TOPICS > Politics

The Freeman Standoff

June 4, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: We do go first tonight to the standoff in Montana. After more than 10 weeks, federal officers have turned up the pressure on the armed group known as the Freemen. Charlayne Hunter-Gault begins our coverage.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The conflict began in March when FBI agents arrested two Montana men, LeRoy Sweitzer and Daniel Petersen, on charges of mail fraud and passing millions of dollars worth of phony money orders and checks. They were also accused of threatening federal officials and making a death threat against one judge. The two were the leaders of a group known as the Freemen, tax protesters who deny the legitimacy of the American government and want to set up their own. The Freemen’s neighbors in Montana report that they are heavily armed. After the arrests, other members of the Freemen group named in the fraud indictment holed up in a remote farm house on a wheat and sheep farm located 130 miles from Billings.

Local state and federal police moved in and surrounded the compound. And that was the beginning of the 72-day standoff. Since it started, federal authorities have gone out of their way to avoid a violent confrontation with the Freemen, saying they didn’t want a repeat of earlier clashes like Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho. Attorney General Janet Reno emphasized her desire for a peaceful ending no matter how long it takes.

JANET RENO, Attorney General: The FBI has gone to great pains to ensure that there is no armed confrontation, no siege, no armed perimeter, and no use of military assault type tactics or equipment. The FBI is trying to negotiate a peaceful solution.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: In the last two months, there have been a number of attempts to negotiate with the Freemen at their compound by friends and family of the Freemen, the FBI, and different sympathizers to the militia movement, including former Green Beret Bo Gritz.

The negotiations that seemed the most promising were led by one of those sympathizers, State Sen. Charles Duke of Colorado. But those talks collapsed on May 21st, and Duke returned to Colorado, saying he thought the Freemen were not militia men but criminals. In the last few weeks, federal authorities have stepped up pressure on the Freemen. Last week, the FBI brought in a helicopter and three armored trucks. They told journalists who have been staking out the standoff to move back more than two miles away.

Over Memorial Day Weekend, the FBI set up generators to provide electricity to the farm’s neighbors and yesterday cut off the power to the compound, itself.

But last night, it appeared there were a few lights on in the farm house, indicating that the group has generators of their own. The Freemen are reportedly out of toilet paper and cigarettes but have meat in a freezer, fish in a pond, and deer to shoot, all suggesting they are capable of holding out a long time.

JIM LEHRER: Three perspectives now on this Montana standoff. Joe Conley is a former FBI agent whose specialty is negotiations and crisis intervention. Lawrence Myers is a freelance writer on domestic terrorism issues and is on the editorial board of Security & Intelligence Report. Charles Duke is a Colorado state senator who, as we just saw, volunteered to negotiate between federal agents and the Freemen. Joe Conley, what effect do you think turning off the electricity is going to have on this?

JOE CONLEY, Retired FBI Special Agent: Well, Jim, I think that it’s basically going to send a signal. In and of itself, turning off the electricity isn’t going to prompt these people to come directly to the negotiating table, but it is telling them that the FBI is there, law enforcement is there, and law enforcement is not going to go away. One of the things that we want to do in situations like this is to isolate the people that we’re negotiating with. And up until now really we’ve contained these folks but we have not isolated them. And I think this is probably one of the first steps in tightening the perimeter and starting the isolation process.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Myers, do you agree, it’s a first step that sends a signal, and that’s all it does?

LAWRENCE MYERS, Freelance Writer: (Evansville, IN) Well, obviously, I don’t know that’s somewhat problematic to send any signals to these folks. They, first of all, don’t recognize the jurisdictional authority of the people who have them surrounded. Second of all, as I recall looking into this, I flew up there last year to talk with these people and look into it, and the fact is that in the late 1980’s, the electricity was shut off on the Clark Ranch for three years. Nobody came out. Nobody moved away.

JIM LEHRER: So what are you saying? Are you saying you don’t think–what–so–what signal do you think is being sent by this, nothing?

MR. MYERS: Well, obviously the escalating militarization up there with the armored vehicles and the helicopters certainly shows an intent that they are about ready to use or at least display force. I do think it’s instructive, however, that the notion of isolating people who live in this neck of the woods is kind of unrealistic. These people have–they could stay up there approximately forever. Jim, they’ve got silos full of grain, plenty of chow, like Charlayne had pointed out, and not only that, but they’re used to living in an isolated situation. They are used to being isolated. And there’s five generations of Clark families that have lived on that ranch. To not have electricity is not unusual and to fend for themselves and live off the land is something they’ve been doing for almost most of this century.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Duke, how do you see the cutting off of the electricity?

