Ryan Bundy seemed uneasy as he settled into a white leather chair in a private suite at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. As the eldest son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who had become a national figure for his armed standoff with U.S. government agents in April 2014, Ryan had quite a story to tell.
Eight months had passed since Cliven and hundreds of supporters, including heavily armed militia members, faced off against the federal government in a sandy wash under a highway overpass in the Mojave Desert. Now, here in the comforts of the Bellagio, six documentary filmmakers trained bright lights and high-definition cameras on Ryan. They wanted to ask about the standoff. Wearing a cowboy hat, Ryan fidgeted before the cameras. He had told this story before; that wasn’t the reason for his nerves. After all, the Bundy confrontation made national news after armed agents with the Bureau of Land Management seized the Bundy family’s cattle following a trespassing dispute and the accumulation of more than $1 million in unpaid grazing fees. But the Bundys, aided by their armed supporters, beat back the government, forcing agents to release the cattle and retreat.
Images of armed Bundy supporters with high-powered rifles taking on outgunned BLM agents circulated widely on social media. As a result, the Bundys became a household name, lionized by the right as champions of individual liberty and vilified by the left as anti-government extremists.
But something seemed off to Ryan about this interview in the Bellagio. While the family’s newfound fame had attracted fresh supporters to their cause, it had also inspired suspicion. With a federal investigation looming, who among these new faces could they really trust?
Among the more recent figures in the Bundy orbit was this mysterious documentary film crew. The director, Charles Johnson, was middle-aged, with a silver goatee, slicked-back hair, and a thick southern accent. His assistant, who identified herself as Anna, was tall and blond. A website for their company, Longbow Productions, listed an address in Nashville, Tennessee, but the Bundys could find no previous examples of their work.
As the cameras recorded, Ryan’s skepticism was plain. At times, his right eye rolled back into his head, the result of a childhood accident that paralyzed half of his face, and his gaze shifted to figures outside the shot. “There’s been a lot of red flags in the community about Longbow Productions,” one of his companions explained to the film crew. “No bullshit, straight talk. … It’s almost like you’re trying to make us incriminate ourselves.”
With a conspicuously placed copy of the U.S. Constitution poking out of his left breast pocket, Ryan turned his gaze to Johnson.
“We really do want to work with you, if that’s really what’s going on,” he said. But his family needed to know, “Is this just a mole project to garner information that will then be given to the feds?”
Johnson insisted the project was a legitimate endeavor. “I want a truthful documentary.”
“Alrighty,” Ryan said. “Let’s proceed.”
“Quiet on the set,” Johnson told his crew.
Ryan should have trusted his instincts. Johnson and his colleagues were not documentarians. They were undercover FBI agents posing as filmmakers. By the time they sat down with Ryan, Johnson and his team had spent eight months traveling to at least five states to film interviews with nearly two dozen people about the Bundy standoff, all part of an FBI effort to build criminal cases against the Bundys and their supporters.
The story of the FBI’s fake documentary crew, revealed in more than 100 hours of video and audio recordings obtained by The Intercept, offers an unprecedented window into how federal law enforcement agents impersonate journalists to gain access to criminal suspects. The raw material produced by the FBI was presented under seal in the U.S. District Court in Nevada, where Ryan Bundy, his father, Cliven, and his brothers, as well as more than a dozen supporters, were charged with conspiracy, assault, weapons offenses, and other crimes related to their standoff with the government.
The Bundys consider themselves true men and women of the American West. Cliven Bundy, a Mormon patriarch with 14 children and at least 60 grandchildren, operates a cattle ranch with his family 80 miles east of Las Vegas that was settled by Cliven’s ancestors in the 1880s. “The ranch has been home for me most all my life,” Cliven told Johnson and the other undercover FBI agents, believing they were making a documentary about his life and the standoff.
