Three years before the impoundment of Cliven Bundy’s cattle turned into an armed confrontation between anti-government groups and federal agents, the FBI made an assessment that the Nevada rancher personally was unlikely to be violent in the event of conflict. The agency suggested a novel solution to Bundy’s 20 years of unpaid bills, one designed to put the dispute to rest: drop the fines he owed altogether.
The FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, based in Quantico, Va., determined in 2011 that the rancher was unlikely to comply with federal court orders to move his 900 animals off federal land, where they had been illegally grazing, because “he only has enough land to handle less than 100 head of cattle.” Though the Bureau of Land Management was concerned that allowing Bundy to avoid paying federal grazing fees and fines could lead to violence, the FBI thought otherwise.
“BLM may wish to consider waiving the existing fines, as a gesture of willingness to participate in discussions geared toward negotiations,” the FBI wrote in the classified analysis, obtained by The Washington Post. The unit concluded that any alternatives the government could offer Bundy might reduce the rancher’s stress and “in turn, reduce the risk of a violent act.”
The government did not heed that advice.
In April 2014, when BLM officers attempted to take possession of Bundy’s cattle, they were met by the gun barrels of hundreds of protesters and militia members who had come to Bundy’s aid in the desert. That, in turn, gave momentum to anti-government militias in the West and spawned conflicts such as the deadly standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January 2016.
The FBI’s threat assessment was one of several pieces of evidence that led to a mistrial of Bundy and his sons Ammon and Ryan, a case that centered on their actions during the standoff. A judge ruled that the FBI document, as well as threat assessments conducted by the Las Vegas Metro Police Department and the Southern Nevada Counter Terrorism Center (SNCTC), were improperly kept from the defendants during discovery.
The FBI report shows that the agency saw Bundy’s disavowal of federal authority in Nevada as in line with his affiliation with the Patriot Movement — a group “centered on a belief that individual liberties are in jeopardy due to unconstitutional actions taken by federal government officials, to illegally accumulate power and control over U.S. land,” it reads.
But the report also noted that he didn’t want the situation to come to a head: “He mentioned on several occasions that he wanted to avoid violence if possible, and stated ‘I’m not figuring on hurting anybody, and I don’t want any of my friends to get hurt over a damn cow either.’ ”
While the FBI wrote in its report that it didn’t conclude that Bundy would become violent, it did consider him to be paranoid.
“He appears to believe that many individuals or organizations are aligned against him in a grand conspiracy to infringe upon his perceived constitutional rights,” the report said.
The FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit declined to comment on the assessment because of the potential for more litigation related to the case, a bureau spokeswoman said.
The Nevada assessment, in March 2012, echoed that concern, saying that he suspected the government was going to “wipe him out after the incidents at Ruby Ridge, Idaho and Waco, Texas, and that the only reason this did not occur was because of the Oklahoma City bombing.”
Other agencies that conducted threat assessments concurred that while the elder Bundy wouldn’t be violent, his eldest son, Ryan, might be.
A memorandum detailing a February 2014 meeting between Las Vegas Sheriff Doug Gillespie, Cliven Bundy and several of his children to discuss an impoundment of the cattle said that Ryan Bundy “stated that they were not going to let this happen and they would do whatever is necessary to protect their father’s property.”
“The Sheriff realized there would be no reasoning with Ryan,” the memo said. “If anyone in the family would be involved in a confrontation with the BLM or contractor it would probably be Ryan.”
Cliven Bundy did not respond to requests for comment. Ryan Bundy also declined to comment fully, saying only that such reports and findings are part of a smear campaign against his family that is “dishonest and misleading” and full of “lies.”
In an interview Saturday, Ammon Bundy said the family has long been frustrated that there is a narrative about violence associated with them, alleging that the BLM has been provoking the Bundys to react violently as part of a strategy to display power and authority.
“Never once were we ever violent, never once were we professing violence or acting violent,” Ammon Bundy said. “And yet they continue to go with the narrative that we were violent.”
Bob Abbey, who served as director of the BLM when the assessments were conducted, said he cannot recall anyone suggesting Bundy was not a threat or that the government should waive Bundy’s fines.
“If that’s true, that message was never communicated to me when I was director of the BLM,” he said. “We would have certainly taken into account what the FBI had recommended. But, again, none of that information was shared with me.”
Before helming the federal land management agency, Abbey also served as the BLM’s Nevada state director — and when he left that post, he says, Bundy was the only rancher with trespassing cattle in the state.
“Cliven Bundy was always confrontational. He had strong beliefs that his philosophy was based upon the United States Constitution and the federal government had absolutely no legit role to play in natural resource management, and had no authority for owning and managing public lands,” Abbey said.
The Nevada terrorism center’s threat assessment found widespread support for the Bundy family and its beliefs about the federal government.
“Mr. Bundy believes the BLM’s actions have nothing to do with cattle or the desert tortoise, but rather that it is an attempt by the federal government to take land from the state and the citizens who live there,” the report says. “This sentiment is held by almost every individual who was interviewed.”
Cliven Bundy, now 72, inherited his 160-acre ranch from his father, David Bundy, who legally grazed his cattle on the federal lands surrounding the desert ranch with the use of a grazing permit. Those public lands now include Gold Butte National Monument, which is filled with cultural artifacts, and sensitive desert areas where threatened tortoise species live and water and food are scarce.
But by the 1990s, when Cliven Bundy took the reins of the operation, those grazing permits went unpaid and eventually expired. Cliven Bundy became active in the states’ rights movement and clung to Sagebrush Rebellion-era leaders who advocated for federal lands to be transferred back to the states.
He often claims that his family holds “ancestral” rights to the public land. In late August 2018, his lawyers filed a lawsuit asking for a judge to declare federal lands within the state as property of Nevada.
The Bundy family often says it will do “whatever it takes” to keep its cattle on public land, and the Nevada terrorism report saw that as a veiled threat of violence — even if Cliven Bundy himself was not violent. “Several individuals stated that they would not initiate any violent actions against BLM personnel, but they would defend themselves and return fire if fired upon,” it read. “Additionally, a couple of Mr. Bundy’s relatives stated that they would do anything asked of them, including taking up arms.”
The Nevada officials anticipated that resistance to a cattle impoundment on Bundy Ranch could take the form of organized protests — which did, in fact, occur in the days before the Bundy Ranch standoff.
But when a video of Ammon Bundy being hit with a stun gun by BLM agents went viral, it served as a recruitment video that attracted anti-government groups from around the country.
Authorities saw that coming, too, according to the Nevada report: “There is the potential that the use of a nonlethal weapon or instrument could be misinterpreted as being fired upon and quickly escalate the violence of any confrontation.”
In their report, Nevada authorities wondered why it took 20 years to impound Cliven Bundy’s cattle — something Abbey said was the result of state budgeting. He said the Bundy impoundment was estimated to cost up to $1 million and take as long as 30 days, involving several agencies and requiring helicopters and enough staff to capture the herd.
That all comes out of the state budget, Abbey said, money that could be used to rehabilitate public lands after wildfires rage across the Western landscape.
Today, Cliven Bundy continues to graze his herd across public lands without a permit. Abbey said that is “an action that can no longer been ignored.”
Ammon Bundy said Saturday that his father has been right all along — not paranoid, as the government suggested — noting that federal authorities came after him exactly as he thought they would, leading to the standoff.
Would the Bundys support another standoff or federal lands occupation?
“I certainly would if there was an individual or family that I felt would benefit from it,” Ammon Bundy said.
Sottile is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore., and is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post. Mark Berman, in Washington, contributed to this report.