It was not unreasonable to assume the end of an illegal occupation in Harney County meant the end of a public circus in which armed, self-described patriots threatened violence against authorities if challenged. But the circus continues, despite the evacuation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters and jailing of some of its ringleaders. It continues because of a trail of troublesome questions left by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, otherwise credited for bringing the standoff to an end after exercising weeks of restraint.
The circumstance plays into the hands of militants and others who argue the federal government runs a rigged game with citizens in deciding best uses of public lands. Oregon investigators, reviewing the roadside shooting of Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, decided two unaccounted-for shots were likely fired by an FBI agent at the scene and that four FBI colleagues may have helped him to cover it up.
It's a concerning development. Neither of the bullets hit Finicum — the three fatal strikes were defensibly fired by two Oregon State Police troopers, investigators say — and yet empty bullet casings that could account for the two stray shots have not been found. In a source-attributed report last week, Les Zaitz of The Oregonian/OregonLive reported that FBI agents at the scene had, following Finicum's shooting, “searched the area with flashlights and then huddled ... and one agent appeared to bend over twice and pick up something near where the two shots likely were taken.”
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If unaccounted-for shots were fired by an agent, and agents are found to have acted collusively to cover it up, the agents should be canned: for altering evidence at the scene (forensics 101), for contravening the first best purpose of the profession (serve the public by seeking truth), for an ethical lapse so great as to be called connivance (read: corruption). Oregonians now await findings of a criminal investigation of the agents by the U.S. Justice Department's inspector general. It should be no surprise that anyone with a bone to pick with the feds now has a promising bone to pick with the feds — fair enough. But conspiracy theorists, meanwhile, feed on the developments as a form of vindication, and any chance of useful discourse about public lands management is set back. May the probe be swift.
Oregonians deserve a full unpacking of the role and actions of FBI agents in the final minutes of Finicum's life.
Improbably, the circus expands, courtesy of Glenn Palmer. He's the Grant County sheriff who met with refuge occupiers and argued to authorities to meet some of their demands, notably the release from prison of two Harney County ranchers and the retreat of FBI agents tasked with bringing a peaceful end to the takeover. The Criminal Justice Division of Oregon's Justice Department, responding to complaints about Palmer, is investigating him. May this probe be swift, too. Valerie Luttrell, manager of the John Day dispatch center serving law enforcement agencies, said Palmer was judged to be a “security leak” by authorities and that Palmer promotes his personal agenda “over the welfare and safety of the general public he is sworn to protect,” Zaitz reported.
And then there are untethered but elected leaders from elsewhere, mainly. Prominent among them is Nevada Republican Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, who flew to Portland to protest Ammon Bundy's detention and told the Las Vegas Sun that the Malheur occupation was justified. She previously had met up with peer lawmakers from Idaho and Washington in joining Oregon Rep. Dallas Heard, who led them on an ostentatious and risky “fact-finding mission” to the refuge, raising doubt about who in elected office can differentiate those in civil authority from those in positions of political leadership. These lawmakers, whose sympathies lie with lawbreakers, have managed not to advance public discourse about public lands management but instead deepen resentments.
No matter. Probes centering on the FBI and Sheriff Palmer ensure that the Malheur debacle is distraction enough to thwart a much-needed public discussion about federal lands — precisely as Harney County residents seek healing following their hijacking. It may seem quaint to some, but folks in and around Burns would like to get on with life as it was before self-proclaimed but errant constitutional scholars showed up and threatened another Ruby Ridge-style bloodbath.
Oregonians deserve a full unpacking of the role and actions of federal agents in the final minutes of Finicum's life. The FBI's credibility is on the line. But so, too, is the delicate balance between law-abiding citizens who try to make things work and the few who obstruct because they act as if laws do not apply to them.