Cliven and his family aren’t wealthy ranchers, and their land has only offered a subsistence lifestyle at best. As generations of western ranchers have done, Cliven’s family built a home near a water source on private property and then allowed cattle to graze freely on surrounding lands owned by the U.S. government. A dilapidated semi-trailer, broken-down cars, old tires, and wooden shipping pallets litter the dirt road leading into the Bundy property. The ranch is set up like a wagon wheel, with the Bundy home at the center surrounded by irrigated fields of alfalfa and melons. From there, the ranch then extends out in every direction, covering more than 600,000 acres, counting government land, where Cliven’s 400 head of cattle graze.
The Bundy family’s dispute with the federal government began nearly 30 years ago, when conservation officials declared the desert tortoise an endangered species, resulting in severe restrictions to grazing rights for ranchers in Clark County, Nevada. Some of Cliven’s neighbors fought the government in court, but in time, all but Cliven abandoned their ranches. Cliven took another tack, refusing to renew his permit for grazing rights. He continued to allow his cattle to graze federal lands, damn the consequences. As far as Cliven was concerned, the land was public and no one was using it anyway. The government hauled Bundy into court, and in 1998, a U.S. District Court judge issued an order prohibiting Cliven from using the lands. Cliven refused to comply, and his unpaid grazing fees piled up, reaching more than $1 million. In July 2013, another District Court judge issued an order demanding that Cliven not trespass on federal lands. And then in April 2014, the Bureau of Land Management, with the help of so-called contract cowboys, began to round up Cliven’s trespassing cattle.
The roundup set off a storm of rumors among the Bundys and their local supporters — that the cattle were being mistreated, that they were dying or being killed intentionally, and that the government was burying them in mass graves. On April 9, the Bundys and other locals intercepted a convoy of contract cowboys protected by BLM agents. The crowd stopped the line of trucks in an attempt to see whether they were transporting dead cattle. A confrontation ensued. Cliven’s 57-year-old sister was thrown to the ground by a BLM agent. Cliven’s son Ammon kicked a BLM dog and was tased twice as result. All of it was captured on camera.
One video in particular, shot by Pete Santilli, blew up online and would later be referenced repeatedly by subjects in the FBI’s undercover documentary production. The clip, which has now been seen more than 1.8 million times on YouTube, turned Cliven’s story into a cause célèbre among rural conservatives, right-wing groups, and anti-government militias, who viewed the cattle roundup, and the force used during that confrontation, as an abuse of government power. Cliven, who had appeared on Santilli’s radio show the day before the clash describing how hundreds of contract cowboys protected by hundreds of armed federal agents were taking over his ranch, won a massive audience of fired-up supporters from around the country. “They have my home surrounded,” Cliven said. The news quickly spread through social media, fueled by photographs that appeared to show federal agents aiming sniper rifles from a hilltop. Sean Hannity soon interviewed Cliven on Fox News about the situation.
Cheered by Tea Party conservatives, the Bundys garnered public support from Republican Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Dean Heller of Nevada. That support later faded after Cliven was caught on video making racist comments about “the negro” and suggesting that African-Americans would be “better off as slaves.” There was no question that the Bundys energized some devout bigots. Stanley Blaine Hicks, aka Blaine Cooper, a propagandist for the family’s cause, once filmed himself smearing a Quran with bacon, setting its pages on fire, then shooting it with a bow and arrow (he boasted about the stunt in a secretly recorded conversation with the FBI). At the same time, however, the family’s supporters were not a monolith. For many, the Bundys’ high-profile battle with the federal government became symbolic of economic and cultural losses that resonate deeply in western ranching communities.
Hundreds of people, including militia members with assault rifles, began to arrive at the Bundy ranch. “We need guns to protect ourselves from a tyrannical government,” said Jim Lordy, from Montana, in an interview with a Las Vegas TV news crew. Local authorities, in a poorly planned attempt to corral protesters into designated areas, set up zones marked by signs that read, “First Amendment Area.” The signs only inflamed perceptions that the government was overstepping its constitutional authority.
