Why the Feds Have Not Ended the Oregon Militia Standoff

7 minute read

It’s been two days since a group of armed militiamen seized a federal building in Oregon, broadcasting grievances with the government amid open preparations for the prospect of a violent clash. Locals schools have been closed for the week. The county courthouse is shuttered. Yet so far there has been little visible law enforcement response. And while that may frustrate or confuse many Americans, it’s probably an indication that law enforcement is handling a delicate situation correctly.

In an armed confrontation with extremists, the first rule is to proceed carefully, according to former federal officials involved in some of the trickiest standoffs in recent memory. “You don’t want to do anything precipitous that would heighten the degree of confrontation,” says Tom Kubic, the former FBI special agent in charge of the bureau’s 1996 standoff with the Montana Freemen, an antigovernment fringe group holed up on a compound from which they’d been legally evicted. “The key is to be very cautious, go slow, and take a look at and understand what is being asked for.”

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A light touch suits the Oregon incident for several reasons. One is the lack of an imminent threat. The militia members are occupying an empty building on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a marshy oasis in the high desert of remote southeast Oregon, a half-day’s drive from the nearest mid-size city. There are no hostages or civilians currently at risk. No blood has been spilled. The militia group, which on Monday christened itself the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, does not even have a clear set of demands.

Which isn’t to say they might not be dangerous. The occupiers had been part of a demonstration Saturday in nearby Burns, Ore., to protest the sentences of two local ranchers convicted of arson. A hard-core faction split off and broke into the snowy wildlife refuge to dig in against government “tyranny.” Among their leaders are sons of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada cattle rancher whose refusal to pay more than $1 million in fees and fines for grazing rights on government land triggered a massive 2014 standoff with government authorities and made the family a cause celebre among militiamen and adherents of the so-called Patriot movement.

“The main reason we’re here is because we need a place to stand,” according to Ammon Bundy, a leader of the group. Bundy said the group posed no public threat but if government officials were combative, then “lives could be lost.”

Lives have been lost in the past. The federal government is still haunted by catastrophic standoffs like the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidians compound near Waco, Tex., which left scores dead, and the 1992 confrontation at Ruby Ridge in northern Idaho, which killed a federal marshal and two civilians. Those incidents became rallying cries for the radical right—and a source of inspiration to domestic terrorists like Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the perpetrators of the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168.

Law enforcement is loathe to let a wildlife reserve in a swath of the West where the coyote population outnumbers people to become a similar touchstone. “These men came to Harney County claiming to be part of militia groups supporting local ranchers,” said county sheriff Dave Ward, “when in reality these men had alternative motives, to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States.”

That’s why federal authorities are handling the situation with kid gloves for now. After Ruby Ridge and Waco, the Department of Justice conducted a review and issued new guidelines for defusing such confrontations. In 1994, the FBI created a Critical Incident Response Group, whose specialized personnel—including hostage negotiators and behavioral scientists—are on hand to assist field bureaus as they tackle crises.

One tactic is to employ third-party intermediaries to negotiate. In the Freemen standoff, which was peacefully resolved, the FBI used 42 third-party negotiators. Some of them were local elected officials. Other figures were less reputable, but better able to channel the sense of radical grievance that drove the standoff. At Ruby Ridge and again at the Freemen compound in Montana, the bureau deployed James “Bo” Gritz, a Vietnam vet well known on the fringe for his virulent racism, as an emissary. When you’re dealing with people who reject government authority, the government isn’t the best messenger.

“Sometimes you have to go that way in order to break the ice and get a dialogue going,” says Robin Montgomery, a former FBI special agent who ran the bureau’s command post at Ruby Ridge and is now the police chief in Brookfield, Conn. “You’ve got to figure out who’s in charge on the inside, and figure out who’s the best person on the outside to make that connection.”

Another reason for the feds to be cautious is to keep an isolated group from becoming martyrs. The militia group has claimed to number some 150, but could number a tenth that size. They are, in some ways, too radical for the far right. Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Oath Keepers, an antigovernment group affiliated with the Patriot movement, told TIME the seizure of the refuge was “a horrendous mistake that makes us look like the aggressors.” While the Bundys are respected in these circles, “Ammon is surrounded by idiots and hotheads,” Rhodes says. Among his confederates are Blaine Cooper, who called for Sen. John McCain to be arrested for treason; Jon Ritzheimer, who is known for organizing anti-Muslim rallies and pushing to arrest federal elected officials, and an electrician from Montana whose cartoonish behavior led some on the right believe he’s a federal plant.

But restraint can also set a troubling precedent. After authorities backed off at the Bundy ranch to avoid bloodshed, federal officials promised Cliven Bundy would be held responsible for his crimes. “Cliven Bundy has had multiple court orders to remove his cattle from federal public lands and he has not paid his grazing fees and he has not abided by the law,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “We will continue to pursue that.” Added Jewell: “The wheels of justice move at their own pace … I am confident this issue is going to be appropriately resolved.”

But Bundy still hasn’t paid up. His supporters believe they got the better of the Feds. Now they are trying their luck again. Prudence has brought its own set of problems. “It does embolden folks to see the government will not take aggressive action,” says Montgomery. “It is a conundrum, isn’t it?”

To some liberals, there is a racial dimension as well. In recent urban uprisings, authorities have been quick to deploy SWAT teams and tear gas canisters. At times during the Ferguson protests, unarmed civilians were arrested for standing still on public streets for longer than five seconds. “One could not imagine a group of armed black men taking over an unoccupied federal building in one of our nation’s cities as they have in Oregon,” said Rep. Donna Edwards, a Democrat running for a Maryland Senate seat.

The FBI has not said much about how it intends to handle the Oregon standoff. The bureau did not reply to an inquiry from TIME. A statement issued over the weekend said simply that it was “working with the Harney County Sheriff’s Office, Oregon State Police and other local and state law enforcement agencies to bring a peaceful resolution to the situation.”

Read More: White House Won’t Call Oregon Standoff Terrorism

Still, a laissez-faire approach strikes observers on both sides as smarter than the alternative. It takes time to talk down radicals: the Freemen standoff lasted 81 days. That, says Rhodes, should be a model for federal intervention. “They need to back off and let this drag off so that it ends in a peaceful way,” Rhodes says. “If they go in there and crush these guys instead of waiting them out, there will be a serious reaction across the country.”

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Write to Alex Altman at alex_altman@timemagazine.com