'Stalling For Time' With An FBI Hostage Negotiator
On April 9, 1988, Gary Noesner received a phone call in the middle of the night. The veteran hostage negotiator was asked to go to Sperryville, Va., where a man was holding his former common-law wife and their son captive. The man had told the police that he planned to kill both of his hostages and that he wasn't coming out of the house alive. Noesner's task was to defuse the situation and bring the hostages out safely.
It was a familiar situation for Noesner, who spent more than 30 years working as a hostage negotiator for the FBI, eventually becoming the chief of the agency's Crisis Negotiation Unit. In his new memoir, Stalling for Time, Noesner details some of his most noteworthy cases, including the Branch Davidian conflict in Waco, Texas, and the D.C. sniper case. He explains the techniques he used in many tense, potentially life-threatening encounters.
His agenda was the same on each case he worked, he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross: He wanted to establish a relationship with the hostage taker, demonstrate respect and establish trust -- in every potentially volatile situation.
Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator
By Gary Noesner
Hardcover, 240 pages
List Price: $26
"Usually the man that is holding the victims is so emotionally enraged that he's not really thinking clearly," Noesner says. "He doesn't have a plan [and] is not sure how to get out of a situation that he got into. So we have to try to steer them through that course and try to do it in a way where we appear to be nonthreatening."
Confrontations and demands from a negotiator can often make a tense standoff even worse. Making a hostage taker feel safe and secure helps establish a bond between a negotiator and a hostage taker. Forming that relationship is one of the key factors in starting negotiations for the victims' release.
"Negotiations requires a lot of patience," Noesner says. "You typically don't create that relationship of trust by the specific words that you articulate. You have to earn the right to be of influence with someone, and you do that by projecting sincerity and genuineness. And those are great qualities for a good, successful negotiator."
In the Sperryville, Va., case, Noesner says it was imperative to establish that the negotiators weren't attempting to manipulate or fool the hostage taker -- particularly because the man appeared to be growing increasingly agitated and violent. Eventually, the negotiators were able to establish a sense of trust with the man, which helped them persuade him to leave his house with his hostages. Expert marksmen planned to shoot the man once they had a clear sight line, in order to save the hostages' lives.
"But when he came out of the house, to our surprise, he had the young boy strapped to his back," Noesner explains. "And the marksman had no opportunity to neutralize him. ... The FBI threw some flash-bang grenades, which are, in essence, very loud firecrackers. In reacting to that movement and that sound, he went down on one knee, and as he went down ... an FBI marksman was able to discharge a round that ended [his] life. It's not the ending we wanted, but it's probably the only way we could assure the survival and safety of the woman and child."
Noesner says when the shot was fired, he felt both a sense of relief and a sense of anger.
"I think negotiators have to be prepared for those polarized feelings of joy and happiness when you succeed, which fortunately is most of the time," he says. "But you also have to be prepared for those occasions where [it turned out] not at all what we wanted. ... The priority is clearly the innocent victims in any situation. However, I've gone into every situation wanting to see the person do what I think is in their best interest, which is put their weapon down ... and surrender peacefully. I think that's true in all cases."
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
In his position as an FBI hostage negotiator, my guest, Gary Noesner, was sent in to diffuse volatile crises, including an angry husband holding his wife at gunpoint; cult leader David Koresh, who told his followers he was the son of God; and the Freemen, an anti-government, right-wing militia that believed they were sovereign and a law unto themselves.
Noesner also provided assistance when Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl was kidnapped in Pakistan. Noesner spent 23 of his 30 years with the FBI as a hostage negotiator. During the last 10, he was the founding chief of the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit. He often had to go up against others in the FBI, who favored the use of force over prolonged negotiation.
After retiring from the FBI in 2003, he became vice president of a private company that consults with families and businesses when someone has been taken hostage or kidnapped. Gary Noesner has written a new book, called "Stalling for Time: My Life as a Hostage Negotiator."
Gary Noesner, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with the case of a man who was holding his ex-common-law wife hostage, along with their son, and he was threatening to kill her. Your job was to stop him, and to try to get them all out safely.
