A lawyer for a member of the Oath Keepers militia indicted for rioting at the Capitol freaked out a lot of people when he claimed his client had been a “section chief” in the FBI. But it turns out that claim was probably false—and the rest of his resume may not be quite as impressive as it sounds.
Thomas E. Caldwell, 66, is facing serious conspiracy charges for his alleged role in the deadly Capitol siege. His lawyer, Thomas Plofchan, filed a memo on Monday that rattled off Caldwell’s national security bona fides in an attempt to show he isn’t a flight risk and should be released from prison.
According to Plofchan, Caldwell is a decorated Navy veteran who has held “Top Secret” security clearance since 1979 and served in a senior position in the FBI.
But one of his lawyer’s claims about his national security background appears to be an obvious falsehood—while some of the others may be more weird flexes than actual evidence he had access to top-level classified information.
On Thursday, the government rejected Caldwell’s motion for release. They confirmed that he had a military background and had served “in law enforcement” but did not clear up lingering questions surrounding his claims of continued access to sensitive information. And national security experts told VICE News that some items on his record don’t add up.
Caldwell’s lawyer claims his client was an FBI “section chief” from 2009 to 2010, in the “GS-12” pay scale category.
The FBI uses a pay-scale system for its employees called the general schedule table, commonly referred to as “GS.” An FBI section chief is a senior position that’s higher than any of the GS classifications — it’s on the Senior Executive Service (SES) scale. There’s no way someone at the GS-12 pay scale who’d worked for the FBI for less than a year could be a section chief. (In 2009, the base salary for a GS-12 was $59,383. Minimum salaries for SES positions were $117, 787.)
“That is not possible. A section chief is an SES level which goes beyond a 15. That is wrong. Incorrect,” said Tim Gallagher, a managing director at Kroll Associates and a real former FBI section chief.
“Obviously he’s trying to trade up on the credibility of the FBI name to attain release of his client. He was employed by the FBI for a very short time in a position that would not have had management or leadership responsibility,” Gallagher told VICE News. “I’ve been a section chief, I know what it takes to be a section chief, and a GS-12 is a mid-journeyman position.”
Caldwell’s lawyer says his client has held a “Top Secret” security clearance since 1979. Pentagon employees typically receive one of three clearance levels that require different levels of vetting: “Confidential” (which is the lowest), “Secret,” and “Top Secret.” Top secret clearance requires a background check, but is relatively common for government employees. More senior government workers who need more access to confidential information get “Top Secret—Secret Compartmentalized Information,” or TS-SCI, clearance to get read in on specific topics on a need-to-know basis.
One government employee familiar with the classification system told VICE news that “lots of people have top secret clearances,” and that it was “extremely common” for government employees and contractors to get it. That doesn’t mean that it’s not concerning that a militiaman would have that clearance level, but even with it, his access to classified information would be limited.
Caldwell’s attorney’s claims were especially alarming given Caldwell’s alleged actions on Jan. 6. Prosecutors say Caldwell and two accused co-conspirators plotted to “forcibly storm the Capitol.” At one point during the siege, Caldwell received a Facebook message informing him that lawmakers were hiding in tunnels under the Capitol, prosecutors say.
“Seal them in,” the message apparently read. “Turn on gas.”
It’s not unusual for militia members to fudge their military or national security credentials for clout. Anti-government, far-right militias like the Oath Keepers have made no secret of the fact that they are particularly interested in recruiting individuals who can bring military skills or national security expertise to the table. (Plofchan denies that Caldwell is a member of the Oath Keepers. Prosecutors say that Caldwell holds a leadership role within the far-right militia, known as “Commander Tom” in those circles.)
It makes sense that Caldwell held Top Secret security clearance at least at one point in his career. The Navy told VICE News that he was commissioned as a “Reserve Intelligence Officer” in 1976, a position that requires applicants to be eligible for a Top Secret clearance.
But what isn’t clear is how he was able to maintain that clearance, as he claims, long after he retired from the Navy in 1995 as a Lieutenant Commander.
Security clearances don’t last forever. They’re subject to regular reviews, depending on the level of access.
“For Top Secret, the review is every five years,” Bradley Moss, a national security lawyer, explained about security clearances. “So if he was in the Navy from 1975 to 1995, he likely underwent reinvestigations with the Navy on at least three occasions. And since he maintained the access, presumably that meant he was favorably adjudicated for access by the Navy.”
Plofchan wrote that Caldwell, after his retirement from the Navy, “formed and operated a consulting firm performing work, often classified” for agencies including the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Coast Guard, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the U.S. Army Personnel Command. Public records indicate that the only business associated with Caldwell is Progressive Technologies Management, a Virginia-based company that landed five contracts with government agencies between 2004 and 2007.
An archived version of the company’s website from 2007 describes itself as a “Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business (SDVOSB) providing data and information solutions” and describes projects that were in development, including a “financial management system” for U.S. Attorneys, and an “evidence management” system for the DEA.
VICE News could find no evidence that Caldwell was actually a government contractor at any point in the past decade.
If Caldwell joined the FBI in 2009, as he claims, the Bureau would have been responsible for reinvestigating his eligibility for a security clearance. The FBI declined to comment on whether he’d ever worked for then in any capacity. If he did work for the FBI, it’s unclear why he only remained in the job for one year. FBI employees must complete a probationary period, which at the time was one year long for most new hires, before getting more permanent status as GS employees.
In 2009, Caldwell would have been around 54 years old—17 years past the cutoff age for new FBI applicants. The FBI does, however, give special consideration to veterans, especially those with military-related disabilities (Plofchan says Caldwell has a service-related disability to his right shoulder, and underwent a failed spinal surgery in 2010).
It isn’t unusual for defense lawyers to play up this kind of information when their clients are accused of running afoul of the law.
“The defense is essentially stating that the defendant has been deemed trustworthy by the U.S. Government in the past and therefore can similarly be trusted to appear for trial,” said Moss. “It’s effectively icing on the cake: if the person’s actions otherwise do not suggest bail is warranted, all of the previous clearances in the world won’t save him.”