Oregon arrests reveal promise, and pitfalls, of FBI's handling of extremists
While the Malheur operation showed in part how law enforcement has learned lessons from past tragedies, there are concerns about whether the death of one of the extremists Tuesday might have more lasting ramifications.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation said it wanted a “peaceful resolution” to a takeover of a federal wildlife refuge by antigovernment extremists near Burns, Ore.
With tensions high after 26 days of armed occupation, the roadside capture Tuesday of the leaders, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, on charges of interfering with federal officers suggested law enforcement was bearing in mind a decades-long shift in thinking on how to deal with armed domestic extremists.
But the strategy, which resulted in the arrest of eight of the occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, was complicated by gunfire on a lonely stretch of desert highway where, according to news reports, law enforcement shot and killed LaVoy Finicum, an Arizona rancher who previously had vowed to go down fighting.
Circumstances surrounding Mr. Finicum’s death are still murky, but his fellow extremists say the message is unequivocal: “They said ‘peaceful resolution,’ but now there is a dead cowboy,” occupier Jason Patrick, one of an unknown number still at the refuge, told The New York Times.
While it is unclear whether Oregonians, many of whom had urged the occupiers to go home, will feel similarly, experts say that message is likely to resonate with other militants. Even as the operation showed in part how the FBI has learned lessons from the past, there is a question about whether violence could serve to buttress the occupiers’ central complaints about an overreaching government.
“The risk here is that you had people who were basically perceived by the public as clowns, and now an incident like this can shift that perception and give them what they wanted, which is the status of martyr and victim,” says former FBI agent Michael German, who infiltrated white supremacist groups in the 1990s and is now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “So, I hope [law enforcement] had a very good reason for why they thought that [stop] was necessary, and weren’t just bending to political pressure and frustration. Because that should have been a lesson from Waco and Ruby Ridge, where the ‘win’ was short-lived and only led to more problems.”
In the Waco tragedy, federal agents raided a Branch Davidian compound in Texas, resulting in the deaths of more than 80 men, women, and children. And at the Ruby Ridge siege in Idaho, a shootout led to the deaths of a 14-year-old boy, a woman, and a US marshal. Both of those tragedies were believed to have been mishandled by law enforcement and have become rallying cries for the far right. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, for example, cited Waco as critical to his radicalization.
But in regard to the current situation, Mr. German adds, “To be clear, there’s potential that the FBI knew there was some act of violence being planned or becoming increasingly likely, and that they needed to take action. But if that’s the case, they need to put that out quickly, to try to put a blanket over what I’m sure will be an increasing bellicosity from antigovernment movements of all kinds.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Oregon FBI special agent in charge Greg Bretzing said in a written statement: "Let me be clear: It is fully and unequivocally the behavior and the choices made by the armed occupiers that have led us to where we are today. And, as the FBI and our partners have demonstrated, actions are not without consequences." He did not elaborate beyond calling the arrests a "very deliberate and measured response."
At a press conference, the FBI did not give any more details about how Finicum was killed, and didn't take any questions.
'The hourglass is running'
The White House initially referred to the occupation of federally managed property as “a local law enforcement matter.” But that had clearly changed as the FBI’s presence grew in the past few weeks, as public pressure built to remove the interlopers. Local Sheriff Dave Ward had warned the occupiers a week previously that “the hourglass is running.”
"While it is easy to assume that an occupation in such a remote location does not threaten public safety and does not harm any victims, that perception is far from accurate," Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) wrote in a letter to the Justice Department urging action. Adding to community tensions is that "the criminals on the refuge are allowed to travel on and off the premises with little fear of law enforcement contact or interaction.”
So far, the FBI has not said whether it had information that public safety was at stake. Though armed, the activists indeed occupied a remote refuge and had shown no proclivity for violence. Part of their strategy, says Mark Pitcavage, research director for the Anti-Defamation League, was to draw law enforcement into a confrontation.
