It should be obvious: When the U.S. government goes after anti-government protesters, it must follow the highest legal, ethical and operational standards. To do otherwise is to reinforce the protesters’ notion of an unfair, untrustworthy and undisciplined government.
Yet in the court case against Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy — whose 2014 ranching protests helped inspire the 2016 armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County — federal agents and prosecutors veered off that high road and onto the low road. Because the government withheld evidence that might have aided the defense, federal Judge Gloria Navarro declared a mistrial last month, stating “a fair trial at this point is impossible.”
Bundy, sons Ammon and Ryan and sympathizer Ryan Payne faced multiple charges, including conspiracy, from the Bundys’ 2014 armed standoff against federal agents in Nevada. Navarro has scheduled a hearing for Jan. 8 to determine whether the case against them should be thrown out. On Friday, the federal prosecutors asked for a new trial, contending their failure to share all their evidence with the defense was unintentional.
Let there be no doubt: Cliven Bundy should not have kept using public land for his cattle after choosing not to renew his federal grazing permit and not paying the grazing fees. The Bundys and their supporters should not have taken up arms against federal agents who planned to seize the Bundy cattle over the unpaid fees and ensuing fines. Ammon Bundy and his cohorts should not have brought their armed campaign into Oregon and seized the Malheur refuge.
However, documents and testimony reveal that at various stages it was as if some federal agents had a vendetta against the Bundys and their supporters. As one example, a federal threat assessment had found the Bundys were not the violent threat that the government claimed. Yet the government expectation of a violent response from the Bundys almost guaranteed violence. The government had positioned snipers and other surveillance, and armed Bundy supporters had shown up to protect the cattle ranch.
The similarities to the Malheur refuge occurrence are eerie. The U.S. Justice Department’s heavy-handed pursuit of two Harney County ranchers — Dwight Hammond Jr. and son Steven Hammond — led to excessive prison sentences in their arson case. In response, Ammon Bundy and his fellow anti-government sympathizers descended on the community of Burns and eventually invaded the wildlife refuge.
Nothing justifies those extremist actions of Ammon Bundy and his followers, or those of Cliven Bundy. But remember: Our nation’s founders envisioned a fair, just and accountable government. When federal prosecutors and law enforcement agents subvert these principles, they undermine the very government they claim to uphold.