Learn Hostage Negotiations From the Guy Who Worked Waco (No, Really, He's Good!)

OK. So admitting that you were a hostage negotiator at the Branch Davidian ranch outside of Waco, Texas in 1993--where more than 80 individuals ended up dying--is a little like saying you're a chastity coach at a French cathouse. Then again, when you are dealing with a sociopath like David Koresh not even Barack Obama can talk you out of trouble. Though Waco ended tragically, getting people in dicey situations out of harm's way has been Gary Noesner's central preoccupation for the past three decades.

Noesner spent 23 years as an FBI negotiator, including a decade as the department's top guy. He'll be at Books & Books talking about his new book Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Negotiator this Monday. But New Times got Noesner to answer some questions well ahead of his book reading. And we didn't have to kidnap anyone to do it:


New Times: How often did you look back on some of your actions or decisions and feel regret?
Gary Noesner: I have not really felt regret over my negotiation decisions; however, I have felt regret over the outcomes of some events such as Waco. I know that my words alone will not cause someone to become violent. I also know that everything that I say and attempt to do is focused on seeing everyone come out alive, including the perpetrator. I've always been confident in the sincerity and energy of my effort in that regard.

(But) when reviewing tapes of actual negotiations, you can always find aspects of dialogue that might have gone better. I've always believed that how you say something is far more important than what you say. So, if as a negotiator I come across as sincere and genuine, and I'm respectful to the other person, I'm highly likely to achieve success.

How much of hostage negotiation is following a script (if at all) and how much of it is making decisions on-the-fly based on the current situation?

The negotiation process is more one of general themes than specific scripts. A negotiation team will conduct a discussion before every contact and attempt to anticipate the mood and behavior of the perpetrator. Based on that assessment, they will craft a number of themes that they feel will best address the situation. It (was my job) to convey those ideas into the
dialogue, usually with help from a coach writing notes alongside of (me). There is clearly a good bit of flexibility required in the dialogue, but the primary negotiator will try to stick with the general themes agreed to by the team.  

What is the least understood aspect of hostage negotiation, and what is the most difficult?

I think the most least understood aspect of negotiations is just what I said above, that it is a team rather than individual activity when undertaken the right way.  Effective negotiation is really a team activity.  We try to leverage in a positive way the collective experience and knowledge of the entire negotiation team. I think the most difficult aspect of negotiation is the knowledge that someone's life, perhaps several lives, are on the line and if you are not successful in obtaining a peaceful ending those lives will be in jeopardy. That can put a great deal of pressure on a negotiator.

What is the biggest mistake kidnappers make?

Thinking they have too much power and control. In the end, kidnappers need the victim family or corporation to give them what they want - money. (That) enables the victim family or company to exert some control and influence over the behavior of the kidnappers. The kidnapper will say, "pay me or I will kill the hostage." In response, the family or company says, "if you harm the hostage you will get nothing." It's this quid pro quo bargaining interaction that leads to both sides to make concessions in order to get what they want.

Why has the U.S. been mostly immune to large scale for profit kidnappings when others haven't? Will that change in the future?

Kidnap for ransom is a low probability crime in the U.S. because of effective law enforcement.  Kidnappers are often arrested when they pick up the money, are successfully prosecuted, and usually given lengthy sentences in jail.   In much of the world where kidnapping persists, there is little chance of arrest, less chance of prosecution, and very little prospects for a lengthy sentence if convicted. There are not enough disincentives to stop this crime from spreading. Getting away with kidnapping in the U.S. is very unlikely.   In Mexico, for example, it's completely the opposite.

What is the most fascinating aspect of your book?

The knowledge provided to the reader about resolving all manner of conflicts in their personal and private lives by using the same active listening techniques we use in hostage negotiations. Those who have read it have told me that the book has made them think more about how the interact with others in their lives and what skills they might apply to improve those relationship, avoid conflict, and resolve confrontations.


Gary Noesner

8p.m. Monday, Sept. 27

Books and Books (265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables)