Ghost of Waco Stays FBI’s Hand in Oregon Siege

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Ammon Bundy addresses the media at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, on January 5. Saturday's takeover of a building on the refuge marks the latest protest over federal management of public land in the West, long seen by conservatives in the region as an intrusion on individual rights. For now, the FBI is taking a “wait and see” approach at Malheur following past standoffs at Waco and Ruby Ridge, the author writes. Jim Urquhart/Reuters

This article first appeared on The Daily Signal.

Americans remembering the deadly confrontations at Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in the early 1990s are likely to see a different response from law enforcement officers monitoring protesters at a federal building in Oregon, former federal officials say.

On January 2, a group of militants took over an empty building on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, located south of Burns, Oregon. The protesters, who are armed, gathered in the Harney County town earlier in the day to oppose the five-year prison sentences of ranchers Dwight and Steve Hammond, who were convicted of arson after they set fires that spread to federal land in 2001 and 2006.

Since the protesters, now formally known as Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, took over the building, the FBI has kept its distance, saying that it’s monitoring the standoff and hopes to bring about a “peaceful resolution to the situation.”

Those watching the occupation at the wildlife refuge shouldn’t expect to see much more from federal law enforcement, according to retired government officials, who attribute the FBI’s “wait and see” approach to lessons learned from past standoffs at Waco and Ruby Ridge.

“The FBI has learned some very painful lessons during the time period I was there, and otherwise very painful lessons on the need to negotiate until the cows come home, especially on grazing land,” Clint Van Zandt, the FBI’s former chief hostage negotiator, who served with the agency for 25 years, told The Daily Signal.

After the confrontations between federal law enforcement and extremists at Waco and Ruby Ridge, which took place in the early 1990s and resulted in the loss of more than 70 lives, the federal government was criticized for its handling of the situations.

In the wake of the two incidents, Van Zandt said the FBI has placed more of an emphasis on negotiations to avoid using force.

“That’s something the FBI has learned: that it’s far better to negotiate than to use the tactical option, which is always on the table,” he said. “In this situation, there’s no need to try to match force with force. There’s no need to try to push those protesters out of there, because someone can make a mistake. One person can intentionally or unintentionally fire a shot, and you don’t know what that’s going to lead to.”

In an interview with The Daily Signal, Nate Catura, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association and a special agent with the government for 25 years, said the events at Waco and Ruby Ridge have shaped the government’s response to the occupation of the refuge.

“The response, it’s just wait and see, not such an assertive approach,” Catura said. He continued:

They’re doing the right thing. They’ve learned from past incidents that there are ways the government can tackle these problems without firing a shot if they don’t have to. In this case, the advantage goes to the government because there isn’t anyone in harm’s way.

The officers association represents more than 25,000 federal law enforcement officials working across 65 agencies.

“This is a group of people that want to make a political statement,” Catura said of the protesters. “They feel the government has wronged them in some fashion, so this is their way of calling attention to what they feel are perceived wrongs.”

Before Citizens for Constitutional Freedom took over the federal building, approximately 300 citizens and members of the group gathered in Burns on January 2 to protest the government’s charges against the Hammonds. The father and son quietly reported to a California prison on January 4 to serve out their sentences.

Among the protesters occupying the federal building at the wildlife refuge is Ammon Bundy, son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy. The elder Bundy gained notoriety last year during a standoff with the Bureau of Land Management.

In interviews with various media outlets, Ammon Bundy said the group plans to remain on the land until it is returned to private ownership, and he indicated they’re prepared to stay for several years.

“This is not a decision we’ve made at the last minute,” he told The Oregonian.

Ammon Bundy and his fellow protesters have not indicated how many are involved in the occupation—a decision, he said, to protect “operational security”—but media reports suggest there could be at least 100 among their ranks.

During a press conference Monday, Ammon Bundy told reporters the purpose of the protest is to “restore and defend the Constitution.”

Though the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies are taking a measured approach and, according to media reports, have not had a presence on the land, Ammon Bundy’s brother Ryan told Oregonian reporter Ian Kullgren he is prepared to “kill and be killed if necessary.”

Asked about his brother’s statement, Ammon Bundy said the comments were “taken out of context.”

A representative from the Joint Information Center established by the Harney County Sheriff’s Office could not confirm whether federal, local or state law enforcement has had a presence on the land surrounding the building.

Van Zandt, the former FBI hostage negotiator, told The Daily Signal he would expect to see the FBI or other federal law enforcement officials continue to work toward a peaceful resolution, regardless of Ryan Bundy’s comments.

“From my perspective, based upon from what I know, there’s no reason right now to consider any type of tactical resolution, that this is something that should be resolved by negotiations, and if it breaks down, it won’t be because the FBI and the government doesn’t try to resolve it peacefully.”

Van Zandt continued:

As long as the government doesn’t feel a need to take some type of forcible action, and as long as the protesters don’t feel the need to take some type of violent action to provoke the government to get more attention, as long as both sides realize what they have to lose—not what they have to win, but what they have to lose—then I think this will be resolved, and nonviolently.

The FBI hasn’t given specific details as to its plans for dealing with the standoff, saying in its statement it is taking the safety of law enforcement personnel and those inside the federal building into consideration in doing so. However, Van Zandt told The Daily Signal that his experience leads him to believe it’s likely the agency is engaging in negotiations with the group.

“You really need to be the velvet-covered brick in situations like this,” he said. “Law enforcement can always eventually win out in any type of an armed confrontation with citizens.”

Melissa Quinn is a news reporter for the Daily Signal.