The protests grew so large that the Bundys’ supporters blocked a stretch of Interstate 15 between Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. The situation came to a head on April 12, when scores of protesters confronted the BLM in a wash outside the Bundy ranch, as gunmen took up positions on the hillsides and overpasses around them. While the authorities had already set in motion plans to release the cattle the night before, the presence of so many armed militiamen, armed federal agents, and unarmed civilians escalated tensions dramatically. In its indictment against Cliven and his followers, the government would later describe the standoff as a “massive armed assault.” Fearing for the safety of its agents, and envisioning another violent showdown like the Ruby Ridge incident of 1992, the BLM released Cliven’s cattle that day and withdrew from land near the Bundy ranch on April 21, 2014.
Cliven had beaten the government, or so he thought. What he didn’t realize was that an undercover FBI investigation, intended to build cases against the Bundy patriarch and his supporters for what happened during the standoff, was about to begin.
The FBI office in Las Vegas called on an undercover agent using the name Charles Johnson to take part in an operation that would reveal how the Bundy protests were organized and whether anyone had violated federal law. They came up with the idea of creating a fake documentary production company whose filmmakers would interview Cliven and the protesters.
Johnson would later testify that the plan was “unique” and “a little bit different,” in that instead of seeking to expose a crime that had not yet happened, the fake documentary sought to uncover information “after the fact.”
The agent’s assessment was true, but it was also an understatement. Not only did the FBI’s plan involve detailing events that had already taken place, the events in question were widely documented, as was the involvement of the individuals the bureau ultimately targeted. A quick Google search would reveal hundreds of interviews, photographs, and social media posts chronicling nearly all those individuals’ participation in the standoff. What’s more, even if the undercover team could coax interviewees into making comments more incriminating than the information already available in the public sphere, any evidence gleaned from the operation would require disclosing in court that the FBI had taken the controversial step of impersonating journalists.
Despite a clear risk that considerable resources would be expended to gather publicly available information, incurring a guaranteed backlash from legitimate members of the news media along the way, Johnson and the FBI pressed on, setting up a fake website for the production company and deploying cameras, lights, sound equipment — everything they needed to appear professional — for the operation. The working title of the FBI’s documentary was “America Reloaded.”
While the scale of the operation was unlike anything that has been revealed in recent years, this wasn’t the first time FBI agents had impersonated the news media. In June 2007, a 15-year-old high school student near Seattle repeatedly emailed bomb threats to his school, causing daily evacuations of the building. Because the student used proxy servers to hide his location, the FBI was unable to track him. As a result, FBI agents posed as an Associated Press journalist and emailed the student individual links to a fake news article and photographs that surreptitiously installed a tracking program allowing the FBI to determine the student’s location.
When the FBI’s actions were revealed nearly seven years later, the Associated Press and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, representing 25 other news organizations, wrote letters to FBI Director James Comey and Attorney General Eric Holder objecting to the practice of impersonating journalists in criminal investigations. In a November 6, 2014, letter to the New York Times, Comey defended the practice. “That technique was proper and appropriate under Justice Department and FBI guidelines at the time,” he wrote. “Today, the use of such an unusual technique would probably require higher level approvals than in 2007, but it would still be lawful and, in a rare case, appropriate.”
In June 2016, the FBI adopted an interim policy that requires undercover operations involving the impersonation of news media to be approved by the deputy director of the FBI in consultation with the deputy attorney general. Because the FBI’s fake documentary project in Nevada began before this policy was enacted, it’s unclear whether senior leaders at the FBI signed off. The FBI did not respond to questions for this story, including a request for that information. Instead, the bureau released only a prepared statement to The Intercept: “The FBI conducts investigative activity in accordance with the Attorney General’s Guidelines and the Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide. These authorities provide safeguards intended to ensure that FBI employees act in accordance with the law and the Constitution.”
On the night of June 14, 2014, two months after BLM agents released Cliven Bundy’s cattle and retreated from the armed supporters, Johnson placed his first call to the Bundy ranch. The undercover FBI agent had hoped to speak to Cliven, but Cliven’s son Ammon took the call. If Johnson and his team had done their research, it was not evident from this first phone call. Despite the fact that Ammon was the most famous member of the Bundy clan after his father, the FBI agent appeared to have no idea who he was.