So you come onto the scene, and then what happens? How do you introduce yourself to this hostage-taker?
Mr. GARY NOESNER (Author, "Stalling for Time"): Well, there was another FBI negotiator who was initially talking to the man involved, and was trying to contain the situation and keep it from becoming more violent than it already had. And my job was to assume the primary negotiation role.
And I knew the challenge would be to open up a dialogue with this man, to convince him that we didn't want to hurt him. We wanted to see he and his former common-law wife come out of this unhurt. And it requires establishing a relationship: demonstrating respect and genuineness, and hoping that the individual you're speaking with will respond to that in a positive way. So that was the challenge that I faced.
And obviously, it was a very emotional situation. He was desperate. He, in a sense, was looking at - there was no way to turn back. So her life, and the life of the child, were very much in danger, and we had to convince him that there would be a reason to go on living.
GROSS: So did you have to figure out, like, why is he holding her hostage in the first place, which is what's his psychological motivation?
Mr. NOESNER: To some extent, yes. This situation was very typical of what we see quite commonly, and that is the usually the man that is holding the hostage or the victims is so emotionally enraged that he's not really thinking clearly.
He doesn't have a plan, is not sure how to get out of a situation that he got into. So we have to try to help steer them through that course, and to try to do it in a way that we appear to be nonthreatening.
If we try to be very demanding and confrontational, it tends to only make the situation worse.
GROSS: So you write that you have to address the hostage-taker's primal need for safety and security to establish a bond. So how did you do that in the case of this hostage-taker?
Mr. NOESNER: Well, I think being persistent, and negotiations requires a lot of patience. You typically don't create that relationship of trust by the specific words that you articulate. You have to earn the right to be of influence with someone, and you do that by projecting sincerity and genuineness.
The person shouldn't feel as though they're being manipulated or controlled in any way - that, hey, I'm really here, and I want to see you come out of this alive, and I want to help you if I can. And I think if you do that sincerely and genuinely, it comes across that way. And it provides you the best opportunity to influence that person's behavior away from violence.
GROSS: Okay, so I'm just wondering here, like, were you really being genuine? Did you really care about the hostage-taker's safety, or did you only care about the people he was holding hostage - his ex-wife and their son?
Mr. NOESNER: Well, in fairness, the priority is clearly the innocent victims in any situation, the hostages. However, I wanted to see him come out alive. I've always gone into every situation wanting to see the person do what I think is in their best interest - and that is, put their weapon down, you know, cease any violence that's ongoing, and surrender peacefully. I think it's - in all cases - in the best interest of everybody involved, including the perpetrator.
GROSS: So to establish a bond, you want to meet his needs for safety and security. What could you give him that he wanted? Really, what he wanted was revenge about something; he was angry.
Mr. NOESNER: He was very angry, and I think what we had to do is demonstrate to him that he didn't need to kill her or the child, that there was other options available to him. And again, we had to lower those emotions first.
And by demonstrating that we weren't trying to hurt him - articulating that we had not tried to attack him when he fired shots; we hadn't tried to fool him or manipulate him - we had tried to provide him, as I did in this case, with some clothes that he wanted, I was trying to demonstrate our sincere and genuine effort to get him out.
And that takes a while to be processed by the perpetrator, but I think ultimately it worked in this case, to some extent.
GROSS: So you say in your book - so you have to establish a bond, address their safety and security needs, and on rare occasions, you have to lie. What did you lie about?
Mr. NOESNER: Well, in that case, I came to the conclusion - because he did spike up in violence again, and he came very close to killing her, more close than I can articulate; I was literally waiting for the gunshot that would take her life. And I knew if he continued to spiral up by articulating his anger and his grievances against her, that my ability to pull him back from the brink another time was going to be limited.
So we devised a plan that we would try to lure him out of the house. And this basically happened by happenstance. When he was about to kill her, in almost desperation, I spoke to him and said: What can I do to keep you from doing this?
And I credit her with saving her life because she basically responded by saying: Can you get us out of here? And prior to this, he'd not really asked for transportation from the scene. Before I could respond to her, he said: We want to go to that helicopter out there. And there was an FBI helicopter parked out in the field, next to this farmhouse where they were in.
