The FBI warned federal officials and local law enforcement of a potential kidnapping plot during the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last winter, according to emails obtained by E&E News.
In an email sent Jan. 6, four days after the standoff began, an intelligence analyst in the FBI’s Portland, Ore., division warned FBI colleagues as well as Harney County Sheriff David Ward and his staff of a threat involving Ryan Payne, a leader of the standoff.
"Payne reportedly plans to take a ‘fed’ hostage in exchange for a prisoner currently detained in Seattle," the analyst wrote under the subject line "Duty to Warn — Officer and Citizen Safety."
The analyst said there are "no additional details regarding Payne’s plans."
The FBI official added that the "information is being disseminated due to Sheriff Ward’s potential meeting with militia members and for officer (and possibly citizen) safety."
The email was marked "UNCLASSIFIED/LAW ENFORCEMENT SENSITIVE" and said it should not be shared outside of the U.S. government. It appears to have been sent to warn Ward. The sheriff, who became a public face of law enforcement during the 41-day standoff, was planning to meet with Payne and Ammon Bundy, another leader of the occupation, the following day, Jan. 7.
It was addressed to Ward and his staff, who are county — not federal — officials. It was also sent to Bureau of Land Management law enforcement and several other FBI officials. The email may have also been intended to inform other law enforcement or agency personnel who were planning to accompany Ward to the meeting.
Citing ongoing litigation against the Malheur occupiers, FBI spokesman Matt Bertron declined to comment for this story.
The emails were among hundreds of pages mailed by the FBI to E&E News. They appear to have been prepared as part of a response to a Freedom of Information Act request. E&E News, however, did not file a request with the law enforcement agency for records on the Malheur occupation, although it has filed FOIAs with other agencies for records on the episode.
Moreover, much of the information in the emails — including the email from the FBI analyst — is outlined in boxes suggesting it was meant to be redacted and included notes such as "b(6)" and "b(7)(D)," which are FOIA exemptions for privacy and law enforcement purposes under the law.
E&E News made its own redactions in some of the documents shared in this story in order to not disclose personal information, such as phone numbers and email addresses, for government employees and private citizens.
Further, at the request of the FBI, E&E News is not publishing the names of bureau officials in the emails.
Despite the FBI’s warning, Ward went through with the Jan. 7 meeting with Bundy and Payne on a roadside near the refuge. There was no altercation or kidnapping attempt.
Video of the encounter has figured prominently in the trial of Bundy and six other occupiers currently taking place in Portland.
Both federal prosecutors and defense attorneys asked the sheriff why he met with Bundy and Payne if Ward believed they were dangerous. Ward said he was trying to defuse the situation.
"I didn’t go to pick a fight. I wanted them to go home," Ward said. "I wanted them to realize there’s appropriate channels to go through. An armed takeover isn’t it."
The FBI email also appears to support Ward’s testimony that federal law enforcement officials didn’t want him to go through with the meeting.
Payne has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to impede federal officials — the same charge for which Bundy and his six co-defendants are on trial. He is scheduled to be sentenced in February. Payne also faces charges over his actions during the 2014 armed protest in Bunkerville, Nev., at the Bundy family ranch.
Through his attorney, Payne denied any kidnapping plot.
"Mr. Payne," federal public defender Lisa Hay said in an email, "believes strongly in freedom and defending the Constitution, but he does not and would never believe the conduct attributed to him in this report is an acceptable means of exercising his rights to redress a grievance against the government."
‘most worrisome piece of Intel’
The intelligence also reached Fish and Wildlife Service employees, immediately raising concerns.
Another FBI intelligence official forwarded the email to John Megan, an FWS law enforcement officer at Malheur.
Megan then tapped out multiple emails on Jan. 7, including relaying the information to other FWS employees like Malheur Manager Chad Karges.
"Ok I’m going to need something further on this one even if its [sic] just a profilers [sic] opinion on Payne. Especially before I take this one to my staff and their families," Megan wrote.
"Is the opinion that Payne would consider taking a non Law Enforcement employee?" he asked.
