Vivid institutional history of the bloodshed that marked standoffs with radical right-wingers in 1990s mean federal agents are nearly invisible this time around
The shadow of Waco and other botched law enforcement sieges of the 1980s and 1990s is looming large over the standoff in south-eastern Oregon, where federal agents are avoiding anything that smacks of confrontation with the armed anti-government activists who have occupied a remote wildlife refuge since the weekend.
Where once federal law enforcement agencies might have been itching to meet the activists defiance head-on, now they are virtually invisible apparently believing they have much more to lose from triggering violence than they have to gain by waiting the protesters out.
The reason, according to former federal agents and experts on rightwing extremism, is a vivid institutional memory of the bloodshed that marked standoffs with radical right-wingers in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 and at Waco, Texas, the following year. Those operations not only led to loss of life on both sides more than 80 people died in the fire that ended the siege of the Branch Davidian religious compound outside Waco they also provoked scandal, investigations, congressional hearings, and years of further confrontations with radical groups outraged by the way the federal authorities behaved.
What were seeing is definitely related to lessons learned at Ruby Ridge and Waco and Marion, Utah and other sieges since then, said Mark Pitcavage, director of the Anti-Defamation Leagues Center on Extremism. From a law enforcement perspective, if you try to use force to resolve the situation, theres a risk that one or more of the extremists involved may be killed and turn into martyrs. You can end up spawning far more retaliatory acts of violence than whatever harm the initial incident could have caused.
At least one Waco veteran, an FBI hostage negotiator who has long since retired, has been hired back as a government adviser on the Oregon standoff. Another, the former head of the FBIs Hostage Rescue Team, Danny Coulson, said it was gratifying to see the bureau take what he called a laid-back posture.
Less is better here, Coulson said. Let em talk The commander on the ground should be engaging in very close dialogue with the groups leader, person to person. Sooner or later, the wives are going to get sick of the sight of their husbands screwing around out there, or theyll need to go get cigarettes. It will end the right way.
The Oregon standoff is a relatively low-stakes conflict because no shots have been fired in anger, nobody has been hurt or taken hostage and no evidence has emerged that one or more of the protesters is being sought for other offences. They could scarcely be in a more remote area, and they are occupying a building entirely devoid of strategic importance.
Nonetheless, the feds approach is a sea-change from the early 1990s, when a macho paramilitary culture and aggressive rules of engagement approved at the highest levels were ingrained in the FBI and contributed to disasters the bureau is now anxious never to repeat. Ruby Ridge started out as a failed attempt to lure an Idaho survivalist, Randy Weaver, into committing a gun charge so the feds would have leverage to persuade him to inform on his friends at the Aryan Nations compound down the mountain. By the time it was over, in September 1992, a US Marshal and Weavers 14-year-old son had died in a shootout and an FBI sharpshooter had killed Weavers wife while she cradled a 14-month-old baby in her arms.
The Waco siege began six months later when the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) mounted an assault-style raid on the Branch Davidian compound and tried to arrest the cult leader, David Koresh. Four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians were killed. As a siege got under way, heavy-handed FBI commanders disregarded the advice of their own hostage negotiators and steadily escalated the tension deploying military Bradley fighting vehicles, blasting the compound with high-power lights and playing everything from Tibetan chants and the sound of dying rabbits to Nancy Sinatra singing These Boots Are Made for Walkin, all at maximum volume.
With all avenues for a peaceful resolution closed, the feds moved in to end the siege by force after 51 days. A fire set by the Branch Davidian leadership as they saw the FBI coming killed almost everyone inside. Gary Noesner, one of the FBI hostage negotiators at Waco later wrote a book in which he reflected: The harder we push, the more likely we are to be met with resistance. He said the art of managing a standoff was to apply just the right amount of pressure not so little that the subjects gain in confidence and not so much that it triggers a firefight.
Noesner was unavailable for interview for this story because the FBI, unusually, has called him out of retirement to advise them directly on the Oregon situation. The principle he invoked was put to good use in 1996, when a standoff with a group called the Montana Freemen ended peacefully after 81 days, and again in 1997 in a week-long drama involving hostages held by a group calling itself the Republic of Texas. Patience, not aggression, has been the watchword of law enforcement ever since.
When a New Hampshire couple, Ed and Elaine Brown, barricaded themselves in their mountain home in 2007 rather than return to court for their sentencing hearing in a tax evasion case, state and federal law enforcement sat pat for more than six months. The couple was heavily armed with weapons and explosives and their property was effectively a mini-fortress, with an observation tower, bunkers, tunnels and booby-traps set on approaches to the house. They relied on a steady stream of supporters including Randy Weaver to bring them food and other supplies. Eventually, two undercover US Marshals got inside by posing as sympathizers and arrested them without incident.
In Oregon, the strategy appears to be to cut off electricity to the wildlife refuge and wait until the protesters run out of generator fuel following Noesners principle of applying some pressure but not too much. Coulson said the FBI would probably seek to impress on Ammon Bundy and his cohorts that a hot-headed resort to violence would be in nobodys interest. A conversations a hell of a lot better than a gunfight, Coulson said.
Law enforcements soft approach is not immune from criticism, especially when police agencies appear to treat white men with guns one way and black people and suspected Muslim extremists another. Authorities in Texas have all but given up on one heavily armed fugitive, John Joe Gray, who has been holed up on his 47-acre property south-east of Dallas since 2000. They say its not worth risking the life of a single deputy just to make the arrest.
There has been criticism, too, of the Bureau of Land Managements decision to back off from confiscating cattle belonging to Ammon Bundys father, Cliven Bundy, because he has not paid grazing fees and fines on his Nevada ranch since the early 1990s. Bundy issued a call to arms in 2014 and attracted so many supporters the BLM decided the risks of enforcing the law were too great. Its a pretty complex calculation of risks versus benefits, Pitcavage of the ADL said. Would the advantages of confiscating Cliven Bundys cattle be worth possible casualties, or future acts of violence? Certainly, there are negative consequences to backing down, but sometimes there are equal if not greater negative consequences in going forward.