CHARLES DUKE, Colorado State Senator (R): (Colorado Springs) Well, I think it will be helpful long-term. Uh, we have to be careful not to consider the occupants of the Clark Ranch as one unified body. They are not. Had it just been up to the Clarks, this would have been over sometime ago, I believe. But what you’ve got there are some destabilizing factors, such as Russ Landers, Dale Jacobi, and Rod Skirdall, and–

JIM LEHRER: Who are–

SEN. DUKE: –we have to begin–

JIM LEHRER: –these folks?

SEN. DUKE: These are–

JIM LEHRER: Excuse me. Tell me who these people are. Yeah. Tell us who they are.

SEN. DUKE: Well, Russ Landers is a gentleman that’s been around the country teaching lectures on the war powers, and, uh, the deviation of our government from the Constitution, and he has warrants outstanding in Colorado, in New York, and a couple of other states, I believe. Dale Jacobi is actually a Canadian citizen. He doesn’t really have anything to say, in my opinion, about what our United States Government does.

And Rod Skirdall is, is an ex–he’s a veteran and had an industrial accident, and so he sometimes has trouble connecting two sentences with each other. But those are the three main destabilizing factors, and my recommendation to the FBI when I left is that those three somehow be isolated from the remainder of the farm, if necessary by force. And I think the rest of the farm would capitulate. I have seen people who are prepared to die for their beliefs, and these people don’t strike me as that type of person.

JIM LEHRER: Joe Conley, as a practical matter, how do you do that? How do you isolate? What have you got there, 20 people in there, right, Sen. Duke, roughly?

SEN. DUKE: There are 21.

JIM LEHRER: You have 21 people. Okay. Joe Conley, you’ve got 21 people in there. You say you got–you heard what the Senator said–you got three bad apples and you want to isolate them from the others. How do you do that through force?

MR. CONLEY: Well, the Senator has a good point, that the, umm, there are people in there that are really driving this thing, and that the majority of the people inside the compound probably would be very happy to leave if they were given their choice to do so. And certainly on a ranch that’s almost a thousands acres large, you’re not going to be able to isolate just as simply as you would in an urban center but you are really cutting back on their ability to deal with the outside world, except through you.

Now in this cellular world, of course, we can’t isolate today the way we used to be able to, but we’ve got to be able to get to the point where they will talk to the outside world only through the people that are outside that perimeter, and again, the message is being sent the ultimate authority out there is law enforcement and if this thing is going to be settled, they’re going to have to cooperate with law enforcement.

Law enforcement certainly is going to be in a position to try and accommodate these people to the extent that the law will allow them to, but they are going to have to make a move at some point in order to bring this thing to a peaceful resolution.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Myers. Yeah, go ahead, Senator.

SEN. DUKE: I think it’s important to point out that they have been offered alternatives for law enforcement for civil authority, and they choose to ignore all of them, including the county sheriff, the Montana state legislature, and the Montana state police. So it’s not just the federal government. They are using this Freemen facade as a means of holding off all civil authority, not just the FBI.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Myers, do you believe it’s going to have to come down to force, some kind of force?

MR. MYERS: I hope not, sir, but I do believe that they, first of all, they don’t recognize the jurisdictional authority of the people who have them surrounded. And as Sen. Duke pointed out, these folks have been advised that any civil authority is willing to take them into custody, and they have changed their negotiating stand. This situation has been going on for a while.

Two and a half years ago in January in 1994, Mr. Clark, the owner of that ranch, and Mr. Skirdall, the gentleman Mr. Duke referred to with the head injury, showed up at the Garfield County Courthouse with 20 of their friends and they literally took that courthouse over, and they held one of these common-law courts. A week later, the county commission asked them not to do that anymore. A month later, they issued a million dollar bounty for the arrest of the county attorney, the county sheriff, and others.

The sheriff at that time in April of 1994, two and a half years ago, specifically requested assistance from federal law enforcement to intervene with these folks who did not recognize his authority. He was told he couldn’t get any help. He had placed an ad in the local paper to get a posse together.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

MR. MYERS: Seventy local citizens two and a half years ago volunteered their services to help Sheriff Phipps and his lone deputy defend against the folks who had put a bounty on his head for his arrest. These folks have had outstanding warrants for their arrest since April of 1994. They’ve had outstanding felony indictments on federal warrants since May of the last year when I went up there.

I think it’s absolutely astonishing that federal law enforcement has outstanding warrants, yet in September of last year this entire crew moved from round-up 125 miles Southwest of where they are now in an armed convoy up to where they are right now and were not challenged. On what basis did federal law enforcement allow that to occur?

JIM LEHRER: Do you have an answer to that, Mr. Conley?

