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How sedition charges against the Oath Keepers will shape the Capitol investigation

Members of the Oath Keepers on the East Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
Members of the Oath Keepers on the East Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Seditious conspiracy. The Justice Department has levied the charge on 11 people associated with the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.

But what is seditious conspiracy, and why is the charge so rare?

Today, On Point: We’ll discuss the Oath Keepers, sedition and the Capitol attack.

We’ll also hear from the citizen sleuths who helped the FBI and DOJ identify and build a case against the Oath Keepers.

Guests

Ryan Reilly, reporter with HuffPost who will be joining NBC News next month. (@ryanjreilly)

Jenny Carroll, professor of law at the University of Alabama School of Law. Director of the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law and visiting professor of law at Yale Law School.

Rachel Carroll Rivas, senior research analyst leading the Anti-Government Research Team and the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. (@RCR4better2mrow)

Also Featured

John Scott-Railton, a ‘sedition hunter’ and senior researcher at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto. (@jsrailton)

Mary, a ‘sedition hunter.’

Michael Sherwin, former acting U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia from 2020 to 2021.

Transcript: The Sedition Hunters

Much of what happened on Jan. 6 was freely and openly documented by the very people who stormed the Capitol.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: That gave rise, almost immediately, to a group of folks on the internet who call themselves the sedition hunters. And they’re citizens who crawled the internet to look for evidence, and they help the FBI and DOJ identify the alleged conspirators. So we spoke to John Scott-Railton, senior researcher at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, where he investigates malware, phishing and disinformation. And even though he lives in Toronto, he is an American citizen. And he told us that on Jan. 6, he watched what happened at the Capitol.

JOHN SCOTT-RAILTON: There was one picture that really caught my attention. He was leaping over some seats in a divider in the Senate visitor’s gallery. And he was … wearing black clothing and his face masked up, had a hat and had this clutch of temporary restraints in his hand, with zip ties. And I just saw, Oh God, what is going on here?

CHAKRABARTI: So he needed to figure out: Who is this guy?

SCOTT-RAILTON: So for me, it began with a tweet where I shared a tweet of this guy. And then using Twitter, [I] started showing the process that I was going through to try to understand who he was. Well, he’s got a hat. What’s on that hat? He’s got something on his belt. What’s he got on his belt? What’s that logo? It’s Black Rifle Coffee Company. Well, that’s interesting. That says something.

What was he doing before he got into the Capitol? Was he with anyone? Well, sure he was. Turns out he was walking with a woman, became clear it was his mother. And so it was very much a process of looking for it at the time, needles in a haystack of needles, a crowd that nobody really understood. But that was massively captured in video and in picture by a lot of the participants. And so a lot of the work involved working from those images and that footage to try to understand what he’d been doing, and who these people were.

CHAKRABARTI: So then John Scott-Railton bought a picture of the man from what he calls a photo clearinghouse.

SCOTT-RAILTON: Just put up a couple of hundred dollars to buy the one time rights to that picture so that I could tweet it one time and share it with people. And have his face. And also the woman who he was with, and then find footage of him with her. And at one point, I think he refers to her as mom as he’s walking there. And then walking back even further, there were people who thought that they had spotted him at a hotel. And then it turned out that journalist at Bloomberg, William Turton, had filmed some footage from the lobby of a particular hotel in D.C., and that footage caught the guy who was in a brief encounter. And all of these pieces came together, ultimately to an identification that was fundamentally crowdsourced.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, when he says crowdsourced John Scott-Railton means the fact that citizen sleuths scoured all that footage that he just talked about. They found the photo of the man earlier in the day on Jan. 6, standing next to a woman in a plaid shirt. His mother, as you heard. Then that led them to images at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington, with the man’s face uncovered. And that allowed the sleuths to crawl the internet and social media to find posts which ultimately identified the man as Eric Munchel of Nashville, Tennessee. Munchel currently faces multiple charges, including conspiracy to commit obstruction.

SCOTT-RAILTON: What was remarkable about the volunteer efforts that grew up is that they included people from around the U.S., and across the globe,  all working for the same thing. And so to me, it wasn’t just a conversation about a domestic issue. It was a conversation about what can we all do to try to stop this growing anti-democratic tide around the world?

MARY: The FBI had a huge, huge problem. And it would have taken them a decade if we didn’t put all the evidence, all the footage on a silver platter for them. We’re talking about, yeah, right now it’s not that big anymore, but specifically in the beginning, we’re talking about hundreds of people who are diving through thousands and thousands of hours of footage. The FBI doesn’t have that manpower.

