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Here's How a Former FBI Hostage Negotiator Thinks the Oregon Standoff Will End

Clint Van Zandt, a former chief hostage negotiator for the FBI, was at the 1993 raid in Waco, Texas, that left 76 people dead. He explained to VICE News what the FBI learned from that disaster.
Photo via VICE News

Federal agents have encircled the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon, where an unknown number of heavily armed militiamen are still holed up. The FBI and the Oregon State Police arrested Ammon Bundy and several other leaders of the occupying group on Tuesday following a traffic stop that led to gunfire. Robert "LaVoy" Finicum, an Arizona rancher who had served as the group's spokesperson, was killed in the confrontation.


The incident has escalated a standoff between anti-government activists and law enforcement authorities that has simmered since the group's defiant takeover of the federally owned refuge on January 2.

"They had ample opportunity to leave the refuge peacefully," FBI Special Agent in Charge Greg Bretzing said at a news conference on Wednesday. "As the FBI and our partners have clearly demonstrated, actions are not without consequences."

On Wednesday, authorities announced that a handful of militiamen had surrendered voluntarily over the last 24 hours after being told they could walk away without incident.

The FBI has been under increasing pressure to remove the occupiers, who claimed to have occupied the refuge to support a pair of local ranchers who were convicted of arson for setting fires that reached federal land. Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley has urged authorities to move quickly, and Governor Kate Brown has personally called on federal authorities to bring a "swift resolution" to the stand off.

Related: Oregon Militia Leader Ammon Bundy Urges Remaining Occupiers to Go Home

But while frustrated officials and locals are eager for the spectacle in Harney County to end, Clint Van Zandt, a former chief hostage negotiator for the FBI, told VICE News that authorities should exercise patience and resist the temptation to storm the refuge.

"There's no need for boots and bullets," he said. "They will be expecting that, and you don't want to provoke somebody with a hair trigger."


Van Zandt was involved in a similar situation in Waco, Texas, in 1993, when a 51-day standoff with members of David Koresh's Branch Davidian cult ended tragically with the deaths of 76 people after the FBI raided their compound.

The FBI has learned many lessons since the debacle in Waco and another famous standoff between white supremacists and federal agents at Ruby Ridge in 1992, which also resulted in bloodshed. Van Zandt said that law enforcement authorities are doing their best to avoid turning the Oregon standoff into another tragedy by exercising maximum restraint.

The main difference between the Oregon siege and what happened in Waco is that the Branch Davidians had almost entirely cut ties from society and sacrificed everything to follow Koresh.

"They were diehard, bonded in a small environment, and had given everything to each other emotionally and spiritually," Van Zandt remarked of the religious cult. "We don't have that here. We have people bonded by an idea, but that idea in and of itself can be resolved in ways that don't involve dying."

So even as the remaining militiamen hunker down in the compound while appealing to the public for reinforcements, patience is the FBI's friend.

Related: 'Come Get Some': Militia Prepares for Battle as Feds Surround Oregon Wildlife Refuge

The decision on Tuesday to arrest Ammon Bundy along with several others who had left the refuge to attend a community meeting about 70 miles away was the right call, Van Zandt added.


"The best thing to do tactically is to find the leadership of the group, where they are away from scene," he explained. "That way, they can't fortify themselves and don't have access to more weapons."

Authorities were also wise to wait a few weeks into the standoff before moving to apprehend the leadership, Van Zandt said, so that the confrontation didn't turn into a media circus.

Gone are the days when media and sympathizers could amble in and out of the compound.

"I think this is the time for the government to make its presence known," Van Zandt said. "They have to put a cordon around that area, they have to make sure nobody comes in — not with ammunition, guns or even food."

According to Jason Patrick, one of the militiamen, at least five or six people remain at the nature preserve and are prepared to fight.

"We're just trying to figure out how a dead cowboy equals a peaceful resolution," he remarked to the press, referring to Finicum's death and Governor Brown's statement that "officials continue pursuit of a swift and peaceful resolution."

"We're all standing here ready to defend our peaceful resolution," Patrick told the Oregonian newspaper.

The sentiment was echoed by an unidentified militiaman who appeared on a live feed from inside the refuge on Wednesday, who repeatedly suggested that a violent outcome is all but inevitable.

"Media's been waiting for a bloodbath this whole time we've been here," he said. "Now there's going to be one."


At one point in the live feed, a man spoke on a phone with a person he identified as his mother and offered her reassurance.

"If I die, I died for my country. I died a free man," he said. "That's how I want to die." The man added that his group had "food and everything for the long haul."

Van Zandt said that the message that FBI negotiators should send those left inside is this: "If you're 100 percent behind this group, come out, make your statement, let the world know… make sure nobody dies in vain."

And what if they refuse?

"The authorities will continue to encircle the compound completely," Van Zandt said, suggesting that the government might eventually starve out those remaining. "There will be no food, the media will die down — over time it's going to get less and less advantageous for them to stay in there."

Follow Avi Asher-Schapiro on Twitter: @AASchapiro