FBI veteran gives authorities high marks for Malheur crackdown

Occupier who was killed showed signs of ‘suicide-by-cop mentality.’


Clint Van Zandt served in the FBI for 25 years, including about six as the agency’s chief hostage negotiator.  He was involved in many 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 from the FBI, Van Zandt has run a corporate security firm. He spoke to High Country News by telephone from Virginia on Wednesday and Thursday. As of early Thursday, the FBI had arrested 11 people and planned to “continue to work around the clock to empty the refuge of the armed occupiers in the safest way possible.”

High Country News: What’s your impression of how the FBI is handling the Malheur Refuge occupation?

Clint Van Zandt: The authorities both federal and state and local showed infinite patience. The FBI did what they should have done, kept a low profile, allowing the state and the sheriff to do the upfront negotiations.  They gave it a chance to resolve itself.

FBI special agent-in-charge Greg Bretzing announces arrests of armed occupiers.
Federal Bureau of Investigation

HCN: Why do you think law enforcement decided to act when they did?

CVZ: It would have been a combination of things. Local community wanted to see it resolved. Tax money was flying out of the coffers to pay for the handling of this.

Everybody involved was trying to allow this to be resolved peacefully: We’ll let you drive in and out and make statements as long as you’re moving towards a conclusion. To me, after almost a month of giving the group every opportunity to resolve it themselves, and it wasn’t being done, [law enforcement probably decided] if we get the leaders separated from the rest of the band, the leadership will break down. The individuals inside may not be as dedicated.

HCN: What do you think was behind law enforcement’s decision to arrest the occupiers while they were in a vehicle?

CVZ: Tactically and psychologically, it made all kinds of sense to do what they did. You’ve separated them from the rest of the group. Their access to guns and ammunition is limited. They’re in tight quarters.

HCN: Why do you think the authorities waited so long to step in?

CVZ: You give them every opportunity in the world to surrender. I’m not there, but what I know from the media coverage, they did it right.They were trying to resolve it nonviolently. The last thing you want to do is create a martyr for this cause. They would not have wanted to do that.

HCN: Given your experience, what would have led officers to shoot Robert “LaVoy” Finicum?

Robert "LaVoy" Finicum at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Brooke Warren/High Country News

CVZ: I wasn’t there. I don’t have any direct knowledge. But the vast majority of state, federal and local law enforcement officers, nobody wants to shoot another person. You don’t want to have to do that.

He had already verbalized that he didn’t want to be taken. He didn’t want to go to jail. That starts to verge on what we call suicide-by-cop mentality.

It happened to me one time. Someone wants to die. They come at you. Everything in you says, “I don’t want to shoot you.” You’ve got to make a split-second decision. Does this person pose a threat to me or others?

Law enforcement would have done research and known who was in the vehicle, what their backgrounds were and what they had said.

You do everything you can to stop from having to shoot one or two people, and yet your job is to go home at night to your family. Every officer who fired is going to have to justify why he or she shot.

HCN: When officers decide to shoot, why don’t they shoot the gun out of someone’s hand like they do in the movies?

CVZ:  You shoot at the main part of the body because that’s where you’re likely to hit somebody -- from the belt to the head. You don’t shoot to kill, you shoot to stop the threat. I am not trying to kill them, I am trying to stop the threat they present.

If I shoot, I don’t want him to be able to return fire and kill me.

The individual who was killed, if he started firing and got behind a car, and law enforcement had to fire back, other people in vehicle could have been wounded. You don’t want to allow a bad situation to get worse.

I would not fault law enforcement if one or two or more, if they shot him multiple times because they wanted to stop the threat.

HCN: What’s going through an officer’s mind in such a moment?

CVZ: You can’t wait for somebody to make a decision. Each member of the tactical team or troopers, they have to make a decision.

Do I know based on intel that this is somebody who suggested he doesn’t want to be taken out alive and wants to go out in a blaze of glory? You have all of this going on in your mind when you’re making a decision to shoot or not shoot. 

HCN: What do you think the agents said to get the other occupiers out after the leaders were arrested and Finicum was killed?

CVZ: This is the time for those of you inside to come out and make a statement. Don’t let this individual’s sacrifice be in vain. Use it as an opportunity to talk to the media and explain your cause. As a negotiator, this would be the time to get the remainder of the group to end this nonviolently. The sooner you come out, while this terrible loss of your friend is in the media, the more attention you’re going to get. What’s the future of your movement going to be now, martyr for the cause or laughingstock?

There’s every reason in the world for the individuals to come out. To stay in would be stupid. It would be a grave mistake for the movement not to seize this opportunity right now.

HCN: How will the FBI deal with the people still in the refuge?

CVZ: You’re going to see a high-profile 360 corridor thrown up around that. Nobody is going in. Nobody is going out. No one bringing in food or water. I think that’s over with. The line has been drawn in the sand. We’re going to resolve it.

HCN: Why didn’t law enforcement crack down in 2014 after the standoff at the Bundy Ranch instead of letting this get out of hand?

CVZ: I think that there may well have been a belief within the federal government that this group of individuals is attempting to provoke us.

Let’s give them space. Let’s let them flap their arms. Let’s give them as much latitude as we can. We don’t want to add fuel to the fire. We don’t want to play into their hands to get more attention to themselves, to get more individuals to join them.

Local law enforcement have a lot of latitude; arrest or don’t arrest. I would say the local state and federal authorities have exercised a lot of discretion in dealing with this.

There are going to be suggestions from people that you should have stopped this 10 years ago. Would that have just provoked other individuals or not? The last thing they wanted to do was to see this get bigger.

It isn’t just limited to land use; there are a lot of individuals angry about just about everything.

HCN: Does this occupation say anything bigger about our society today?

CVZ: It doesn’t say anything bigger. It just says to me the Bundys and those who supported them decided they would provoke until the authorities had to act. When you start violating local, state and federal law, you lose the impetus. You get attention but you’re not going to resolve it. All you’ll do is get looked at as criminals and crazies, as opposed to “patriots." 

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's DC Correspondent.

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