The range of intimidation against federal employees included attempted murder. The count of 360 is probably an underestimate and does not fully convey the severity of the problem. Incidents reported to state and local authorities are not included in the tally.
More troubling, employees told the GAO they don’t always report threats, because they are “part of the job,” or a “common occurrence” even while off-duty, shopping or at home. Many cases were motivated by “anti-government ideologies,” according to the GAO.
Despite this, none of the four agencies — the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service — has completed all required facility security assessments, and three have no plans to do so. The House Natural Resources oversight and investigations subcommittee will discuss the report at a hearing Tuesday on “Protecting Federal Employees and Ending the Culture of Anti-Government Attacks and Abuse.”
President Trump demonstrated his position last year on those anti-government ideologues who violate federal facilities, and it is not a comforting one for federal employees.
He pardoned two men whose convictions on public-land arson charges helped ignite the six-week Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation in Oregon in 2016. He absolved Dwight Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond, father-and-son cattle ranchers in southeastern Oregon whose convictions carried mandatory five-year sentences. After a judge gave them much less time, prosecutors appealed, and they were resentenced to the five years.
Their return to prison incensed supporters, including the Malheur occupiers who “directly tied their actions to the Hammonds’ case and the broader frustration over federal land control,” The Washington Post reported last year.
Malheur repeatedly was mentioned in the report, which cited examples of threatening incidents around the time of the occupation, including:
●“Individuals holding anti-government beliefs [who] followed a teenage girl wearing a BLM shirt around the local grocery store and threatened to burn her house down.”
●People regularly parking outside employees’ houses, making one official feel “they were holding us hostage in our own homes.”
●Reports of shots being fired over employees’ heads while they worked in the field.
Because of incidents such as these, the GAO said that “many employees were traumatized by the Malheur occupation and some did not return to work” there.
Among the 88 BLM cases cited was the attempted murder of a law enforcement officer and the stabbing of an employee outside a federal building. The FBI investigated the posting of a BLM officer’s personal information on Twitter and the more than 500 harassing phone calls and several death threats that followed.
Steve Ellis, a 38-year federal employee, said in an interview that he was threatened several times before he retired in 2016 as BLM’s deputy director, the agency’s highest career position. In one 2007 Enterprise, Ore., incident, two men upset over proposed federal limits on the use of all-terrain vehicles in Wallowa-Whitman National Forest threatened to lynch him, he said.
Five years later, a Nevada county commissioner ran up to him, nose-to-nose, like a baseball manager furious over an umpire’s call, he said. The local official was angry because he believed Ellis’s decision not to proceed with a wind-farm project would hurt the region’s employment. “You better not ever show your face in Elko County,” Ellis recalled the commissioner yelling.
As a manager, Ellis had to spend more on protection for security cameras, higher office counters so people could not jump over them as one upset man did, panic buttons on lanyards for employees to use when threatened and distress signals for staffers in the field.
The Interior Department, which includes the BLM, Fish and Wildlife and the Park Service, and the Agriculture Department, which includes the Forest Service, generally agreed with GAO recommendations to complete facility security assessments.
Fish and Wildlife has a plan to do so, but the other three agencies don’t, according to the GAO. Officials at the three agencies blamed limited resources, poor training and decentralized organization structures for the job not getting done.
“Our highest priority is the safety and well being of our employees and visitors on our public lands,” an Interior Department statement said. “We are committed to continuing to improve our facilities and operations to ensure a safe and secure environment is established department-wide.” The Agriculture Department did not have further comment.
Anti-government extremists target employees of these agencies because the staffers often are the most visible government workers, particularly in rural areas of 12 western states where about one-third of all land in the United States is federally owned.
“BLM employees have had to deal with an ever-increasing number of threats from radicalized elements of the public,” said Andrew Suppiger, a National Federation of Federal Employees local president in California. “What guidance have we given to our employees who are likely to come into contact with the public outside of the office in addressing these threats? None, as far as I am aware.”