Friday, April 8, 2011

Interview with Hostage Negotiator Gary Noesner

by G.M. Malliet

Our guest today is Gary Noesner, author of Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator.

Gary retired from the FBI in 2003 following a 30 year career as an investigator, instructor, and negotiator. A significant focus of his career was directed toward investigating Middle East hijackings in which American citizens were victimized.

In addition, he was an FBI hostage negotiator for 23 years of his career, spending the last ten years as the Chief Negotiator for the FBI. He retired as the Chief of the FBI's Crisis Negotiation Unit, Critical Incident Response Group, the first person to hold that position. In that capacity he was heavily involved in numerous hostage, barricade, and suicide incidents; covering prison riots, right-wing militia standoffs, religious zealot sieges, terrorist embassy takeovers, airplane hijackings, and over 120 overseas kidnapping cases involving American citizens.

Following his retirement from the FBI he became a Senior Vice President with Control Risks, an international risk consultancy, and most recently spent five and a half years working a kidnap case involving three American defense contractors taken hostage by the FARC in Colombia, South America. He continues to do kidnap management consulting work for Control Risks part-time.

Gary has three grown children and resides in Virginia with his wife, Carol.

Q As I read your book, I remembered nearly all the cases you discussed--and there were many famous ones. Is there a particular case that stands out in your mind?

A Perhaps the most challenging and interesting case I worked was the 1996 81-day Freemen Siege in Montana. This was the first major incident after the FBI's tragic involvement in the Waco incident dealing with David Koresh and the Branch Davidians. The eyes of the nation were focused on the FBI's ability to resolve the Montana incident without force. The primary focus was on negotiations through the team that I led. With the high stakes involved, not only in terms of human life but with the potential impact on the FBI's reputation and standing with the American people, the pressure was significant. Our success at achieving a peaceful surrender with no injury or loss of life was a high water mark in the FBI's negotiation program. A creative negotiation strategy supported by FBI leadership was the key determining factor.   

Q As your book makes clear, negotiations that are going well can rapidly spin out of control. Is there a particular case you wish you could revisit? And what would you have done differently?

A  As far as wishing I could revisit a case, it would have to be the Waco incident that resulted in such a tragic loss of life, including innocent children. I remain very proud of the negotiation approach to dealing with this incident, which led to the safe release of 35 individuals, including 21 children, while I led the negotiation effort. However, on-scene FBI management made some bad decisions which in my view contributed to the outcome, hence my wish that we could do that incident over. My advice wouldn't have changed, but I would hope FBI leadership at the scene would be better trained and more responsive to negotiation input this time.    Despite FBI decision making shortcomings, in my view David Koresh was the sole individual responsible for the tragic outcome. He and he alone had the ability to safely lead his people out at anytime, something he steadfastly refused to do despite our many attempts to convince him to do so. 

Q Some organizations have adopted the policy of never paying for the release of hostages or kidnap victims. What recourse is there, if there is no way to meet demands? In your view, does this endanger the victims needlessly, or is a no-ransom policy more likely to gain their release?

A [Gary first clarified my question to make a distinction between kidnappings and hostage situations.]
While similar, kidnappings are a slightly different animal from hostage taking events which we typically define as a barricaded/siege incident where law enforcement is surrounding a location wherein someone is holding and threatening the lives of hostages. In contrast, the whereabouts of a kidnap victim are unknown, thereby limiting the amount of control the authorities can exercise over the management of the event.

So, a hostage taking incident is by law enforcement definition one in which we know the location of the victims and the hostage holder(s). In those cases, we do not advocate giving in to demands such as paying money to a bank robber and letting him take the hostages away from the bank. Fortunately, in all but the most rare situations, such criminals want to live more than they want to die, and we are very successful in eventually securing a safe surrender, as they know harming the hostages will result in their being harmed or even killed by the police.