So we devised a plan to convince him to go to the helicopter and be able to fly away from the scene. I knew that that was not going to happen. So in essence, I had to lie to him that that helicopter flight was a real not a real possibility, that it was going to happen, and he'd be able to do that.
It's pretty rare, in my view, that a negotiator should lie. We tend to get caught at it, and it's a real, crushing blow to a relationship once an individual has come to believe you're lying to him and being dishonest. So we try to avoid that. But this was a pretty rare and unique case.
GROSS: Okay, so you got him out of the house on the pretense of him getting into the helicopter and getting away from the scene. But he ended up being taken out by snipers once he got out of the house. Can you explain what happened?
Mr. NOESNER: Well, we obviously didn't want him to take a helicopter pilot and place his life in jeopardy, and continue to hold this woman and child, who he very well might kill. So the plan was to use an FBI sniper, a marksman, to shoot him when he went towards the helicopter.
We had an agreement in my negotiation with him that the helicopter pilot would go out to the helicopter and start the engine. The second phase was that some people would bring out - some agents would bring out some personal effects of theirs that we had found. And thirdly, those of us who were in the house negotiating with him would leave the house. And fourth, he would come out of the house and walk to the helicopter.
So we went through this in great detail to make sure there was no misunderstanding. When he came out of the house, to our surprise he had the young boy strapped to his back with a bathrobe strap. The marksman had no opportunity to take a shot to neutralize him.
As he approached the helicopter, per plan, the helicopter took off dramatically. And when that happened, the FBI also threw some flash-bang grenades, which are in essence very loud firecrackers.
In reacting to that movement and that sound, he went down on one knee, and as he went down, there was a separation between his head and the head of the boy, who was strapped behind him. And in that exact instant, an FBI marksman was able to discharge a round that ended Charlie's life. Not the ending we wanted but in reality, probably the only way we could assure the safety and the survival of the woman and child.
GROSS: I've seen scenes like this on television and in the movies. I haven't thankfully, I haven't seen anything like this in real life. When you are the negotiator, and you see the person you've been negotiating with shot in the head, what goes through your mind?
Mr. NOESNER: Well, a sense of relief and the sense of anger, both. When that shot was fired, I was in a position where I couldn't see that activity. I was behind the farmhouse. After the shot was fired, I came around the farmhouse. And I looked out on this field, and he's on the ground; the little boy is on the ground; and the former common-law wife is standing up and reacting in a very hysterical way.
My initial thought was oh, my goodness, we've somehow killed this child. And I can't express how that felt. Soon, I saw an agent pick the child up and - brought the child over to where I was. And since the child had heard my voice for 12 hours - or whatever it was - I was able to try to reassure the child.
That sense of relief that the woman and child survived is, you know, quite a wonderful feeling. I think negotiators have to be prepared for those, you know, those polarized feelings of joy and happiness when you succeed, which - fortunately - is most of the time. But you also have to be prepared mentally for those occasions where the outcomes are not at all what we wanted.
GROSS: When you say that the child heard your voice for 12 hours, how did the child hear your voice? Were you speaking through a megaphone, telephone? Were you in the room with them?
Mr. NOESNER: They had taken refuge in a farmhouse that they had broken into. They had been hiding out in the woods in this area of Virginia -Sperryville, Virginia - for a week or more and - when they were located by the FBI.
And the FBI had - began to search the house, and as agents went up the stairs - where they were confronted by the man holding a gun to the woman. So they backed down, and began the process of trying to negotiate with him.
When I arrived there, some hours later, I spent all of that time, the 10 to 12 hours, standing at the bottom of a stairway in an old farmhouse projecting my voice upstairs to a bedroom, where he and the woman and child were.
I saw her on two occasions briefly, but I never saw him until the end. So to answer your question a little bit more, the child did hear my conversations with his father and mother.
