FBI Special Agent W. Joseph Astarita was arraigned in federal court in Portland this week for his role in the shooting death of a leader in last year’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation.
But quickly passed over in a post-arraignment press conference Wednesday was potentially more significant news: Other members of the FBI’s hostage rescue team are still under investigation.
Officials confirmed to OPB on Thursday that those investigations remain ongoing.
Astarita faces five charges, ranging from making false statements to obstruction of justice. A spokesperson for the FBI said Thursday that he is still with the agency and serving in an “administrative capacity.”
That spokesperson declined to elaborate further.
On Jan. 26, 2016, at least five members of the FBI’s elite hostage rescue team (HRT) assisted during the attempted arrest of Arizona rancher Robert “LaVoy” Finicum and other occupation leaders along a remote stretch of Oregon highway between Burns and John Day.
Finicum had served as a spokesman for the refuge occupiers.
Law enforcement officials say Astarita fired two shots during the arrest attempt.
“One of the gun shots hit the roof of Finicum’s pickup,” Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson said Wednesday during a news conference in Portland.
Ongoing coverage of the federal case against the people involved in the 41-day armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and how life has changed in Harney County, Oregon.
Astarita allegedly did not disclose those shots to investigators following Finicum’s death, which is the basis for the charges against him. He pleaded not guilty.
The FBI and investigating law enforcement agencies have declined to identify the other four agents who were on the scene. The FBI spokesman also declined to discuss whether they were still members of HRT or, like Astarita, had been moved to an “administrative capacity.”
During Wednesday’s news conference, Nelson said investigators not only uncovered the alleged actions of Astarita, but also “the subsequent concerning actions of some members of the FBI hostage rescue team.”
Nelson said again Thursday that his office is continuing its investigation into the actions of the FBI agents present during the arrest attempt. But Nelson wouldn’t say whether he expected additional charges to be filed.
“We’ll just go where the evidence leads us,” he said.
More than a year ago, Nelson traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with now acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe and other U.S. Department of Justice officials to alert them of “possible criminal conduct by some involved FBI HRT agents.”
About a month ago, Nelson said he learned the agents under investigation were not placed on administrative leave.
“I don’t know that they’ve ever been put on administrative leave,” Nelson said in an interview Thursday.
Formed in 1983 as a response to the murder of Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, the FBI’s hostage rescue team is among the elite paramilitary units in the world.
The team is based in Quantico, Virginia, and carries out missions around the globe. HRT members are known to work side-by-side with counter-terrorism and military units like the Navy’s Seal Team 6.
It’s highly unusual, if not unprecedented, for HRT members to face criminal allegations for their conduct while carrying out a mission.
Former HRT members say this could be a case where the potential for what may be a cover up is worse than the events that played out during a fast-moving, highly volatile arrest attempt.
Greg Shaffer spent two decades in the FBI, six of them as a member of HRT.
“The rumor in the FBI is if you fall on your sword and tell the truth, take your licks, then you still keep your job,” Shaffer said. “But once you lie about it, then you have the issue that you’ve lied under oath.”
Shaffer said it’s critical for agents to be able to testify during trial. A dishonest agent would be “eaten alive” by the defense, he said.
“If you can’t testify in the FBI as an agent, why’s the FBI going to keep you?” Shaffer said.
Those investigating the Jan. 26 shooting of Finicum have stressed that Astarita is innocent until proven otherwise — and that his alleged actions have no bearing on the investigation that declared the Finicum shooting lawful.
A week-long trial for Astarita is set for Aug. 29 in Portland.