In contrast, a kidnap situation is different in that we typically do not know the location and whereabouts of the kidnapper and the hostage. Sadly, in most such incidents (typically overseas) the failure to pay a ransom leads to the continued incarceration of the hostage or their death. Therefore, simply refusing to pay a ransom does little to secure the safe release of the victim. Rescue attempts are often extremely dangerous and are the leading cause of death among kidnap victims. No one enjoys paying a ransom, which indeed rewards the kidnapper, however, there is usually no alternative to secure the safe release of the victim. A "no ransom" policy embraced by a government or corporation does nothing to prevent or safely resolve such situations, despite making us feel resolute in the face of this terrible crime.   

Q Pirates are the "modern" scourge of the hostage-taking world. Many people are held for months and years before being released--if they are lucky enough to be released. According to the AP: "The average ransom for a large shipping vessel is now near $5 million, according to piracy experts." Given the sums involved, do you see any end in sight?

A In my opinion, the Somali pirates will continue to prey upon any victim they can find in international waters as long as they are successful in obtaining large amounts of money. Kidnap is a crime that exists where there is a lack of competent law enforcement and an absence of strong prosecutive efforts to bring perpetrators to justice. Until these pirate are made to pay a price for their criminal conduct, they will continue their successful business model. Until western navies begin to use more confrontational response strategies that punish the pirates, this crime will fourish. Heretofore, some shipping companies have found it less problematic to pay a ransom than to lose crew members and valuable ships and their cargo. This has unfortunately only served to embolden the pirates. Again, the pirates will cease this terrible crime when they begin to experience negative consequences for their actions and not before.   

Q Many nations have differing laws when it comes to the limits set for hostage negotiators. Are different nations reacting to the piracy situation by different means? Is there any one nation you think is in the vanguard?

A  Several nations have raised the stakes for the pirates by undertaking efforts to interdict their boats after they have taken hostages. This is meant to deny them the opportunity to take the seized ships and crews to Somalia where they can be safely held until a ransom payment is made. However, when western navies block the movement of pirate boats to shore that hold hostages, this can lead to a very dangerous confrontation, as we recently saw with the Quest incident. Certainly, the U.S. Navy and some other western powers have stepped up their capabilities in an attempt to deal with the pirates in a more robust manner. I don't know that any particular country has set a lead in this area, rather it's a slowly evolving set of lessons being learned through the cooperation of several nations.

More information on Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator is at


Lisa Bork said...

Thanks for visiting Inkspot, Gary. Very interesting. I will read your book.

Susan said...

Thanks for the great questions and answers! Gary gave an entertaining and informative presentation to MWA-MA, and his book was one of my favorite reads in recent memory.

Lois Winston said...

Thanks for joining us today, Gary.

Beth Groundwater said...

Very interesting interview. Thanks for visiting and sharing your expertise, Gary!

G.M. Malliet said...

One thing I really liked about Gary's book was that it did NOT have a bad guys vs. good guys tone. In many of the hostage situations, the people involved are just caught up in a situation they didn't bargain on. With people like David Koresh - it's very hard to see from the "outside" how he gained the control that he did.

Gary said...

I appreciate the interest in my book and positive comments posted by everyone. One of my principal goals in writing the book was to highlight the often undervalued work of dedicated law enforcement negotiators nationwide.

Gary Noesner

Darrell James said...

Great interview, Gin! Thanks for dropping by, Gary! Very informative.

G.M. Malliet said...

I meant to mention that Inkspotter Darrell James' upcoming book Nazareth Child is very much on this theme.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Gary. I can't imagine working in such high-stress situations. I look forward to reading your book.

Deborah Sharp said...

Thanks for stopping by, Gary. I learned a lot through this interview. Congrats on the book, too. Great title: Stalling for Time ...

Alan Orloff said...

Fascinating! I've got Gary's book in my TBR pile. I'll have to move it up in the order!

Alice Loweecey said...

Fascinating! Thank you so much for visiting us.

Gary said...

I've certainly enjoyed reading these nice comments from all of you. I'm honored that such experienced authors found the interview interesting. I hope you will also enjoy reading the book. FYI - CNN will broadcast a special on Waco on April 17th at 8pm, 11pm, and 2am (the next morning) in which I was extensively interviewed, for anyone interested.