CHAKRABARTI: This is Mary. She lives in the Netherlands, and we are not using her last name because she fears for her safety and for her family’s safety. Mary is Black, a grandmother and active in the Black Lives Matter movement. She works as a citizen sleuth, and that work has put her in danger. Because for the last year, she spent her free time gathering information about January 6th. She provided information to investigative reporters like Ronan Farrow, and Mary says even though she hasn’t given tips directly to the FBI, she knows the FBI has used her work. For example, she’s seen photos she’s surfaced later turn up in court.

Now, Mary helped identify former Oath Keeper Jessica Watkins, a trans woman who served in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2003. On January 6th, Watkins came to the Capitol in full tactical gear. And there’s video of her celebrating inside as fellow Oath Keeper Donovan Crowl yells, We’ve took over the Capitol. We overran the Capitol.

Last year, Watkins’ attorney filed a motion for pretrial release, claiming that she was not violent on Jan. 6th. She claimed her role was as quote, ‘a medic.’ But over in the Netherlands, Mary found footage on the internet, showing Jessica Watkins doing much more than medical support.

MARY: And then I found a video of a group of Oath Keepers, because they split up when they were inside the Capitol. And this group was pushing against the police line in the corridor leading up to the old Senate chambers. And I saw Jessica, and I heard her voice. Because it’s also important, right, that you know how they sound if it’s possible. So I heard shouting like, Let’s get it in here, and they can’t hold us. They can’t stop this, push, push, push, push. She is literally instigating an entire mob and you see her pushing, and she even grunts. And I was like, Oh my god.

CHAKRABARTI: Mary sent that footage to New York Times reporter Christiaan Triebert, who then tweeted it out in a thread.

MARY: Two days later, the hearing was there. We see the court documents and they literally linked to the threats, and they said, Jessica Watkins is not going to be released. And she is still in jail.

CHAKRABARTI: Mary tells us she started paying close attention to the far right after the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Now, while she’s not an American citizen, Mary says she still cares very deeply, especially as a Black woman.

MARY: For me personally, that had more impact. Because you’re literally looking at Nazis marching in the streets in America, right? Yeah, the connection is there. Definitely with Jan. 6th, because we see the Confederate flag inside the Capitol building. And specifically that moment had like the same impact for me, right? Like this is what white supremacy does. This is the face of institutionalized racism, the normalization of four years of the Trump administration.

CHAKRABARTI: John Scott-Railton has also been tracking far-right groups for years. And he says January 6th made efforts of citizen sleuths more urgent than ever.

SCOTT-RAILTON: January 6th happened and I felt such powerlessness. What could I do but feel anger, and frustration and fear and concern and worry and a million other things all at once? And then I did what I usually do when I feel really disempowered, which is I said, well, maybe I can investigate a little bit, maybe I can figure out something, maybe I can come to understand better.

CHAKRABARTI: Now I want to be clear about something. I’ve been using the phrase citizen sleuths. And that is a distinctly positive name. You could also call them a Twitter mob because there’s always the risk of misidentification, either accidental or willful. So we asked John, what steps did he take to prevent that from happening?

SCOTT-RAILTON: And so one thing I did consistently was to say, remember, don’t name people unless they’ve already been reported. And don’t circulate names or speculations about names publicly, because there is such a risk. And I think what’s interesting is how quickly the rest of the community also came to a similar conclusion.

CHAKRABARTI: Specifically, John told us he would not publicly name people, but instead give information first to journalists or federal investigators to validate that information. And then he would only tweet out the name after the person had been arrested or indicted or identified in the media. However, not everyone in the citizen sleuth community was as cautious.

For example, Eric Munchel was identified and named online on January 8th, well before his arrest. But John Scott-Railton says doing this work, and doing it with tens of thousands of other people around the world, gives him hope.

SCOTT-RAILTON: One of the challenges with January 6th was things were happening really fast, and there was so much that we didn’t know. But it felt like a time when it was so important to act. And I just remember a quote from Mr. Rogers, and he’s talking to his audience of kids, and I think he’s speaking. I don’t remember the details. He’s speaking to kids when they see something upsetting or troubling. And he says, Look for the helpers. There will always be helpers. And I kept feeling that in the days after January 6th, when everything felt so unclear look for the helpers and there they were. And that gave me, and I think a lot of other people, hope. That not only were we not completely powerless in the face of an awful historic event, but that there was something that we could do together that might be really impactful.

From The Reading List

HuffPost: “Stewart Rhodes, Oath Keepers Indicted For Seditious Conspiracy In Jan. 6 Attack” — “Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the right-wing group the Oath Keepers, was arrested by the FBI on Thursday in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack. Along with 10 others, Rhodes was indicted on charges of seditious conspiracy ― the first time that charge has been brought forward in connection with the Jan. 6 attack.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.