Johnson laid out the “business opportunities” he envisioned for the Bundy family. “I do a lot of documentary work,” he said. “I’ve kind of been watching this situation unfold, kind of from a distance, and just to be real honest with you, I’m amazed at the support and the actual momentum that your dad has been able to gather. It’s truly impressive to me.” Johnson said his vision for the documentary was to tell the story of Cliven, whom he described as a “folk hero,” and the movement he inspired.
Ammon was not sold on the idea, explaining that his family had received many media and documentary requests since the standoff. “We want to reach a lot of people,” Ammon explained. “But we also can’t do 100 different documentaries.”
Johnson then proposed buying the rights to the Bundy family’s story. But Ammon said they weren’t interested in money. “I’d be willing to meet and talk with you, but I think you need to get more familiar with the story first and then really see if you want to take on this thing,” Ammon said.
It was a rocky start for the undercover FBI operation, but the agents pushed forward. Less than two weeks later, Johnson, Anna, and at least two other undercover agents went to the Bundy ranch. As they rolled up on the property, Anna read into a concealed microphone the license plates of vehicles she saw.
“Someone’s walking towards us,” she then said. “Here we go.”
It was Brian Cavalier, a heavily tattooed supporter from Arizona. Cavalier wore a handgun holstered on his right hip and a hoop earring in one of his ears. Everyone around the Bundy ranch called him “Booda” for his bald head and round, hairless belly covered with a poorly sketched tattoo of the Chinese Buddha. He had joined the Bundys after watching the video of BLM agents tasing Ammon Bundy. He served as the Bundys’ bodyguard and in the months following the standoff became something of a gatekeeper to the family. As the undercover FBI agents arrived on the property, Cavalier informed them that their visit had not been approved, but he allowed them on the ranch anyway.
As they toured the property, Cavalier described his deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan as a U.S. Marine, and his work with the mercenary company Blackwater.
“Did you ever kill anybody?” Anna asked.
“Yeah,” Cavalier said. “I was a United States Marine Corps Scout Sniper.”
(The U.S. Marine Corps has no record of Cavalier having served.)
The FBI team had come to the ranch to interview Cliven Bundy but only managed to interview Cavalier and Cliven’s wife, Carol. Had Cavalier or Carol known anything about filmmaking, the FBI’s on-camera interviews would have blown their cover. Both were interviewed outdoors, the Bundy matriarch in the harsh sunlight and Cavalier near a livestock pen where the winds were so gusty the audio is at times inaudible. They also filmed dubious B-roll of the ranch, with Johnson directing shots at the horizon, while the cameraman repeatedly directed his attention to the license plates of cars parked around the property. This wasn’t cinéma vérité; it was amateur hour. The FBI was just lucky no one at the Bundy ranch knew the difference.
Johnson considered the outing a success. “I think what today does is it gives us tremendous credibility,” he told his FBI colleagues in a conversation captured by hidden body microphones the agents wore.
But in the same conversation, Johnson admitted to concerns that they seemed to be documenting history, not investigating active crimes. “Do you think there’s any more stuff to be gotten out here?” Johnson asked one of his colleagues. “The problem is, we’re the last one to the dance.”
But Johnson’s fake documentary crew would get a lucky break. That afternoon, Cavalier, who was prone to running his mouth, offered a tantalizing lead when asked if the Bundys had any help from people in law enforcement. “There’s a finder’s fee,” Anna offered, suggesting the film crew was ready to pay for such information.
“Is the camera off now?” Cavalier asked.
“Can you turn it off?” Anna said to the cameraman. The body mic Anna wore continued to record the conversation.
“The information I can give you is very, very sensitive,” Cavalier said. “I can tell you this much, just to give you a taste: Every three days, Mr. Bundy’s name is ran through a database to check for any wants or warrants, because if they’re going to come down here and serve warrants or do anything stupid, they’re going to come that way first.” As for compensation, Cavalier added, it was on the film crew to make an offer. “It’s gonna cost you something, because my ass is on the line and I don’t put my ass on the line for nobody,” he said.
