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Bundy begins negotiations with FBI by phone

The Oregonian Jan 22, 2016, in Herald and News

Burns - The FBI opened negotiations with refuge occupier Ammon Bundy on Thursday, with Bundy (center) standing at the local airport drive for nearly an hour, talking to a FBI negotiator by cell phone. BURNS – The FBI opened negotiations Thursday with refuge occupier Ammon Bundy in a nearly hourlong cellphone conversation as Bundy stood in an improbable scene on the driveway to the local airport.

The FBI agent, who identified himself on the phone only as “Chris,” listened to Bundy’s well-practiced litany of complaints against the federal government and probed for what it would take to end his occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

They ended the call with the promise to talk again Friday.

Bundy and Ryan Payne, another takeover organizer, said the FBI reached out by phone and by messenger starting two days ago.

Bundy said he had 14 voice messages Wednesday from the negotiator – the same day that Gov. Kate Brown publicly scolded federal officials for what she said was their slow approach to ending the Harney County standoff.

Bundy showed up unannounced at the Burns Airport, which is serving as an operations base for the FBI. He said he was there to talk with Chris but was told the negotiator wasn’t there though he could talk by phone.

Bundy stood on the pavement of the driveway to the airport as he talked, a bodyguard beside him, with two plainclothes FBI agents as well as armed FBI agents in tactical dress standing nearby.

He put the cellphone on speaker, allowing all to listen in on the first known conversation between the federal agents and Bundy since the occupation started Jan. 2.

“I’m a face-to-face kind of guy,” Bundy told the negotiator. “You reached out to me ... I’m not sure exactly what you wanted to talk about.”

The conversation sounded in some ways like acquaintances catching up, with the FBI negotiator asking about activities out at the refuge. Bundy told him about launching the effort to hand over federal land titles to local people, about cleaning up refuge buildings, about dealing with fire hazards in the refuge compound’s fire house.

Bundy — the son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy who defied federal authorities in 2014 in a dispute over grazing on public land — covered concerns about how the U.S. Bureau of Land Management allegedly impedes efforts by local ranchers to help put out range fires. He said ranchers are “afraid of prosecution” if they help now.

Bundy has called for the release of Burns-area ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son, Steven, sent to prison on arson convictions for burning federal land. They reported back to prison this month to finish five-year prison sentences in the case after serving lighter sentences. Their lawyer is seeking executive clemency for the men.

The negotiator asked why Bundy picked Harney County.

“You’re familiar with the Hammonds,” Bundy said. The federal government for years has tried to buy the Hammond ranch to add to the refuge holdings, he claimed.

The negotiator pressed for what Bundy wanted to see done with the refuge. Bundy said it should be turned over to Harney County officials.

He said his group wouldn’t leave until practical steps had been taken to get the refuge out of federal control and ensure the refuge buildings were never again used by the federal government.

How would that get done, the agent asked.

“I don’t know,” Bundy said. “We could put more thought to that.”

Bundy, as he would several times through the conversation, said his group had no intention of resorting to violence to settle the issues.

“We’re not going to escalate anything,” he said. “You would be the only ones to escalate this.”

But Bundy had questions of his own. He asked by what authority the FBI was involved in the refuge occupation.

“Are you here under authority of the sheriff?” Bundy asked.

When the negotiator said the sheriff had asked for federal help, Bundy responded, “You do not have the people’s authority to be here.”

In measured tones, the negotiator told him, “The sheriff has asked for our assistance.”

Sheriff Dave Ward has repeatedly told the occupiers to go home and met with Bundy two weeks ago, promising him safe passage out of the county. But the sheriff said Bundy wouldn’t take him up on the offer.

As the negotiator repeatedly cycled back to the issue of how to end the standoff, Bundy was equally insistent that action had to happen — not just talk.

One action was paramount to ending the standoff, he said: “You can bring the Hammonds back home to their families.”

When the negotiator asked if he was referring to a presidential pardon, Bundy had quick response. “The president didn’t put them” in prison, Bundy said. “You and I both know the president is not going to get them out.”

Instead, he said the federal prosecutors who put the Hammonds in prison “need to work their magic” to free the ranchers.

Bundy brought the conversation to a close, saying he had other meetings and tasks to attend. A group of New Mexico state legislators was expected at the refuge, he said.

The negotiator asked how they could stay in touch, whether he could use a landline at the refuge to reach Bundy. Bundy demurred, saying the occupiers weren’t using refuge phones.

“We want to work together with you,” the negotiator said.

The two agreed to connect again in 24 hours.

With that, the negotiator hung up, Bundy handed the borrowed cellphone to an FBI agent and headed for a pickup truck for the 30-mile drive back to the refuge.


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