Federal land agencies lack security preparedness: GAO report


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American cattle rancher Cliven Bundy speaks at a forum hosted by the American Academy for Constitutional Education at the Burke Basic School in Mesa, Arizona. Bundy was involved in a 2014 standoff in Nevada over cattle grazing on federal land. His son, Ammon, lead an armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon that lasted for six weeks in early 2016.

Federal land management agencies like the National Parks Service have gaps in their security, even as federal data warns of the threat posed by anti-government extremist ideologies, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The report found that the Bureau of Land Management, Park Service, Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service have not completed security facility assessments on all of their occupied facilities. The findings came as the FBI warned that the threat from anti-government extremism grew from 2013 to 2017.

Recent high-profile incidents include the 2016 armed occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, led by rancher Ammon Bundy. Bundy’s father Cliven led a standoff in Bunkerville, Nevada in 2014 over unauthorized cattle grazing on federal land.

In response to the report, Land Management spokesperson Derrick Henry told The DePaulia, “Federal employees should never be harassed or threatened because of their work on behalf of the American people, a policy we enforce against everyone regardless of position, prominence or power. In defending federal employees we investigate threats, collaborate with the FBI, U.S. Attorneys offices and state and local law enforcement, and seek justice to the fullest extent of the law.  Meanwhile we strive to improve the security of our facilities to ensure that BLM employees are protected on the job.”

At a Tuesday hearing discussing the findings of the report, University of Oregon geology professor Peter Walker, who personally witnessed the 2016 Malheur occupation and interviewed its leaders and others for a 2018 book, told members of the Natural Resources Committee that he was concerned smaller groups of individuals with anti-government ideologies may get a sense of legitimacy from the high-profile actions of groups like the Bundys.

“Other groups who have also advocated for replacing the existing federal government heard the message that the federal government is broken, it’s broken beyond repair, it needs to be replaced, and it’s the duty of patriots, through armed force, to re-establish constitutional government,” he said.

The GAO report found that many threats against federal land management agency employees may go unreported due to employees considering them a normal part of the job. Other reasons include incidents being reported to state and local law enforcement rather than the agencies themselves.

“As a result, the number of actual threats and assaults is unclear and may be higher than what is represented in available data,” the report says.

From 2013 to 2017, Land Management reported 88 incidents of threats and assault against their employees; Fish and Wildlife reported 66; the Forest Service reported 177; and the Park Service reported 29.

Incidents included death threats, a Land Management employee being stabbed outside a federal building, a camper telling a member of the Forest Service his dog would rip her head off and a Park Service employee’s vehicle being rammed and attempted murder.

Anne-Marie Fennell, the lead writer of the report and director of the GAO’s Natural Resources and Environment team, cautioned that the report does not examine what portion of those numbers are motivated by anti-government ideologies. According to the FBI, under 100 domestic terrorism investigations were launched into threats to federal land management agencies from 2013 to 2017, most of which involved the Bureau of Land Management.

Three of the agencies — Land Management, the Forest Service and the Park Service — have no plans for completing the recommended security assessments for their occupied facilities. Officials from all three agencies cited the decentralized nature of their departments and said their state and regional offices were responsible for their own compliance with the ISC standard, a framework for how nonmilitary federal buildings should be secured that was developed in the wake of the deadly 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing.

“By not using a methodology that fully complies with the ISC standard, agencies could face adverse effects, such as an inability to make informed resource allocation decisions for their physical security needs and providing facilities — and the facilities’ occupants — with an inappropriate or insufficient level of protection,” Fennell told The DePaulia.

The ISC standard includes preparing for 33 “undesirable events” including armed standoffs, automobile ramming and even chemical or biological weapons attacks.

The report recommends all four agencies improve their security assessments and that Land Management, the Forest Service and the Park Service create standardized, agency-wide plans for all of their offices to complete the security assessments.

Fennell said the agencies also cited a lack of available resources, expertise and training in explaining why they had not completed their federally required security assessments.