There’s something of a tactical vibe at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, where a group of armed men have taken over buildings to protest federal control over public land in the West.
The men who have blocked the driveway address each other on their radios with code names such as “Infidel” and “Rogue,” and talk about maintaining “OPSEC” — or “operational security.”
One of the men, who won’t give his name, says if law enforcement shows up, it’ll show up big.
“You’ll know when it happens because you’ll hear the helicopters,” he says.
But does he expect that kind of assault — with helicopters and guns? No, he says.
“At this point in time and juncture, nobody wants anything bad to happen on any side,” he says.
And, in fact, that seems to be the growing consensus here — that law enforcement has decided to give this time.
Shift In Balance After Waco And Ruby Ridge
Steve Ijames is a retired police chief who has decades of experience training SWAT teams and consulting on standoffs. He says the decision to raid a site isn’t tactical.
“There’s no doubt that the government would have the tactical ability to exert their will on those men,” Ijames says. “The question is how willing are we, those making decisions, to accept potential negative outcomes?”
Ijames says the balance shifted dramatically after deadly government raids of the 1990s, such as the 1992 Ruby Ridge incident in Idaho involving white separatist Randy Weaver, and a 51-day standoff at David Koresh’s Branch Davidian community near Waco, Texas, in 1993. Now, there’s less appetite for force, especially in a situation like this one in Oregon — it’s a remote site, with no hostages, no children, and where the occupiers say they’re not even damaging government property.
But he says sentiment could shift, depending on the labels that the media use to describe the occupiers.
“If we demonize them, if we make them domestic terrorists, then the political ability to deal with them harshly increases,” Ijames says.
It also seems clear to him that federal authorities have made a strategic choice to stay behind the scenes. It’s their jurisdiction, but they’re also the political target in this: Federal authority is exactly what these armed men oppose.
So the emphasis has been on local law enforcement. Sheriffs and their deputies have been flocking to the area from across Oregon to help.
Right now, that help consists of more patrols in Burns, the town half an hour from the refuge. One visiting deputy told NPR that there’s a worry that some of the occupiers could come into town to cause trouble. They’re still free to come and go — law enforcement has not blocked any roads. That’s a strategic decision, too, to prevent creating the impression of a siege.
But the policy could also change, if many new supporters head to the refuge to join the occupiers.
That’s exactly what Ammon Bundy and his supporters out at the wildlife refuge are hoping for.
A couple of pickup trucks pull up, and the drivers are greeted enthusiastically by Ryan Bundy, one of the leaders of the occupation. He says they’re local ranchers, come to support this movement.
“They’re just ranchers here, they’re neighbors,” Bundy says. “They’re here to help us out.”
Right now, law enforcement seems willing to let Bundy’s group wait in the cold and snow to see just how many supporters show up — to stay.