, everything we believe in. It was pre-planned. It was pre-staged. Ten guys go and do something stupid and suddenly, we're the devil.

In September, some Arizona members showed up armed at a Black Lives Matter protest in Prescott.

Jim Arroyo told us law enforcement coordinated with him to help keep the peace. The local sheriff's department told us they didn't ask for their help.

Sharyn Alfonsi: The critics of your presence there say like these are just a bunch of guys who are wannabees. And they can't wait to get dressed up and play the role.

Jim Arroyo: Our guys are very experienced. We have active-duty law enforcement in our organization that are helping to train us. We can blend in with our law enforcement and in fact, in a lot of cases, our training is much more advanced because of our military backgrounds.

Jim Arroyo at chapter meeting: There's nothing I love more than my AR-15 and my chainsaw and I don't know which one I like more! (laughter)

Jim Arroyo invited us to a meeting to see for ourselves. The crowd, mostly retirees, meet twice a month to talk about how to survive disasters like forest fires, attacks on the power grid, and civil war.

Jim Arroyo at chapter meeting: So that's why we talk about civil unrest, civil war. It's not a joke. This can happen and we need to be ready for it.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Yesterday Jim said 'Do you think we're in a civil war?' And everybody nodded their heads and said yes.  

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  Cathy York, Gary Harworth, and Mike Rice

Cathy York, Gary Harworth, and Mike Rice are members.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Do you all think that we are in the middle of a civil war?

Cathy York: I think that we are. You've got good versus evil right now going on in our country. 

Sharyn Alfonsi: Who do you view as evil?

Cathy York: Anybody that doesn't support our Constitution and follow it, they're trying to change it.

Gary Harworth: This country is divided right down the middle. And you're on one side or the other.  People have to realize that when things go crazy, things get a little chaos-y around you, you have to be able to take care of yourself, defend yourself, protect your family, those you love, that's part of the Constitution.

Sharyn Alfonsi: So on January 6th, when you see, these people wearing that same emblem storm into the Capitol, what was your reaction?

Cathy York: Some of those people with Oath Keepers could have been BLM. They could have been--

Mike Rice: It could have been a false flag as far as I'm concerned. 

Sharyn Alfonsi: You don't think they were Oath Keepers?

Gary Harworth: Well, we don't know. 

Cathy York: It coulda been. We don't know. 

Mike Rice: We don't know.

Gary Harworth: We weren't there.

Cathy York: They're stupid people. It's stupid. We don't do that. That's not Oath Keepers.

Mike Rice: How are you gonna take an oath to defend the Constitution and then try to disturb a session of Congress during what's supposed to be one of our most precious political things, you know, the transfer of power? How are you gonna do that?

Jim Arroyo: I haven't had contact with Stewart Rhodes. He refuses to talk to us.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Why is that? You're the biggest Oath Keepers group, why wouldn't you be talking to him.

Jim Arroyo: We have made multiple attempts through national. My honest opinion is if there's any honor left in this organization at the upper levels, they will deal with it.

Photos and phone records place Stewart Rhodes on the Capitol steps on January 6, communicating with Oath Keepers before they breached the doors. But no charges have been brought against him. 

Rhodes declined to speak with 60 Minutes to tell his side of the story. He did appear again last month, on "Infowars," this time from his car, saying he didn't order Oath Keepers to enter the Capitol, but defended the members who are now in jail and criticized those who put them there.

One Oath Keeper has pled guilty and agreed to cooperate in the ongoing investigation as new evidence suggests members stashed weapons at a nearby hotel as part of a 'quick-reaction force' – evidence a federal judge says is among the most troubling he has seen. Sources tell us prosecutors are looking to build a case against Stewart Rhodes and possible separate charges against the national organization.

Produced by Ashley Velie. Associate porducer, Dina Zingaro. Broadcast associate, Elizabeth Germino. Edited by Peter M. Berman.