Members of the far-right Oath Keepers could face sedition charges over their alleged role in plotting the Capitol siege on January 6, according to a new report.
The rare charge is being weighed up by Justice Department officials after several members of the paramilitary group were arrested in the wake of the riot.
Officials at the department’s National Security Division are reviewing possible evidence of sedition by at least three suspects, according to the New York Times.
Jessica Marie Watkins (second left) and Donovan Ray Crowl (centre) have been identified by US authorities as suspected Oath Keepers rioters who attacked the Capitol on January 6, and are among those who could potentially face charges of sedition
Donovan Crowl, left, and Jessica Marie Watkins, right, were arrested on January 18 after allegedly communicating with each other in the lead-up to the Capitol riot
The three suspects said to be in the firing line are Thomas Caldwell, Jessica Marie Watkins and Donovan Ray Crowl, who were indicted on related charges in January.
All three were described as military veterans affiliated to the Oath Keepers, while Watkins and Crowl are said to be members of the Ohio State Regular Militia.
The Oath Keepers are known to recruit law enforcement and military operatives and are described by the Justice Department as a ‘paramilitary organization’.
Authorities say the three suspects communicated with each other before the January 6 riot and discussed joining forces with other chapters of the Oath Keepers.
Their discussions included ‘logistics’ and ‘lodging options’ as well as a ‘call to action’ to travel to Washington along with other ‘like-minded patriots’, it is alleged.
After Donald Trump egged his supporters on to march to the Capitol, the trio joined in the attack and boasted about their exploits on social media sites including right-wing favourite Parler, prosecutors say.
A criminal complaint accuses Caldwell of posting messages such as ‘We are surging forward. Doors breached’ as the rioters invaded the halls of Congress.
Watkins is said to have posted pictures of herself and Crowl at the Capitol before publishing a video in which she said ‘Yeah. We stormed the Capitol today’.
Crowl, 50, and Watkins, 38, were arrested on January 18, while Caldwell, 65, was arrested a day later.
They face charges of conspiracy, obstructing an official proceeding, destruction of government property, and unlawful entry on restricted building or grounds.
But all three deny that they plotted to attack the Capitol, with Caldwell ‘adamantly denying that he broke any laws’, according to his attorney David Fischer.
A judge earlier this month released Caldwell from custody pending his trial and said there was no evidence that he had actually entered the Capitol building.
Joe Biden’s attorney general Merrick Garland, pictured, may have the final say over the case but other Justice Department nominees are still awaiting confirmation by the Senate
Oath Keepers rioters were among the mob who invaded the halls of Congress on January 6 in chaotic scenes that left five people dead and stained the image of American democracy
Watkins, Crowl, and Caldwell are all affiliated with the anti-government extremist group Oath Keepers (above)
An attorney for Crowl told the NYT that they had seen ‘no evidence to support a seditious conspiracy charge against my client’.
Nonetheless, while building the case against the Oath Keepers, investigators are said to have raised the possibility of bringing a rare sedition charge.
Top officials are said to have received a file of potential evidence against the trio, although not yet a formal prosecution memo or the draft of an indictment.
Biden’s nominees for the Justice Department are still making their way through Senate confirmation hearings, potentially slowing down progress on the case.
Garland, who was confirmed as attorney general earlier this month, may have the final word on what would be one of the most high-profile cases linked to the riot.
The last successful prosecution in a sedition case was against a group of Islamic militants who were convicted in 1995 of plotting to blow up New York landmarks.
Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman and nine followers were found guilty of a plot to attack the UN headquarters, an FBI building, two tunnels and a bridge to New Jersey.
Sedition charges were also filed against militia group members in Detroit in 2010 but were dismissed by a federal judge two years later.
There was renewed interest in sedition charges last year when the Trump administration signalled it could use them against rioters in George Floyd protests.
And Michael Sherwin, the acting US attorney for the District of Columbia at the time of the Capitol riot, said at the time that ‘all options are on the table’.
The mob overran the Capitol Police shortly after Trump urged them to ‘fight’ on his behalf
The Justice Department has already filed cases against 400 suspects involved in the assault, which left five people dead and stained the image of American democracy.
But most have been charged with trespassing or assaulting officers, a smaller number with conspiracy to obstruct Congress, and none with sedition.
Sherwin told CBS on Sunday that federal investigators would likely have enough evidence to bring sedition charges.
‘I believe the facts do support those charges,’ said Sherwin. ‘I think that, as we go forward, more facts will support that.’
Several more Oath Keepers members have been arrested since the charges against Watkins, Caldwell and Crowl were announced in late January.
Some of the other suspects are said to have joined Watkins and Crowl in a ‘military-style “stack” formation that marched up the center steps’ on the side of the Capitol.
These are said to have included the self-described leader of the Florida chapter of the Oath Keepers, Kelly Meggs.
The Southern Poverty Law Center describes the Oath Keepers as ‘one of the largest radical antigovernment groups in the US today’.
It takes its name from its supposed loyalty to the oaths sworn by law enforcement and military personnel to protect the United States.
But the SPLC says that behind this claim, the group’s activities are ‘based on a set of baseless conspiracy theories about the federal government working to destroy the liberties of Americans’.