GROSS: Now, I'm just thinking as somebody who is a professional interviewer, who's always talking to people and asking questions. And I'm just trying to imagine what it's like to be a hostage negotiator, when you're talking to people, asking questions - except there's a life on the line, and your job is to persuade them. And you have to use your voice in the most persuasive way imaginable, in just exactly the right emotional pitch, and then be able to read their responses so clearly that you know what they really mean, and can read between the lines of what they're saying.
Mr. NOESNER: Well, it's a bit of an art, and there's a bit of science to it as well, from knowing human behavior. But it's imprecise at times, and we do the best we can, and we probe with different approaches. And sometimes we're not successful, and we have to adjust. And talking about this particular subject matter with the individual seems to be making the situation worse.
There is some trial and error involved in this. But I think what really makes a negotiator successful is first and foremost, you are supported by a negotiation team. It's not very often, as it was in this particular case, an individual effort. So you're bolstered by the fact that there are other experienced negotiators who are also providing you with their assessments and their insights.
So the negotiator's job is basically to use that information about our assessment of the situation and what's important to this person - not just what they've asked for or demanded, but what their needs are - and trying to address those.
GROSS: My guest is Gary Noesner, author of the new memoir "Stalling for Time: My Life as a Hostage Negotiator." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Gary Noesner, and he's written a new memoir called "Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator." He was a hostage negotiator for 23 years, the last 10 of which he spent as chief negotiator for the FBI.
In the early '90s, there was a series of anti-government and cult-like groups driven by extreme religious and political sentiments, retreating into psychological bunkers as well as actual compounds, isolating themselves from mainstream society.
I want to talk about one of these cases that you were involved with, and that's the case of David Koresh and the cult that he led, the Branch Davidians. And they were all holed up - men, women and children - near Waco, Texas, in their compound, armed to the teeth.
And you say that these kinds of groups provided one of the thorniest problems ever to confront the FBI. Why?
Mr. NOESNER: Well, in essence, when you have people - whether it's political or religious belief - that feel they are separate from society, they're not subject to the laws that govern a country or a state, and they hold the philosophy, you know, that validates their premise in the case of the Branch Davidians, you know, David Koresh taught a very fiery interpretation of the Book of Revelation, and they're preparing to be the victims of the apocalypse, and they were the chosen ones who would return.
And so it's difficult, after the initial raid by ATF and the shootout that resulted in the loss of life of law-enforcement officers and Branch Davidians both, now the FBI had to come in and resolve this situation -and in the worst of circumstances, where extreme violence had already occurred and where, in essence, you had a large group of people who believed fervently in David Koresh. And their only demand was for us to go away.
As a negotiator, if someone needs something from me, I've got a greater ability to influence their behavior. It becomes a quid-pro-quo interaction. But in a case like the Branch Davidians in Waco, where all they want you to do is go away, it's much more challenging to convince them that they need to come out and respond to the charges against them; in the courts, they'll be treated with dignity and respect.
GROSS: They wanted you to go away and leave them alone with their arms, you know, their guns and ammunition - alone in spite of charges of child abuse and sexual abuse. And part of the problem, I think, you faced was groups like this hated the government in general. So criminals don't like law-enforcement officers, but these people were against government, period.
Mr. NOESNER: I mean, I think this problem persists to some extent today, and it may be getting worse in recent times - in recent years because of the political realities in the United States. And some are very opposed to President Obama, and so forth.
But certainly in the early '90s, we seemed to have no shortage of these groups, either religious or political, that really looked upon themselves as not being subject to U.S. law: don't pay income taxes, don't have license plates, don't have driver's licenses, and engaged in a number of fraudulent activities.
So it's very hard to deal with these folks when they feel as though they have a righteous cause. And particularly when you throw in the element of religion, it becomes extremely complicating to convince them that, you know, there is a need for them to be cooperative and to avoid violence.
GROSS: So here you have this cult leader, David Koresh, who believes he's - what, the son of Jesus?
Mr. NOESNER: Well, he believed he was the lamb of God. I mean, he was the son of God. He was David. And whether he totally believed it is really not too important because his followers did. They totally bought into him.
I think in many respects, David Koresh manifested a lot of the traditional characteristics of an antisocial personality. He was very a very manipulative individual. His control over his followers was his primary goal, and religion was the vehicle and the instrument he used to do that.
