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California sheriff defends his past membership in the extremist Oath Keepers militia

Updated October 6, 2021 at 4:13 PM ET

The sheriff of California's Riverside County, outside Los Angeles, has acknowledged that he once briefly belonged to the extremist Oath Keepers militia in 2014 after emails from the group were leaked online.In an interview, Sheriff Chad Bianco sought to minimize his past affiliation with the organization, while also insisting that the aims of the Oath Keepers — which has emerged as one of the largest groups in the far-right patriot militia movement — have been misunderstood. In August, 17 Oath Keepers members were indicted in connection with the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. "I found an email from 2014 where I joined for a year," Bianco toldthe Southern California News Group, an affiliation of regional newspapers. "I don't even remember it. It was an email saying, 'Thank you for joining.' I paid for a year's membership."Bianco, who said he is "not ashamed" of his one-time membership in the group, also denounced the January storming of the U.S. Capitol, which followed then-President Donald Trump's repeated assertions without evidence that his loss in the November election to Joe Biden was the result of vote fraud."I have been vocally against what happened there. What they did — the few that went into the building — was completely wrong and against the law and they should be held accountable for it," Bianco said.He insisted that the Oath Keepers, which the Southern Poverty Law Center says has "trained for a revolution against the state," are in fact not anti-government, but simply pro-Constitution and pro-freedom. Bianco, who was elected in 2018, said that the FBI and mainstream media have misconstrued the group's aims. He also suggested that leftist groups aren't as closely scrutinized by law enforcement and the media when they commit acts of violence or vandalism. "Why was this not done with antifa and Black Lives Matter?" he said. "I lost faith in the FBI a long time ago," he added. "The line workers are first rate. Their administration has no business carrying a badge. They strayed from non-biased law enforcement a long time ago."Bianco's remarks follow the online outing of some of the Oath Keepers emails by Distributed Denial of Secrets, or DDoSecrets, a Wikileaks-like group that refers to itself as "a transparency collective." Attention to the leak was drawn by a tweet from J.J. MacNab, a fellow at George Washington University's Program on Extremism.As NPR's Ryan Lucas reported in April, the Oath Keepers — believed to have started in 2009 — have long sought to recruit military and law enforcement officials.A George Washington University report on the Jan. 6 insurrection quoted from a lengthy post published on the Oath Keepers website in the days ahead of the riot. It exhorted its members to show up in Washington, D.C., to "stand tall in support of President Trump's fight to defeat the enemies foreign and domestic who are attempting a coup, through the massive vote fraud and related attacks on our Republic." Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.