The Unidentified and Uncharged Instigator in the Oath Keepers Case

The long-awaited trial of the most high-profile January 6 case will begin later this month. Five members of the Oath Keepers, an alleged “militia” group involved in the Capitol protest, face charges of seditious conspiracy and other serious felonies. It is the first trial in a multi-defendant prosecution that has dominated the attention of the Department of Justice, the January 6 select committee, and the national news media.

Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the group, along with Thomas Caldwell, Kelly Meggs, Kenneth Harrelson, and Jessica Watkins will face a highly biased D.C. jury pool—the government so far has an undefeated record in January 6 trials composed of Washington, D.C. residents—as they attempt to avoid life in prison for the seditious conspiracy count. (Meggs, Harrelson, and Watkins have been detained in the D.C. gulag denied bail since spring 2021.)

At least a dozen other members of the Oath Keepers currently await trial for their nonviolent participation in the events of January 6. But one person won’t face trial. In fact, it appears this chief instigator isn’t even charged despite a trove of evidence showing how he incited at least one member of the group to engage in criminal behavior that day.

Someone identified only as “1%Watchdog” started a group chat on an encrypted application called Zello, which mimics a walkie-talkie. The channel, named “Stop the Steal J6,” was created on January 1, 2021; by noon on January 6, 2021, the channel had about 170 subscribers including Watkins, prosecutors allege.

According to a new motion filed by the government, “1%Watchdog” initially set the conversation on “Zelect,” a private setting where only the administrator determines who can speak and who can listen. The administrator of the “Stop the Steal J6” channel was “1%Watchdog.”

But at 1:48 p.m. on January 6, shortly before the first physical breach of the Capitol, “1%Watchdog” suddenly switched the setting to open—and that’s when a reporter just happened to access the nearly two-hour conversation as some members of the Oath Keepers discussed plans to enter the building, which they did around 2:40 p.m. But it wasn’t some random journalist who luckily discovered the crime-in-progress. It was Micah Loewinger, a reporter covering “internet culture, politics, and the far-right” for a New York City public radio station, tuned in just as the action unfolded. And he recorded the whole thing.

Prosecutors want to use Loewinger’s recording as evidence against Watkins and her co-defendants, since Zello does not archive audio content. (Lawyers for the defense object to presenting the conversation to the jury.) But far from proving Watkins’ guilt, or even confirming her identity in the chat, the conversation shows how “1%Watchdog” acted as the group’s leader, giving blow-by-blow accounts of what Congress was doing and encouraging listeners to invade the building.

“It looks like [Vice President Mike] Pence is doing his traitorous bullshit—and it looks to me, at this point, that that’s a felony high-crime and treason in progress,” said “1%Watchdog” right after he made the chat public. “Bitch McConnell has rebuked those who are challenging the Electoral College votes that constitute the fucking communist revolution election steal of 2020 by these treasonous fucking bastards.”

A few minutes later, “1%Watchdog” advised the group that police can’t stop them from going inside. “This is the civilian exercise of civilian power to alter and abolish this fucking tyrannical, treasonous government.”

At one point, “1%Watchdog” suggested executing a “citizen’s arrest” against lawmakers for “treason, acts of treason, [and] election fraud.” As Watkins and other Oath Keepers made their way through the crowd on the east side of the Capitol, “1%Watchdog” urged the group to advance amid reports that members of Antifa initiated the violence. “This shit needs to go down,” he said at 2:31 p.m.

In one of his most inflammatory comments, “1%Watchdog” warned the group, which was unarmed, to remain nonviolent unless provoked. “Don’t kill anyone unless you’re being attacked and your life is in danger, then self-defense,” he said at 2:34 p.m. “Fucking take care of business.” It’s clear he is referring to police and members of Congress.

About 10 minutes later, the user name that the government attributes to Watkins communicated to the group from inside the Capitol Rotunda. “We are rocking it,” she said.

Chatter continues among several anonymous users for the next hour or so—breaking news reports can also be heard at certain points—but “1%Watchdog” does most of the talking. He addressed the police shooting of Ashli Babbitt and warned her death should not be in vain. “We gotta stop the steal, guys.”

He remained on the channel until ending the conversation by imploring participants to pick a side. “We’re at fucking war.”

So, who is “1%Watchdog?” Despite the most intrusive surveillance and investigative tools known to mankind, prosecutors still claim they don’t know his name or the names of two other anonymous participants. In a letter to defense attorneys last month, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler informed counsel the government “is not able to confirm these individuals’ true identities for you.” 

Further, Nestler disclosed in his own motion that prosecutors do “not intend to argue that user 1%Watchdog is a named defendant.”

This should raise serious questions as to the role of “1%Watchdog” and whether he worked in some capacity on behalf of the government. Skepticism is well warranted. To understand why, look no further than the FBI-concocted plan to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer in 2020. The main FBI informant created at least two encrypted group chats, invited his unsuspecting targets to participate, and gave FBI agents full, real-time access to the conversations. 

And what about the journalist who recorded the “1%Watchdog” channel’s communications that day and published a bombshell article on it a week after the Capitol protest? Loewinger also wrote an article on October 16, 2020 claiming the Zello app is a recruiting tool for the “far-Right.” Loewinger’s story was published one week after several men were arrested for conspiring to kidnap Whitmer; the article, ironically, features a photo of four men clad in military gear standing outside the Michigan Capitol building in Lansing in April 2020. 

(Loewinger did not respond to a direct message on Twitter asking if he knew the identity of “1%Watchdog” or how he knew the channel went public that afternoon.)

While the government shows no interest in discovering the identity of “1%Watchdog,” the judge handling the trial indicated he would like more information. “I would feel much better about this if the government could demonstrate that this was someone [Watkins] knew or someone she was taking direction from,” U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta told prosecutors during a hearing on Wednesday. “I’m not sure he’s anything more than a guy spouting off on a Zello chat.”

Now, it would be easy for Mehta, an Obama appointee, to force the government’s hand. Prosecutors want to convince the jury that Watkins took direction from “1%Watchdog” to “storm” the Capitol in committing the crime of seditious conspiracy. Further, he started the conversation five days earlier, a chat central to the Justice Department’s seditious conspiracy accusations.

So how can his identity remain concealed to the court, the jury, and more importantly, to the defendants?

With the reputation of the Justice Department and the FBI in shreds, it is reasonable at this point to suspect that any unidentified participant, especially an agitator on record encouraging criminal conduct yet has not been charged, is a federal asset. “1%Watchdog” joins a long list of characters—from Ray Epps to individuals in neon-orange hats marching with the Proud Boys—who face no consequences without explanation. So FBI agents can hunt down and arrest selfie-taking grandmas but not a man giving marching orders to a key “militia” group attempting to “overthrow democracy” on January 6?

Even a judge as biased as Amit Mehta shouldn’t buy that excuse.

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