Less than a week later, Johnson and his crew met Cavalier in a Las Vegas hotel room. They filmed the bodyguard in disguise. The lights were turned down. With a green scarf over his face, Cavalier made claims about the Bundys’ penetration of law enforcement, saying they had sources at the BLM and the FBI. Cavalier said that he regularly contacted law enforcement during the standoff to run background checks on individuals showing up at the ranch.
“We definitely ran you guys and found out that you’re not related to FBI, BLM, or ATF,” Cavalier told the undercover agents.
Whether Cavalier’s claims about government sources were true is unclear. What is clear, however, is that questions surrounding law enforcement support for the Bundys became part of a broader script the FBI deployed throughout the summer of 2014 in phone conversations and sit-down interviews conducted with individuals present during the standoff.
Anna coordinated the interviews. The undercover agent would call subjects with a general framing of the documentary, enthusiastically describing the Bundy standoff as the American people’s first victory in standing up to the U.S. government in 200 years. Then, presenting herself as a scatterbrained journalist with zero understanding of the Bundys or militia movements in general, Anna would ask interviewees if they feared for their lives during the standoff, if they were willing to die for their cause, and if they were prepared to take a life for the movement.
Despite a deep-seated distrust of the U.S. government, often rooted in right-wing conspiracy theories, a majority of the people Anna contacted were more than willing to describe their views and participation in the events that day with what appeared to be a somewhat clueless member of the press.
On August 4, 2014, Anna called a Bundy supporter named Greg Burleson, who claimed to have spent more than a decade among Arizona’s right-wing extremists, for a time taking part in vigilante border patrols with J.T. Ready, a neo-Nazi who murdered his girlfriend and members of her family before killing himself in 2012. “I am a freaking wild man,” Burleson told Anna during their second conversation.
Burleson appeared to be exactly the type of character the FBI was hoping to find. He was hardly in hiding, though. Both before and after the Bundy standoff, Burleson posted Facebook status updates threatening to kill members of law enforcement and asserting that he had pointed his weapon at BLM agents in Nevada. And if the FBI team wanted further information on him, they could have called their colleagues in Arizona, where Burleson had worked as a paid FBI informant.
Over the years, Burleson had provided information to agents in Phoenix, and in 2013, his FBI handler transferred him to Special Agent Adam Nixon, who later participated in the investigations of the Bundys. For reasons that have not been disclosed, Nixon closed Burleson as an informant. By the time Anna called, Burleson was off the FBI books.
Burleson’s eccentricities and paranoia were evident from the beginning. During one call with Anna, he answered the phone with a fake accent. “I do that because I’ve got people targeting me now,” he explained. Burleson later claimed to have access to sensitive law enforcement documents proving he was being watched.
The Longbow Productions team interviewed Burleson on camera on October 28, 2014, at the FireSky Resort and Spa in Scottsdale, Arizona. A rangy man with a ponytail and a thick mustache, Burleson wore a pistol to the taping and said his AK was in the car.
“Would you like something to drink?” Johnson asked him.
Burleson asked for bourbon. “No chaser,” he added.
Hidden cameras recorded as the FBI agents got acquainted with their interview subject. They reviewed a map of the area around the Bundy ranch, with Burleson describing where he had been positioned during the standoff. Once the lights were on and his interview began, Burleson, bourbon in hand, described his bloodlust for federal agents. “I literally went there to put them six feet under,” he said.
Burleson told the crew that he had taken aim at specific people that day — “I leveled off and I sighted-in the people that I was targeting” — with the hope that the situation would turn violent. “A lot of people say, ‘Thank god it wasn’t bloody,’” Burleson added. “I’m saying, ‘Damn, I’m disappointed.’”
While it was the FBI’s former informant who expressed the greatest desire for violence to the fake documentary crew, the bureau’s own recordings show the Arizona militiaman’s eagerness to do battle with the federal government was not shared by many of the Bundy standoff participants.
