The FBI’s top law enforcement official in Oregon, Special Agent In Charge Greg Bretzing, is retiring Monday after two decades at the agency.
Bretzing oversaw the FBI’s response to the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last year, as well as mass shootings at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg and Reynolds High School in Troutdale.
Bretzing spoke with OPB reporter Conrad Wilson on Jan. 13 at the FBI's Portland office about his time with the agency. The interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Conrad Wilson: What went through your mind when David Fry turned himself in and was really over?
Greg Bretzing: Gratitude ... I was appreciative to the people of Harney County. They were resilient. They’re still dealing with the aftermath of the occupation and probably will be for years. But that is a county of people who are hardworking and who are committed to each other and to building back the community they had prior, and that I’m sure they’re going to have in the future. We were grateful that we were able to bring that to as peaceful as conclusion as possible. Nothing’s ever perfect. But if you think about how things could’ve gone, we accomplished many of our objectives.
Thousands of FBI agents from around the country rotated though Harney County and hundreds of local and state law enforcement responded to the occupation.
Bretzing said the FBI’s priority during the standoff was to resolve the occupation peacefully for both law enforcement and those occupying the refuge. Apart from the refuge, Bretzing said the agency’s goal was to keep the situation in Burns as safe as possible. The town was inundated with people from outside the county, many of them carrying guns.
Finally, Bretzing said the FBI wanted to return the refuge to government control and hold the occupiers responsible.
CW: Do you think the law enforcement strategy that played out in Burns was successful, from your perspective as the guy overseeing the federal government's law enforcement response?
GB: If you look at what we accomplished, we met those priorities. In any situation, and I won’t get into it, but in any situation when you have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, there will always be something that you’d change, some things you might do slightly differently. But in the big scheme of things, no one was hurt from law enforcement, and though there was an incident later, that was handled in a manner which was consistent with federal law enforcement and state law enforcement, and to the best of our ability, we resolved the situation.
CW: That incident being the shooting of LaVoy Finicum.
CW: Some folks might be surprised to hear you say no one got hurt. Somebody did get shot and killed.
GB: Yeah, that’s why I definitely want to caveat those comments. No law enforcement was injured during the event, and our priority, which was to bring the situation to a resolution as peacefully as possible — it’s as peacefully as possible. We still have a responsibility when conducting a law enforcement operation to secure the safety of all those involved, and if something happens in which a law enforcement action is required, then we’re going to do that according to our policies and our training.
The Department of Justice Inspector General's Office is investigating members of the FBI’s hostage rescue team and their role during the Finicum shooting. Investigators said the FBI fired two shots at Finicum as he was exiting his truck, just before Oregon State Police shot and killed him. After the incident, members of the FBI hostage rescue team failed to disclose those shots and could face criminal charges.
Bretzing declined to discuss the incident or say much about the specifics of the FBI’s response to the occupation. A second group of defendants charged with conspiring to prevent federal employees from doing their jobs at the refuge is set to go to trial next month.
In October, a jury acquitted occupation leader Ammon Bundy and six others.
CW: What do you think of the verdict in the first trial of Ammon Bundy and the other occupiers this fall?
GB: I can’t get into too much details. I think I’ve stated in the past that I was disappointed. I think that clearly, the events at the refuge are something outside of what would be considered legal and normal activity. But, as always is the case, we respect the decision of the jury, and we will work to, as we approach the next trial, continue to prove our case.