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The FBI's Approach Pays Off : Unlike similar incidents, 'freemen' siege ends without violence

June 16, 1996

The oddball collection of religious zealots, government-hating tax protesters, racists and hard-luck farmers who called themselves "freemen" will now face the criminal charges that originally sent federal agents to their Montana compound late last March, there to begin an 81-day siege that has now thankfully ended with no lives lost.

Nowhere was relief greater than in the nearby community of Jordan, whose residents had long been intimidated by their well-armed neighbors. The townspeople, eager to return to normal living, had lately urged the use of "reasonable force" to capture the 16 men and women in the group. The FBI chose to wait. It negotiated through intermediaries, it let the freemen feel the isolation that deepened as those who were once their ideological chums abandoned them in disgust, it cut off their electricity and blocked their cellular phones, denying them an outlet for their propaganda. The tactic proved effective, but the desired result did not come cheap. FBI Director Louis J. Freeh puts the cost of the siege by 100 or so of his agents at "several million dollars." The government should do what it legally can to seize any assets the freemen might have to help pay that bill.

What made the FBI approach feasible was the absence of violence against officials in this case, which kept down the pressure for a quick and aggressive response. The FBI's controversial attack against armed extremists at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 came after the killing of a federal marshal. The attack on the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas, in 1993 was preceded by a battle in which four federal agents were killed and more than a score wounded.

The crimes the freemen were wanted for, among them alleged check fraud and threatening a federal judge, did not include physical violence. Had the circumstances been otherwise, so probably would have been the government's tactics. The Montana siege, officials say, sets no precedent; future incidents will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

Groups like the freemen invariably claim they are acting with the purest patriotic motives and in conformity with some higher law. In fact, these groups tend to be little more than hate-driven and opportunistic misfits. The government says it cut no deals with the freemen, nor should it have. In the end it achieved what was needed. Now the justice system will have a chance to do what in a civilized society it is meant to do.

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