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Analyst: FBI let Malheur militants save face to end occupation

Emotional negotiations with a like-minded Nevada state legislator may have helped FBI operation.


Four armed occupiers remained at Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge early Thursday morning, but finally left their posts peacefully as of 11am local time. They are now in custody.

HCN spoke with former Federal Bureau of Investigation negotiator Clint Van Zandt, while the news was unfolding. Van Zandt served in the FBI for 25 years, including about six as the agency’s chief hostage negotiator. He was involved in major negotiations, including with David Koresh, the leader of the so-called Branch Davidians, whose compound near Waco, Texas, was the focus of a 1993 siege by federal agents, which ended in the deaths of more than 80 people. Since retiring, he has run a private security firm.

High Country News: Were you surprised that the remnant group stayed so long after the leaders were arrested and Robert “LaVoy” Finicum was killed?

Clint Van Zandt: The emotional catalyst may not have been present; that’s usually needed. There’s something called the surrender ritual. It says: I can’t just give up — there has to be some type of compromise, so I come out a winner, even though the government also is a winner.

HCN: It seemed like the occupiers were asking for a promise that the FBI didn’t arrest them. Why didn’t the negotiators promise that?

CVZ: Why didn’t the FBI just promise, “come out, you’re not going to be arrested,” and then slap handcuffs on them? As an FBI negotiator, I wouldn’t lie to people, because I know that next month or next year, I may be negotiating with someone from this group. I don’t want somebody to say, “You lied the last time, I’m not going to trust you.” (Instead FBI negotiators could say) I’m not going to lie to you. You have committed violations of law. You’re adults. If you were big enough to do it, you’re big enough to be responsible for it. It’s not going to get any better for you the longer you wait; you won’t get a better deal.

Nevada state legislator Michele Fiore's recent tweet about her plans to run for US Congress.

HCN: Why did the FBI let first evangelist Franklin Graham and then Nevada state legislator Michele Fiore talk with the occupiers? (On Wednesday evening and Thursday morning, Nevada state lawmaker Michele Fiore spoke over the phone with the occupiers, through a conference call with Constitutional activist Gavin Seim.)

CVZ: There’s always room for a third-party negotiator. It can create this sense of win-win. (The occupiers can tell themselves) it wasn’t a surrender. If the FBI negotiators didn’t want the local legislator to do it, they wouldn’t let her do it. As a former FBI negotiator…. My sole purpose is to get everybody out without anybody being injured.

HCN: What are the risks of having a third-party negotiator?

CVZ: You try to avoid third-party negotiators. They may be asked to make compromises, and may do so and the government has to live with it. But in a situation like this, the FBI is saying: “Let’s get it over with.”

(The occupiers) are not suicidal. They’re ready to come out. But they need one more impetus, one more emotional push. Something else that will help them say, All right, this is going to push us over the top. It can be a local political figure, a national religious leader that puts them over the top.

HCN: Can you remember an instance where this worked for you?

CVZ: There were three prison riots in the late 1980s. Cubans from the 1980 Mariel boatlift took over the prisons where they were being held. In one of them, in Oakdale, Louisiana, after we had negotiated for about a week with inmates, we had a Cuban Catholic bishop come up from Florida. We set up a kind of Pope mobile that he was in. He was driven around the outside of prison. They could see him through the fence. He prayed it would be resolved peacefully. The inmates were so caught up in the moment. Their weapons were knives and spears and swords they had made themselves. They were throwing these over the fence in response to the bishop’s request to resolve it peacefully. It was such an emotionally positive moment for them that it helped close the deal.

That’s happened a number of times. Individuals are exhausted, tired and confined. They need one final emotional rush to get them to resolve it.

Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, the father of two of the original occupiers, was arrested Wednesday night.
Gage Skidmore. Flickr/CC
HCN: What do you think was behind the FBI’s decision to have a SWAT team waiting to arrest Cliven Bundy, the father of two of the original occupiers, when he arrived at the airport Wednesday night?

CVZ: I wasn’t there. I don’t know what it looks like. But I’m sure that if it was publicized he was going to be there, in the worst case, armed supporters would be at the airport looking for a confrontation. If you had two FBI agents walk up to him and say, “You’re going to have to come with us,” and he says, “Hell no!” and starts to struggle, these armed individuals now jump out with guns, and it becomes a terrible situation. You always want more police officers than bad guys when you make an arrest.

They didn’t want to exacerbate the situation by allowing him to come out to the (refuge) and make it worse. What (the FBI) didn’t want to happen is for him to show up, he makes a statement, you arrest him, and then the rest of the occupiers decide we’re not going to come out until you free him. Someone decided, Let’s deal with it out of the eyesight and earshot of the people in the (refuge) buildings.

HCN: Wasn’t there a risk that by arresting Cliven Bundy, the FBI would derail the deal with the occupiers and they wouldn’t give themselves up?

CVZ: There’s a cost-benefit analysis to everything we do in life. Someone much smarter than me considered both sides and decided in the psychological cost-benefit analysis that the benefit (of arresting him at the airport) was greater than allowing it to take place at the building itself.

HCN: What role does public opinion play in the FBI’s decisions on what to do in an instance like this?

CVZ: That’s part of it. That’s why the local sheriff and state people are involved. Decisions will not be made without the input of local authorities because they have to live with it. They have to deal with the local community and they have a very strong input. You also may have elected officials talking directly with decision-makers or sheriffs. None of this is done in a vacuum.

But every decision can’t be 100% driven by: Are people going to like it? If there’s a warrant for his arrest there’s an obligation to arrest (Cliven Bundy).

HCN: By arresting Cliven Bundy now, doesn’t this raise the question of why officials didn’t arrest him and his sons after the 2014 standoff at their ranch?

CVZ: I think there are going to be people who say:  “If you arrested and charged and imprisoned them back then, we wouldn’t be facing this today.” If the U.S. attorney does not authorize an arrest, the FBI’s hands are tied. The U.S. attorney’s office has prosecutorial discretion.

HCN: What lessons come out of this standoff?

CVZ: The federal government has learned, since Waco, infinite patience. We’re not talking ISIS terrorists cutting the throats of women and children. As long as no bullets are flying, I think we should stay in the negotiation.

HCN: Is there a way for the FBI to peacefully get the occupiers out?

CVZ: If SWAT teams wanted to, they could have shot 100 tear gas rounds into the window and doors and filled that place with gas. The FBI tried that at Waco, and we know the results of that. That could be been seen as provocative and could lead individuals inside to believe they are being assaulted and they start firing guns out the windows and law enforcement fires back. You can ramp these things up very quickly.

HCN: Is there a risk that Fiore will become a celebrity and draw more people to the cause?

CVZ: I don’t think so. This story has had legs for a month, month in a half. Is this going to provoke a national movement and allow this individual a platform? I don’t think so. America has a very short memory.

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's DC Correspondent.

Photo from Michele Fiore's 2016 Second Amendment Calendar.