GROSS: Okay, so you were leading the team that was trying to negotiate with him. Here you have this guy who believes he's the son of God. And as you said, whether he believes that or not for sure, it doesn't matter because his followers did.
He slept with many of the women who are his followers. He's the only one who's allowed to have a TV.
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Mr. NOESNER: Yes.
GROSS: It just goes from the profound to the ridiculous.
But anyways, he believes in the apocalypse. He believes that the end of times is near. So how did that affect you, and what your strategy was, in figuring out what a negotiation with him should be? Because if you believe in the apocalypse, then you believe you might die soon, and any conflagration is just further sign that yeah, the end is near, and that's a good thing.
Mr. NOESNER: Yeah, I think it's important to say that, you know, the Davidians prepared for the end times. They manufactured weapons and modified them. They undertook training. They were prepared for the government to come against them at some point in time. And obviously, the raid that day by Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau certainly was not expected, but they were prepared for that sort of thing, and it fit into their philosophy.
The real challenge for us was there had been significant loss of life. Four ATF agents had been murdered; I think 17 were wounded; a number of Davidians - we weren't sure - had been killed. So how do you get back on track in terms of seeking a peaceful resolution, on top of all this loss of life?
Our goal was to convince them that they would be treated fairly, that they would have their day in court. Interestingly, David Koresh had been in a legal problem years before. And he'd gone to court, and he won. So we tried to use that as an argument - that the courts could be fair, and his side of the story could be told.
And we were also trying to demonstrate that in the FBI, we weren't trying to attack them. And we tried to differentiate ourselves a little bit from ATF, with ATF's consent. We did that purposely, saying hey, we're here now to resolve this. We're going to investigate what happened, and this is your opportunity to tell the world your side of the story.
GROSS: What was your assessment of what your reasonable goals should be, what you could actually accomplish?
Mr. NOESNER: Well, as with all cases I've worked, I believe the goal is to get out as many people alive as we can. During the first half when I was there - all 35 people that came out, came out in that period.
And it was a challenge to convince people to turn away from Koresh's hypnotic sway over their lives, and to really pursue something in their own self-interest or take care of their children, whatever the case may be. That was a really, really big challenge to do that.
But our theory was to slowly bring people out, rather than to come up with some design for a grand resolution strategy. We had a theory we call trickle, flow, gush - that we could get a trickle of people, then a flow of people, then a gush. And to some extent, that worked.
But as you know, and as detailed in the book, there was some different perspectives on how to approach resolving this incident.
GROSS: Gary Noesner is the author of the new memoir "Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Gary Noesner, who spent 30 years with the FBI, 23 as a hostage negotiator. He's written a new memoir called "Stalling for Time."
When we left off, we were talking about his experience heading the hostage negotiation team during the Branch Davidian standoff in 1993. Led by David Koresh, this cult group lived in a compound stockpiled with weapons in preparation for the end times. The FBI moved in after the ATF had tried to arrest Koresh and search the compound, leading to a confrontation in which four ATF agents were killed, 16 wounded.
Noesner led the negotiation team for the first half of the 51-day standoff. He convinced Koresh to release 35 of the approximately 100 Davidians holed up in the compound; 18 of those released were children. I asked Noesner to tell us more about his strategy.
You wanted Koresh to actually have a demand so you could meet it. Tell me if I'm not being accurate here. But his demand finally was: I have a tape. I want you to play it; I want you to broadcast it. So you agreed, and you got it broadcast on the Christian Broadcasting Network. Why did you agree to that? I mean, aren't you supposed to like, not give in to a hostage-taker's demands?
Mr. NOESNER: Yeah. The core belief in negotiations as a profession is, you never give something unless you get something in return. And that's a good approach for a classic bargaining situation. Statistically, according to the FBI stats, that's really only about 10 percent of what law-enforcement agencies and negotiators face. When it's an emotional situation - they really don't want or need anything from you - then it's hard to use that kind of leverage.