“What apparently happened, knowing that these extremists, including the ringleaders of the occupation, were going to be isolated on this stretch of highway, they decided ... to essentially decapitate the leadership of the occupation in one swoop – and in a time and place of their choosing rather than the extremists’ choosing,” Mr. Pitcavage says. “Now, whether or not the federal government was responding to pressure to resolve this quickly or whether this was the best way to resolve the situation irrespective of anything else, we just don’t know.”
On Wednesday, after the capture of eight activists and the death of Finicum, the FBI began tightening the cordon around the remaining occupiers. Amid concerns that Finicum's killing could escalate violence, the militia groups Pacific Patriots Network, Oath Keepers, and the 3% of Idaho said they had issued a "stand by" order to members, according to Reuters. "During this time, cooler heads must prevail," the statement said. “We do not wish to inflame the current situation and will engage in open dialogue until all of the facts have been gathered.”
The FBI playbook changed dramatically after Ruby Ridge in 1992 and Waco in 1993. Former FBI Director Louis Freeh said, “for the FBI, Ruby Ridge was a series of terribly flawed law enforcement operations with tragic consequences. We know ... that law enforcement overreacted at Ruby Ridge.”
As a sign of the shift in tactics, the FBI negotiated for 81 days with the Montana Freemen in 1996 before the group's members surrendered without any shots fired. And the roadside grab that occurred this week has been used before as a tactic, including during a 1996 investigation involving the Spokane Bank Bandits – whose members were seized, without incident, after they stopped at a convenience store in Oregon.
High desert crossroads
Looked at more deeply, the Oregon standoff plays into a polarized America that has seen energy around militia groups only grow. In that way, the occupation had come to embody a high desert crossroads for a small group of self-styled antigovernment cowboys and Washington. It comes as the economy of the West is turning its focus away from extraction industries, such as oil, gas, and mining, and toward a recreational economy.
The shift toward more restrictions on public lands, however, has squeezed economic opportunities for Americans who have long made a living off in the country's remotest corners. The occupiers made the impoverishment of the Far West one of their main talking points.
Moreover, the occupiers have demanded the release of two local ranchers who had been prosecuted under a terrorism statute for allowing fires to burn on federal property. They also wanted the massive refuge, which was established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt and is arguably America’s premier bird-watching spot, turned over to the state of Oregon. More broadly, the Bundys and their followers pushed a transfer-of-public-lands initiative that has some political support. Bills have been introduced in at least 11 legislatures in the Far West, but none so far have passed.
Public support for those demands, however tepid and narrow, may have caused Washington concern about overreaching in the Malheur occupation, writes Elizabeth Bruenig in the New Republic.
While the Oregon occupation is unlikely to attain the symbolic heft of Waco and Ruby Ridge, “that doesn’t mean [the Malheur occupation] won’t serve a similar if small function on the extreme far-right if mishandled by the federal authorities,” she writes.
And yet pressure to act had mounted steadily on the FBI, especially after Washington backed off an armed 2014 standoff in Bunkerville, Nev., led by Cliven Bundy, the father of the Malheur leaders. Critics say Washington only encourages extremists by backing down from armed confrontations.
“If federal law enforcement authorities had taken their roles as stewards of the rule of law seriously, many of these players would be facing justice in federal courts right now, instead of opportunistically raising hell out in poverty-stricken rural areas,” David Neiwert, a correspondent for the Southern Poverty Law Center, wrote in The Washington Post on Jan. 7.
At the same time, the complaints by the occupiers have continued to resonate, even as their methods have been criticized, says German at the Brennan Center for Justice.
“Don’t forget that even among the people in the rural areas of the West, what you see most often is a frustration with the federal government, which is perceived as being remote, with bureaucrats making decisions without taking into account the needs or well-being of local inhabitants,” he says. “They don’t feel like they have a voice in which they clearly have a stake.”