Eric Parker, who was featured in an iconic image of the standoff pointing his rifle in the direction of federal agents, made it clear to the undercover FBI team that he had no interest in bloodshed. An electrician from Idaho, Parker was hesitant to meet with the filmmakers and expressed his concerns that discussing the events that day could leave him legally exposed. At the same time, Parker was deeply frustrated with how the story had been presented. “We were all pinged as right-wing extremists and gun nuts,” he said during his first call with Anna. Still, he said, his lawyer had given him strict guidance on talking to the press.
“This is not about getting people in trouble,” Anna assured him. “This is about spreading your message.”
Parker eventually agreed to take part in the project. On August 17, 2014, the Longbow crew traveled to a lodge in Montana, where Parker and his family, along with his friend and fellow standoff participant Scott Drexler, were planning a relaxing weekend of fishing in the mountains. Parker took a seat on a porch outside.
In the two-hour interview, Parker explained that his motivation for traveling to Nevada was twofold. First, he saw the video depicting the BLM tasing Cliven’s son and throwing his sister to the ground as part of a broader trend of police brutality. Second, he viewed the establishment of the free speech zones, coupled with the presence of well-armed federal agents, as an attack on the First Amendment. By traveling to Nevada with weapons, Parker explained, he and his friends hoped to prevent what they viewed as unlawful arrests or use of force against protesters.
“They got 200 armed men with body armor rolling around,” he said. “We need 200 armed men with body armor rolling around.” Far from the coordinated operation government prosecutors would later allege, Parker said the actual confrontation was disorganized and ultimately terrifying. “I thought we would be there, armed, of course, and stand our ground and make sure the protesters don’t get pepper-sprayed and make sure that the illegal arrests stopped,” he explained. “I wouldn’t have thought in 100 years we would be on a bridge staring down federal agents.”
When he took his position on the pavement, the moment when the famous photo was taken, Parker said his hands were shaking.
“How do you acquire your target?” Johnson asked him.
“There’s no picking the target,” Parker answered. “I wasn’t chambered, and my finger wasn’t on the trigger. … Nobody wanted to die.”
On November 14, 2014, Anna called Ryan Bundy. She told Ryan she was with Longbow Productions and reminded him that they had filmed at the ranch in June. Anna then asked if they could set up a time during the first week of December to interview Ryan, his father, and his brothers Ammon and Melvin in a hotel room in Las Vegas. She even offered tickets to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas that week.
“I’d go for that,” Ryan said with excitement. “It’s been a few years since I’ve got to go to the NFR. So I’d go for that.”
After talking for a few more minutes, Ryan asked Anna about the documentary: What would it be about? When would it be released?
“We want the American citizens to know that for the first time in almost 200 years, normal, average citizens, hardworking Americans, stood up, and they stood up against, you know, the tyrannical government, and they were able to get the government to back down,” Anna explained. It was a line she had used many times.
“So who’s your audience?” Ryan asked.
“I’d like to get it out to all America,” Anna answered.
Ryan told Anna he’d check with his father and brothers about coordinating interviews, but he remained suspicious and began to investigate Longbow Productions. Three days later, Anna called again.
“I just want to be straight forward with you,” Ryan told her. “With your company, there’s been a bunch of red flags go up in our mind. And that hasn’t happened with a lot of other companies.”
“OK,” Anna said.
“Now, we looked up your address, and it looks like your business is being run out of a federal building,” Ryan said. “Is that correct?”
“What?” Anna said, her voice rising.
“Is your address to your main company a federal building in Nashville, Tennessee?”
“No,” Anna said, giving Ryan an address to an office building about a mile from Vanderbilt University.
“But that’s not a federal building?” Ryan asked.
“No,” Anna insisted.
It’s unclear why Ryan thought the government owned the building. In fact, it’s a BlueCross BlueShield corporate building. But Ryan was indeed onto something; he just didn’t fully understand what. Ryan explained that he was concerned after hearing from other interviewees that the filmmakers had been asking questions about guns and ammo. “We deem those questions to be inappropriate,” Ryan said. “The Second Amendment gives us the right to keep and bear arms, and it doesn’t matter whether we have a BB gun or something bigger.” He also expressed concern that his family couldn’t find previous examples of Longbow’s work. Ryan said he suspected the filmmakers could be government spies.