Burt we were pleased when David Koresh said, listen, you know, if I can make this, you know, statement in national news, then I and my followers will surrender. And there were those who were opposed to letting him do that on the grounds that - what are we getting for it? I argued that we were losing nothing by doing it, and we stood a chance of demonstrating that we're reasonable people and hopefully, he would follow through on it.
We asked him to record a message so we could review it to make sure it didn't have any Jonestown-type implications about mass suicide. They did not. So we played the tape and unfortunately, he reneged on his promise and did not come out.
GROSS: So you did manage to get some children out.
Mr. NOESNER: Yes.
GROSS: But then the FBI started to use force. It started with blasting unusual recordings. And this actually surprised me, the recordings that were chosen - Tibetan chants; those chants are so beautiful, I know they're unusual sounding, but they're beautiful; recorded sounds of dying rabbits used by hunters to attract coyotes; and Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made For Walking." Who chooses this? Who does the playlist for this?
Mr. NOESNER: Well, it's a sad bit of history in the FBI because the FBI's negotiation program, since its infancy, has never taught that, does not believe that. And in fact, the negotiation team was totally opposed to that.
One of the commanders on the night shift brought these tapes. I don't know where he got them from. But I think his thinking was that we're going to irritate these people and keep them up all night, and wear down their resolve. And I fought it very vigorously. And I said, listen, at the best, it's ineffective. At the worst, it makes us look ridiculous. And it did. And it's been a constant source of embarrassment. And people have always asked me, why did the negotiators do that? And my answer has always been: We didn't do it; someone else did it, and we totally opposed it. So it was a terrible thing, and I think it made the FBI look foolish.
GROSS: Then it escalated to the use of tear gas to try to get the Davidians out. How did it escalate to that point?
Mr. NOESNER: Well, I think what happened is, as the case went on - the 52 days - the support for negotiations was greater at the beginning, when we were achieving some success. We got 19 children out, and a total of 35 individuals over that first 25, 26 days. But it was taking a lot of time, costing a lot of money. There was a lot of public pressure. There were commentaries about why can't the FBI resolve this? And there was certainly not much sympathy for David Koresh. I think that combined to put a lot of pressure on decision-makers at the scene to ratchet up the pressure a little bit.
It was my argument that, you know, what we say and what we do have to be compatible, and have to be consistent. But in reality, what happened, the negotiators were trying to do all these innovative things to get people out, and we were successful. And then elements that supported a more confrontational approach were, you know, moving the tanks forward, crushing cars, doing various things that - perhaps well-intended, but they were very counterproductive, and tended to send mixed signals to the Davidians.
GROSS: And you think that one of the reasons why Koresh was willing to release the children that he released is he thought their parents would be more willing to die with him if their children were out.
Mr. NOESNER: Yeah, that was our belief the whole time, that there are - no matter how religious one is and whatever your beliefs are, the responsibility of a parent, the psychological needs of a parent to take care of a child are pretty significant. And it was our feeling that by letting these children go, Koresh was, in essence, setting up a scenario where their parents would now remain loyal to him, and fight to the death.
So what we tried to do - as these kids came out, we didn't send them off to various places, as the parents had indicated on notes. We kept them there with the Child Protective Services - they were well-cared for - and we continued as a theme to tell the parents that hey, we're not sending them off. We're waiting for you to come back out and resume custody, and take care of your children. And I think that was pretty effective in convincing some of the mothers to come out and do just that.
GROSS: The story ends in a conflagration, with the Davidians pouring some kind of inflammatory liquid around and burning up the compound. I don't know if it was gas or kerosene, or what. How did it get to that point, from your perspective?
Mr. NOESNER: Well, I had - I was no longer at the scene. I had left Waco at the halfway point. I think what happened is the confrontation became so acrimonious that effective negotiations ended about that midpoint. And David Koresh simply found himself in a position where he made no decision. Staying in there and doing nothing and not letting anybody else out was just a way of delaying things.
As the pressure built up from the authorities, the Davidians, you know, began to think about being more defensive. And I think ultimately, the decision was made to put in tear gas, in the hopes that this would cause them to put their weapons down and come out. In reality, as we know now, the Davidians used that aggression, as they perceived it from the FBI, to trigger the start of these fires that burned down the compound and took all the lives.
