A leader of the Patriot movement said federal appeals court judge Jay Bybee once rejected him for a clerkship.
Stewart Rhodes, president of Oath Keepers, which critics have called part of a newly resurgent militia movement, told Main Justice he considered former Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel chief Bybee’s memos authorizing harsh interrogation techniques to be “dangerous.”
“I disagree with him very strongly about some of the doctrines of detention and some of the things he wrote justifying torture, but in particular the stuff that he wrote and John Yoo wrote justifying applications of the laws of war even on American citizens. I find that very dangerous,” Rhodes said in an interview at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week.
The Yale Law School graduate suggested his views worked against him in his 2003 interview with Bybee, who sits on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. “Of course I didn’t get the clerkship, but I didn’t want it anyway,” Rhodes said.
The CPAC conference last week laid bare divisions between mainstream conservatives and what might be called the “Tea Party” conservatives, the libertarian-leaning movement against big government, public deficits and the perceived erosion of civil liberties.
To the left, Bybee has become a symbol of a right-wing ideologue willing to craft legal arguments to justify torture.
Rhodes isn’t far from that view. His group falls within the “Patriot” wing of the Tea Party movement, which emphasizes Second Amendment gun rights and the U.S. Constitution, and often takes positions so far to the right that they loop back around to the left.
A spokeswoman for Bybee’s office declined to comment on Rhodes or whether he applied for a clerkship, saying the office did not comment on personnel matters.
Oath Keepers describes itself as a non-partisan organization comprised of currently serving and retired military, Reserves, National Guard, peace officers and fire fighters who “will not to obey unconstitutional (and thus unlawful) and immoral orders, such as orders to disarm the American people or to place them under martial law.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization that tracks extremist organizations, described Oath Keepers as “a particularly worrisome example of the Patriot revival” in a 2009 report. Rhodes disputed the SPLC report and emphasized the orders that members of group will not obey are already part of the oath they take to uphold the Constitution.
Rhodes denied Oath Keepers is a militia. “We not a militia – we don’t train, and we’re not out in the woods or any of that stuff,” said Rhodes.
In the 1990s, the Patriot and militia movements were energized by incidents at Ruby Ridge, Idaho and Waco, Texas, that to them symbolized an oppressive federal government. In Ruby Ridge, federal agents shot at the family of Randy Weaver, who had white supremacist ties and was suspected of having a weapons cache. In Waco, agents stormed the compound of a religious sect called the Branch Davidians, leaving dozens dead.
Yet the Oath Keepers’ creed is similar to that of militia members. Among the orders Oath Keepers will not obey: “any order to blockade American cities, thus turning them into giant concentration camps” and “any order to force American citizens into any form of detention camps under any pretext.”
Before consenting to an interview, Rhodes pulled up the Main Justice Web site on his Blackberry and assessed it for political bias, saying he has been “burned” by reporters before. After agreeing to be interviewed, he asked an assistant to record the exchange, saying he did not want to be misquoted.
A former Army paratrooper, Rhodes said he worked for a year as a volunteer on the 2008 presidential campaign of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), an Iraq war critic who garnered a near fanatical following and surprised pundits with the strength of his fundraising. (Paul also won a straw poll of activists at CPAC last week for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.)
The 44-year-old Rhodes is a constitutional lawyer. He started Oath Keepers last spring. According to the magazine Mother Jones, Rhodes’ 2004 Yale Law School paper, “Solving the Puzzle of Enemy Combatant Status,” won the award for best paper on the Bill of Rights. He is now working on a book tentatively titled “We the Enemy: How Applying the Laws of War to the American People in the War on Terror Threatens to Destroy Our Constitutional Republic.”
Several federal law enforcement agents, including employees of the Department of Homeland Security, are members of the Oath Keepers, Rhodes told Main Justice. He said he was not sure whether any FBI agents were members of the organization and said he suspected the organization is under surveillance.
Rhodes dismisses the criticism of his organization as right wing. “I don’t care if it’s a person on the political left or a person on the political right, so called Democrats and Republicans left and right, I don’t care who they are, if they violate the constitution, I’m going to opposed it, and I always have. So I don’t understand, a lot of liberals nowadays say ‘Where were you guys during Bush?’ and I say well, I was over here writing about all these things,” citing his blog.