Oath Keepers aim to curb federal power
Sean Sperry/Chronicle Elias Alias talks about the Oath Keepers movement with a reporter recently.

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With a bushy red beard, impish grin and sandals, Elias Alias doesn't look like a rightwing extremist.

"I am interested in personal freedom," he said.

Alias is working to make Montana the first state in the nation to create Oath Keepers chapters in every county. Oath Keepers, after forming last spring, is comprised mostly of military and law enforcement personnel aiming to resist what it sees as a federal government overstepping constitutional boundaries.

"It's time for the people to take the government back," said the 62-year-old Alias, who, until the name change, was Franklin Shook.

Since former U.S. Army paratrooper and Yale Law School grad Stewart Rhodes founded the national organization months ago, state groups have rapidly sprung up, with highway patrolmen, military, county sheriffs, police officers and, according to the group, U.S. Department of Homeland Security employees signing on to stand against overreaching federal authority.

"I'm getting calls from all over this country from concerned people," said Alias, who lives in Willow Creek and is the editor of a new publication, the Gallatin County Patriot. "The alarm is out there."

While in office, President George W. Bush used the war on terror to make Americans afraid, Alias said. The goal was to expand executive power under the guise of national security concerns, he said. Under that leadership, the Patriot Act and other maneuvers skirting established legal protections eroded constitutional mandates. Those actions expanded federal authority over the states and increased surveillance of American citizens, Alias said.

"Fear should not be a part of our daily lives," he said.

And now, President Barack Obama isn't reversing those executive maneuvers, Rhodes said.

Before forming Oath Keepers, Rhodes - a former firearms instructor and Libertarian who served on Texas Republican Rep. Ron Paul's staff - had been warning folks for years about the dangers he sees in America's increasingly centralized power structure.

But during the past several months, as a new administration stepped up, Rhodes' message has started to resonate with a larger segment of Americans, he said.

"They're kind of freaking out," Rhodes said of the conservative flock.

Meanwhile, Alias, a Vietnam vet who speaks with a drawl befitting someone who spent most of his life in Tennessee, has also grown increasingly alarmed. He's scared his grandchildren won't have the freedoms he grew up with, he said.

So, he's working to revive the concept of liberty in the American people.

"That shouldn't be a threat to anyone," he said.

But, it is.

Buzz is growing across the country as "patriot groups," sprout up, some say mirroring a 1990s movement culminating in the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people. Fueled by frustration born of the ailing economy, federal bailouts and, according to the Department of Homeland Security, inauguration of the first black president, radical groups are taking advantage of the current political climate to recruit.

"We think there is cause for concern," said Travis McAdam, executive director of the Montana Human Rights Network.

And the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks "extremist" activity throughout the country, in a report this month points to the Oath Keepers as a "particularly worrisome example of the Patriot Revival." The SPLC further reports that it's likely only a matter of time before some segment of the Patriot Revival becomes violent.

The Department of Homeland Security considers groups that reject federal authority in favor of local authority "rightwing extremists," according to an April 7 "threat analysis" released by the agency.

And that doesn't sit well with Alias.

"To call Americans with political concerns, 'terrorists,' is unacceptable," he said.

Those who have sworn to uphold the Constitution are obligated to protect the country's founding principles, regardless of what authority says, he maintained.

"I will honor the U.S. federal government as long as it operates within its constitutional bounds," Alias said.

It's no surprise some are dubbing Oath Keepers dangerous, Rhodes said. Demonizing political opponents is an easy way to stem dissent.

"Every oppressive government throughout history has labeled people as enemies of the state," he said.

The group maintains it is nonviolent. But its Web site offers repeated references to the American Revolution and broaches the possibility of a second such event.

"If you, the American people, are forced to once again fight for your liberty in another American Revolution, you will not be alone. We will stand with you," the Oath Keepers Web site states.

And with a message like that, some may grab hold and go too far, McAdam said.

That's apparently what happened with Daniel Knight Hayden, who, after publicizing Oath Keepers material on MySpace and Twitter social-networking sites under the name Citizen Quasar, was arrested in April after posting online that he was "locked and loaded" on the way to a tax-day protest at the Oklahoma State Capitol.

Hayden is not an Oath Keeper, Rhodes said. And targeting his group because one unstable person latched on is unfair. There is always potential for disenfranchised individuals to use political messages as an excuse to sound off, he said.

"Is that what they want, that we should just shut up shop because some nut might take it too far?" Rhodes asked.

Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. had the right idea, Alias said. He aims to educate people about how to protect the U.S. Constitution and their rights. Racism, violence and demonizing political opponents have no place within Oath Keepers, he said.

"People on both sides of the isle are good people," he said. "They believe what they're saying, what they're doing, just like I do."

But if active-duty Oath Keepers are given an order they deem unconstitutional, they will stand down, Rhodes said, pointing to government orders that should have been disobeyed, like the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

"It's the people of this country who are responsible for keeping the government in check," Rhodes said.

Jessica Mayrer can be reached at jmayrer@dailychronicle.com or 582-2635.

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