“I’m not a liar,” Anna replied.
But Anna was a liar, and a good one, skilled enough to undercut Ryan’s suspicions and persuade him, his father, and his brothers to sit for interviews. Three weeks after this phone call, Cliven Bundy arrived at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.
Cliven, dressed in a tan hat and a black leather vest, sat in the same white leather chair. The framing for the shot was sloppy: A white piece of trim molding can be seen running vertically across the left side of frame. The corner of a large, generic piece of floral hotel artwork dominated the right side of the frame. No professional cinematographer would have approved the shot.
Johnson, conducting the interview, asked Cliven about the militias, appearing to probe whether Cliven was coordinating their actions at the standoff. But Cliven maintained the armed groups just showed up; he had nothing to do with it. “The ranch was out of control,” Cliven said. “The feds had total control of everything there.”
“People either look at you as a folk hero or kind of a — that you were the one who instigated it, because if you were just doing what was right, why did you need all those people? How would you respond to that?” Johnson asked.
“I mean, you know, I gotta face this,” Cliven said. “And the militia steps up there, and they do a service for me. Now as far as I can say, all I can say is that I’m thankful for that service.”
What’s extraordinary about Cliven’s interview is that, despite spending nearly a year trying to get the rancher before the camera, the FBI couldn’t get him to say anything that he wouldn’t otherwise gladly say to legitimate radio and TV stations. Cliven even alluded to this in his interview. “Almost every day I have an opportunity to talk to people, just like I’m talking to you,” he said. “Every day I have that opportunity. Today, I’ve already did a couple of interviews. I interviewed with a magazine, a newspaper. I know three interviews with radio on my board there I haven’t taken care of.” To Cliven, Johnson and the undercover FBI agents were just another group of journalists.
About two months later, Johnson and his crew traveled to Arizona, where they filmed Ammon in a similarly unrevealing interview, despite Johnson’s repeated attempts to goad Ammon into talking about the potential for violence at the standoff.
“If this escalated and was not peaceful, did you think you might have to take a life?” Johnson asked at one point.
“I never did once think I’d have to take a life, because I knew that my stand would be one where someone would take my life and they would do it with me standing against them but not threatening their life,” Ammon told the undercover FBI agents.
Then, in April 2015, the Longbow Productions crew returned to the Bundy ranch for the anniversary of the standoff. The Bundys had set up a small makeshift stage below the overpass where the standoff occurred. About 100 white folding chairs were set up in front of the stage.
Anna, wearing a body mic, once again walked around the ranch and read aloud the license plates of cars parked there. The FBI agents brought a quadcopter drone with them. In the afternoon, as people of all ages milled about the stage, setting up for the event, the agents flew the drone high above to capture the scene. As it came down to land, the highway overpass visible in the background, a young girl ran over in bare feet, looking at the drone in amazement.
The drone then took off again, and down below, Bundy supporters could be seen staring up at the flying camera — unaware that they were being filmed as part of a U.S. government production.
The Bundy family describes their standoff with the government and the people from around the country who came to their aid as a movement. It’s a strong word for what occurred, but not entirely inaccurate. Proof of that came a few months after the FBI shuttered its fake documentary operation, when Ammon Bundy began to publicize on social media the criminal cases of two Oregon ranchers.
Like Cliven Bundy, Dwight Lincoln Hammond and his son Steven Dwight Hammond had a decadeslong antagonistic relationship with the Bureau of Land Management. The two Oregon ranchers were convicted at trial in 2012 of setting fire to federal lands on which the Hammonds had grazing rights for cattle. The Hammonds argued that the five-year mandatory minimum sentence that came with the charges was unconstitutional, and a U.S. District Court judge agreed, sentencing Dwight to three months in prison and Steven to one year and a day. They served those sentences, but an appeals court vacated them, and another federal judge sentenced the pair to the mandatory minimum of five years.
