The FBI ordered news crews to leave their vantage point on a hill above the freeman compound Wednesday, then tried to confiscate news releases in which the freemen defended the journalists and urged them to stand up for their rights.
Media Hill was vacated by 8:50 p.m., 10 minutes ahead of the FBI’s deadline.
Freemen delivered the news releases to a mailbox at the edge of the property they occupy, but FBI agents blocked journalists on the road and confiscated all but three copies.
The freemen delivered a second batch, and journalists got more.
“The press has been courteous and maintained a safe distance throughout the entire time of the FBI trespass upon the men and women of Justus Township,” the statement said.
It quoted the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and urged journalists to stand up for their rights.
“If you cannot occupy the county road near Justus Township, Montana state, united States of America, you cannot go anywhere without the permission of your masters,” it added. Freemen use the lower-case u in United States.
An FBI SWAT team agent told an Associated Press reporter the reporter could not approach the freeman property because it was too dangerous.
“Is that an order?”
“That’s an order.”
An FBI vehicle remained blocking the road to the freemen’s farm complex.
Federal officials said they were evicting journalists from the hill because a Fox Television news crew contacted some of the freemen on Tuesday, interfering with FBI negotiators. Fox News chairman Roger Ailes issued a statement in New York saying the journalists were being used as scapegoats.
Fox correspondent Rita Cosby of Washington, D.C., made a statement to reporters outside the freeman ranch Wednesday afternoon, but would not answer questions.
She said she and a colleague walked to the fenceline of the freeman property at 9 a.m. Tuesday, talked to two treemen and were given a written invitation to return for an interview. She said they showed the note to the FBI but were barred from returning on grounds that it would be too dangerous.
Cosby said the FBI later barred them from entering their rented house on property abutting the land the freemen occupy.
All media representatives left their vantage point voluntarily, some of them relocating about 2 miles away on a privately owned hill leased by the landowner. It is not a good vantage point but the freemen compound can be seen.
Meanwhile, militia groups in Montana and Michigan issued statements Wednesday calling on the freemen to “come out, now.” Representatives of both groups said they were through trying to negotiate an end to the standoff and issues should be resolved in court.
One of two generators the FBI moved into the area a few days ago was running Wednesday, but U.S. Attorney Sherry Matteucci said power to the anti-government extremists has not been cut off and there were no immediate plans to do so. The generators are meant to provide electricity to area ranchers if the FBI halts power to the freemen’s complex.
The FBI has isolated the rural area around the freemen’s farm complex since March 25, but has made no attempt to prevent journalists from observing from a hillside about a mile from the freemen’s main house. FBI SWAT teams at several checkpoints restrict who may enter the rural area, however.
Matteucci of Billings emphasized the eviction order was not a prelude to the FBI moving against the freemen compound.
“This is no indicator that any dramatic change in the status of the situation is occurring or about to occur,” she said. “There are no changes planned in the handling of the situation.
“It’s a safety zone to protect people,” she added. “This is a safety measure that has been considered for some time.”
She said the order will not affect families and guests staying in neighboring farms. Matteucci said she did not know when or if the news media will be allowed to return to the area.
An FBI agent distributed written notices Wednesday morning to journalists who have camped along a county road about a mile from the freeman compound since the standoff began 66 days ago.
They must leave the area by 9 p.m. MDT Wednesday, the order said.
The order, signed by Thomas T. Kubic, special agent in charge in the Salt Lake City FBI office, said the notice was pursuant to an order by U.S. District Judge James M. Burns of Portland.
The judge’s order instructed the FBI “to prevent all egress and ingress into the geographically designated area which is outlined on the attached map,” Kubic’s notice said.
The judge’s order outlines an area of 26,880 acres, or 42 square miles, the size of Buffalo, N.Y.
The freemen are anti-government extremists who have been holed up for 66 days at the ranch 30 miles northwest of Jordan. The FBI believes 18 people, including three children, are in the compound the freemen call Justus Township. Some of the adults are wanted on state and federal charges,