MR. CONLEY: Hindsight’s always 20/20. If this was to be looked at through the luxury of historical perspective, things might have been done differently, but at that particular time, the decision for this–the reasons known only to those people up there that procedure was not followed.

JIM LEHRER: Well, starting with you, Mr. Conley, there’s been some criticism of the way the FBI’s handled this on the grounds that they have bent over too far the other way after Waco and Ruby Ridge, as Charlayne said in the set-up piece, to end this thing peacefully, that it’s become almost an act of humiliation out there in Montana. What’s your view of that?

MR. CONLEY: Well, I would rather–I hate to use the term humiliated, but I certainly would not feel that way. I would much rather extend this thing on indefinitely in order to resolve the situation peacefully. I would much rather pay overtime and spend the amount of money it will take to keep people out there, rather than go to a funeral or to pay off some legal suit.

Negotiations are something that have to be looked at as an open-ended procedure. This won’t be over until it’s over. And we should never try to attempt to impose deadlines on ourselves or try to get this thing wrapped up by a certain period of time or by the end of the month or next week because when we do that, we’re playing into the hands of the people that are inside that compound.

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Duke, do you think the FBI has been too lenient with these folks?

SEN. DUKE: You know, I really don’t. I think they have been lenient deliberately. That’s really to the FBI’s credit–not to say they will always do this, but they’re at least doing that in this case. I think it’s more going out of their way, even over-correcting, if necessary, in order to make sure that the constitutional rights of these people is observed, and an example of how far the FBI was willing to go is they were willing to step aside if these people on the Clark Ranch would simply walk across the cattle guard, the FBI would step aside and let the county sheriff process this, these people or the Montana State Police, or the Montana state legislature. You name–I heard the FBI tell ’em–you name the civil authority you’re willing to recognize, we’ll step aside for those people. So that’s really tremendous, I think, on the part of the FBI, and I don’t know if they’ll do it again in the future or not, but they certainly have done it here.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Myers, what’s your view of how the FBI’s handling this?

MR. MYERS: Well, first of all, I’d like to commend Mr. Conley. That’s the most refreshing thing I’ve heard from an FBI agent or former agent in the last year.

I do think it’s instructive that I believe this critical incident response group that the FBI has created in Washington that is evidently, at least according to the agents on the ground, micromanaging this situation, those agents outside that township or compound of farm or whatever you call it–incidentally suggest that they are not going to be able to resolve this till after the November elections.

Having said that, though, this critical incident response group is clearly behaving in anticipation of those inevitable congressional hearings that are going to probably create some insurmountable questions as to the count and the chronology of this case. These men have been indicted for over a year. They were not taken into custody for nine months after the indictments were handed down.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. But specifically at this stage of it, Mr. Myers, is the FBI–in terms of getting these people to come out–what do you think of their tactic of, of–the way Mr. Conley just said–open-ended, try to end this thing peacefully? It’s better to stay there open-ended rather than to go to funerals.

MR. MYERS: Absolutely. I agree with that 100 percent. I also would say that Ms. Reno was given–gave a comment to CBS News last summer and asked if she had Waco to do all over again, what would she do different? She said she’d do a lot of things differently. Well, this is the opportunity to demonstrate what type of patience they’re willing to show with American citizens.

I think they’re doing fine so far and I know it’s problematic and, Sen. Duke, I would wonder on what basis you made statements and expressed your frustration with these folks during the negotiations, but I think you and I and Mr. Conley can agree, this is a very unique, very difficult, and incredibly complicated negotiating situation here.

JIM LEHRER: As a professional negotiator, Mr. Conley, do you see this as a unique situation?

MR. CONLEY: Yes, I do. And one thing else I would point out, Jim, is that when we deal with negotiations and we prepare for these and we train for negotiation scenarios, we refer to negotiations as a set of guidelines, and that’s all they are, guidelines. What works one day may not work the next day or what didn’t work one week may work the next week, so we–

JIM LEHRER: It means you’ve got a guy in a bank with a–with an AK-47 in one case, then you got this kind of case. That’s not same lingo back and forth.

MR. CONLEY: Certainly not. You have to apply the intelligence that you develop at the scene in a way that helps you resolve the thing, hopefully without using any force.

JIM LEHRER: And do you think that’s going to happen this time?

MR. CONLEY: I think it will, yes. It may take some time, but keep this in mind too. There are 10,000 agents in the FBI. There are 100 of those agents are at the Freemen Ranch. We can swing another 100 in and let those go home and bring in some more fresh troops. This thing can go on without taxing the assets of the FBI or law enforcement, as far as I’m concerned.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Gentlemen, thank you all three very much.