Ammon and Ryan Bundy saw similarities in their own family’s struggles with the government. They traveled to Oregon in late 2015 to help the Hammonds, who declined the offer of assistance. So the Bundy brothers, accompanied by three dozen supporters, including Cavalier and several others from the Nevada standoff, took over a U.S. government building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon. Ammon, naming his group the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, then posted videos to social media calling on militants to join them in Oregon. Local police and federal officials surrounded the government building. The Bundy family was again at the center of a national story.
For more than a month, the Bundys and their supporters holed up in the building while federal agents, concerned about a gunfight that could leave dozens dead, waited them out. On January 26, 2016, a Jeep and a Dodge Ram pickup left the wildlife refuge. Ammon and Cavalier were in the Jeep. Inside the pickup were Ryan Bundy and four supporters, including Robert “LaVoy” Finicum. FBI and Oregon police vehicles pulled over the Jeep. Ammon and Cavalier surrendered, but the pickup, driven by Finicum, took off at high speed. As he approached a roadblock, Finicum’s truck plowed into a snowbank. He exited the vehicle, and the FBI and Oregon police opened fire, killing Finicum and wounding Ryan Bundy. (FBI agents are under investigation for alleged misconduct in the shooting.)
The shootout and the arrests were followed by federal indictments against 38 people, charging the group members with various crimes related to the standoffs at the Bundy ranch and Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. So far, the government’s record in prosecuting the Bundys and their supporters has been mixed. Three supporters have pleaded guilty and another six, including former FBI informant Greg Burleson, have been convicted at trial. But seven have been acquitted, and a trial in Nevada last month resulted in a hung jury for four defendants, including Eric Parker. The stakes will be raised in Las Vegas on June 26, when the trial of Cliven Bundy and his sons is scheduled to begin. Federal prosecutors plan to play clips from “America Reloaded.”
Terrance Jackson, Burleson’s attorney, plans to appeal his client’s conviction. Burleson is facing a minimum of 57 years in prison. “I think the FBI used their resources to go after the people that are the least culpable,” Jackson told The Intercept, adding, “They used methods that need to be carefully scrutinized.” Jess Marchese, Eric Parker’s attorney, said a number of the jurors he spoke to were turned off by the government’s presentation of the Longbow evidence.
Beyond its implications in the Bundy case specifically, the FBI’s decision to create a fake media company raises critical questions about the federal government’s practice of impersonating the press. Following the 2014 revelations that it had been impersonated by the FBI, the Associated Press, along with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, filed a lawsuit demanding more detail on the FBI’s practice of posing as journalists, arguing that “the practice endangers the media’s credibility and undermines its independence.” In February, a federal judge ruled that the FBI has said enough about the matter. To date, it is unclear how many times, or how often, the bureau has deployed agents under the guise of newsgathering.
Following the flurry of arrests last year, several of the targets of the Longbow investigation were interviewed by federal agents. Summaries of their conversations were written up in FBI reports obtained by The Intercept. Brian Cavalier, the Bundy bodyguard who first allowed the crew onto the ranch, reportedly “felt that the weight of the world had been lifted off his shoulders when he was arrested,” telling the FBI that he never believed in the Oregon occupation and that several of the individuals there “did not want the occupation to end peacefully.” Greg Burleson, for all his tough talk about killing federal agents, was arrested without incident outside his apartment in Phoenix — he has lost his vision in the months since he traveled to Nevada and now uses a wheelchair. While he stood by his decision to take part in the standoff, Burleson reportedly told the FBI that “if he had it to do all over again, he would do a little more research.”
Eric Parker, the man from the famed sniper photo, was arrested on March 3, 2016. In a 10-page account of his conversation with his arresting agents, Parker said he had been contacted by at least two organizations “offering to put armed security at his house to shoot it out with the FBI when they arrived.” Parker said he declined because he “does not want to see any violent confrontation with the FBI.” Parker was the only standoff participant who mentioned his brush with a suspicious documentary film crew.
“A media company called Longbow Productions later interviewed Parker for a documentary about the Bundy situation, but the movie has never been released,” Parker’s arresting agent noted. “Parker believes the documentary film crew must be associated with the FBI.”