Megan went on to say the email is "the most worrisome piece of Intel provided" for several reasons, including that the FBI’s past intelligence had seemed "pretty good" because it appeared to have given refuge employees some advance intelligence that Bundy, Payne and their supporters may target the refuge.
The FBI’s information "gave us early warning about taking a government facility which was believed to be the Frenchglen facility at the time but our HQ was also mentioned," Megan wrote. Frenchglen is located at the southern tip of the refuge’s T-shaped property. The headquarters and visitor center that were occupied are farther north, near the top and middle of the T.
Megan added that he had noticed Payne had gone silent on social media. And, Megan said, "the Intel I’ve seen on Payne leads me to a personal belief he would be capable of attempting something like this."
"I feel tensions are rising at the compound," Megan wrote, noting that tactics employed by law enforcement "are making them desperate."
Megan passed on a story he heard that Blaine Cooper — another leader of the occupation — was involved in a fight at the refuge, hitting someone "hard enough he had to go to the hospital."
He also requested more information from FWS officials, including Karges and FWS Refuge Law Enforcement Division Chief Jeremy Bucher, before sharing the intelligence with the refuge’s other employees.
"My concern and question I need answer [sic] is whether or not they would go after a regular fed employee or if they would limit themselves to a armed ‘Fed’," Megan wrote.
"I don’t want to panic our employees," he added.
The email laid out ways he was trying to ensure his family’s safety, including indulging his yellow Labrador’s habit of "barking at literally everything" and locking their front gate.
"It still won’t be Ft Knox but it’ll stop quick vehicle access in and out of our place," Megan wrote.
He said he was mostly concerned about his wife and employees, adding that he had the "option of moving" his wife "into one of our well armed neighbors (one is a retired deputy)" but said he wouldn’t do so "without further reliable intel I’m a target."
Megan also expressed a belief that he would be a high-profile target because of his position at the refuge.
"If they come after me it’ll be a ‘show,’" he wrote.
When contacted by E&E News, Megan directed calls to Jason Holm, an FWS assistant regional director. Holm declined to comment on the emails.
FWS spokesman Gavin Shire said employee safety is the "number one priority" for the agency.
"While we cannot discuss matters pertaining to the ongoing trial related to the occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, employee safety has been and remains our number one priority throughout the agency. We take threats made against our staff seriously and inform employees appropriately of dangers posed to their safety and well-being," Shire said in a statement to E&E News.
Megan’s email appears to corroborate recent testimony by Karges, the refuge’s manager, during the ongoing trial.
Asked by a defendants’ attorney why he didn’t tell his employees to go to the refuge and ask the occupiers to leave, Karges said it "was not a safe environment to do that."
Karges later said he told his 16 employees to stay away from the refuge because he received intelligence of a kidnapping plot but was quickly cut off by defense attorneys (Greenwire, Sept. 16).
Months after occupiers left the refuge, FWS Director Dan Ashe would thank Ward, Megan and Bucher in a May blog post.
"We owe Sheriff Ward and others in the law-enforcement community, like our own John Megan and Jeremy Bucher, an enormous debt of gratitude for ensuring the safety of our Malheur family and the local community in what could have resulted in numerous casualties," Ashe wrote.
‘not planning a Waco event’
The emails also reveal a worry that the Malheur standoff could lead to conflicts at other federal facilities.
In response to Megan’s email, Bucher asked Megan to try to ascertain from the FBI whether "the threat is local, or if unsuspecting employees at other facilities (not in the Burns area) might be at risk." Burns is the closest town to the refuge.
Bucher wrote another email about an hour later saying employees were told to leave the nearby Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in southeast Oregon.
"Just FYI," Bucher wrote. "We’re pulling employees off Hart as a precaution."
Another FWS employee, Ray Portwood, wrote in with similar concerns.
"You have the Calvary [sic] in Burns," he wrote. "The [national wildlife refuges] in the surrounding area are ‘soft targets.’ Could they do the same at Hart Mt. or Sheldon?"
Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge straddles the Oregon-Nevada line.
In an email sent a day earlier, Portwood expressed worries that the Malheur protest could spread into neighboring Idaho, the home state of many of the occupiers.
"I fear that if things go bad at Malheur NWR, that could trigger rebellious ME/AGE actions," Portwood said.
Portwood was likely referring to "militant extremist" with "ME" and "anti-government extremist" with "AGE."
The FWS employee said he hoped a press officer from FWS or the Justice Department would appear on a local radio show to explain the history behind the Malheur refuge.
"People here are buying into the misinformation, and becoming more frustrated and angry towards the Federal government every day. It is very discouraging to hear the rhetoric day after day on the radio," Portwood said. "And we just set [sic] here silent. … That could potentially hurt us."
Still, FWS employees began to sense that the occupiers’ will was breaking. Law enforcement authorities’ move to wait out the protest seemed to be creating discord among the group.
"They are not planning a Waco event. The group is already falling apart and they plan to wait them out," said Carla Burnside, an FWS archaeologist at the refuge, in one email.
"Psychologically the absence of a law enforcement presence is already working," she wrote. "It could take weeks."
Burnside, who has testified at the occupiers’ trial that her office was "completely trashed" by the occupiers, believed there wouldn’t be violence at Malheur.
"The FBI is not going to let these guys become martyrs so they have good control of the situation," Burnside said in another email. "Just understand that everyone out there will be going to jail when this is over."
‘Frenchglen … will be occupied next’
While it appeared that federal officials were caught off guard by the occupiers, Forest Service records obtained by E&E News under FOIA show agencies were notified weeks earlier that Bundy and others could be in the area.
Federal officials expected there would be protests in response to father-and-son ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond’s impending Jan. 4 surrender to authorities for federal arson convictions.
In a Dec. 18, 2015, email, Forest Service District Ranger Christy Ann Cheyne said she heard from a Bureau of Land Management official "that the group (3%, Bundy and the Oath Keepers) may start protesting as the Jan 4th date approaches (when Hammonds need to turn themselves in)."
"He is closing the BLM if any of these individuals show up to protest" and would give Cheyne a heads-up, according to her email.
The Oath Keepers and "3%" — a reference to 3 Percenters — are self-described patriot groups that often protest against the federal government.
Later that month, BLM Burns District Manager Brendan Cain "just stopped by and said if anything happens with the Bundy people they will close down," according to a Dec. 30, 2015, email from Terri Hellbusch, a support services specialist with the Forest Service.
Once occupiers took control of the Malheur refuge on Jan. 2, other federal officials were worried that they were next to be targeted — especially BLM.
"We suspect that the Frenchglen Guard Station will be occupied next. ONLY SPECULATION," Cain emailed on the day Malheur was taken.
FWS’s Megan appeared to note similar intelligence when he referenced the Frenchglen facility in discussing the alleged kidnapping plot.
BLM declined to elaborate on the emails. Tara Thissell, an agency spokeswoman, said BLM could not comment for this story due to the ongoing trial involving participants in the Malhuer occupation.
Police would cut power to the Frenchglen facility in early January to prevent it from being seized, although the occupiers never showed (Greenwire, Feb. 24).
In the wake of occupiers taking over Malheur, the Forest Service upped its own security. The agency closed its own nearby Emigrant Creek Ranger District office, which would reopen in February after the occupation ended.
FWS has not been so lucky. The Malheur refuge’s headquarters is still closed to the public today, although other parts of the refuge are again open.
The agency declined to answer questions about its response to the Malheur occupation.
"The Forest Service does not comment on matters pending litigation," said Mike Illenberg, a Forest Service spokesman. Illenberg referred further questions to the Department of Justice.
FWS employees at Malheur still shared office banter during the standoff — just over email due to the occupiers keeping them off site. Some found laughs in what became a national spectacle.
Linda Beck, an FWS biologist, noted that Bundy himself was at her desk during the occupation.
"Bundy is using my desk as his work space. His computer and guns are in a photo on my desk and some social media videos were shot from there," Beck said in one email. "Totally nuts!"