GROSS: Now, this is just one example of one the groups that you work with as a hostage negotiator, one of the groups that saw themselves as outside of government control, of not having to follow the law, of being able to arm themselves, hating the government - all aspects of government. And I'm wondering if you think that some of that thinking has entered a little bit more into the mainstream - or at least into the fringes of politics?
Mr. NOESNER: On a personal level, I think it has, to some extent. I think we are living in a time now, it seems to me, that our political discourse has become pretty acrimonious. And I think folks that hold very opposing views are finding it increasingly challenging to find some common ground, and to engage in discussions in a civilized way. And I think that does not speak well for our country.
People automatically think that somebody who holds a different view is an enemy somehow, and I think that's unfortunate.
GROSS: Are you seeing anything that you're finding very alarming right now?
Mr. NOESNER: Well, I know after the Oklahoma City bombing, the militia movement in the country seemed to be set back a bit. I think people who view themselves as patriots and with anti-government sentiments, when they saw, for example, all the children that were killed in the day-care center, I think a lot of them said, I didn't buy into this - you know -this isn't being an American; this is not what I want to do. And I think a lot of people turned away from those movements.
Frankly, I think today, particularly with a black president in office, I think some of that is being stirred up again - some anti-government sentiment, some racial sentiment. And I think it's a situation that the authorities have to watch pretty closely, that these groups don't again engage in violent activity.
GROSS: Are you hearing it in people more in the mainstream of politics, who are saying things that you think are reaching, in some way, the people in this kind of sovereign, extreme movement that you've dealt with?
Mr. NOESNER: Well, to some extent. I don't want to blame this on politicians. But particularly in today's atmosphere, I think, you know, politicians get news media coverage, and they get attention, when they say controversial things. And if they stir up the pot on whatever the issue is - you know, the mosque issue in New York is a good example of that. It's turned into a very emotional, very volatile issue, and that speaks to a certain constituency. And there's a certain constituency, I think, that can take those ideas to an extreme - and dangerous levels.
So I think politicians should have a responsibility to try to talk about such matters in a more thoughtful way, and be receptive to discussing all sides of a situation.
GROSS: My guest is Gary Noesner, author of the new memoir "Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator."
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Gary Noesner, and he's written a memoir called "Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator." He spent 23 years as a FBI hostage negotiator, the last 10 of those years was as chief of the FBI's Crisis Negotiations Unit.
What is the closest you've come to talking to somebody affiliated with al-Qaida, or with a group like it?
Mr. NOESNER: Well, I was a negotiator for 23 years, but I was in the FBI for 30. And in my career in the '80s, I worked out of the Washington office of the FBI. And I was on a squad of a few individuals that worked overseas hijackings. I was investigative case agent for the TWA 847 hijacking and the Achille Lauro and a few others, and I worked Lockerbie.
So I had a chance to in some instances, interview and work with some extremists and some fanatics. But I've never talked with anybody that I've known to be associated with al-Qaida. But that sentiment has grown. For example, back in the '80s when we were dealing with Palestinian terrorism and hijackings, the movement then was pretty much a secular movement. Yasser Arafat was not a particularly religious person. George Habash, of the PFLP, was a Christian.
So what we've seen is, the children and grandchildren of those people have become far more radicalized, and have embraced a very extremist interpretation of their faith to justify what they're doing and to serve their political needs. And I find that very disturbing.
GROSS: Do you think that there would be any way of negotiating with a bin Laden-type terrorist?
Mr. NOESNER: Well, I think it would be an enormous challenge. But I have a belief that negotiations should always be attempted, if for no other reason to buy time, to slow down the situation, to provide an opportunity to look at different options. I'm a strong believer that the U.S. government's policy against negotiating with terrorists is a valid policy. However, that should not prevent us from opening a dialogue.
As an example of that, I know that in Iraq under General Petraeus, the military reached out to some of these opposing groups and brought them aboard, found a way to hire some of them to come over to our side. And I think that's a good example of being creative and undertaking actions in a smart way, that actually serve to prevent higher risk to American lives. Simply condemning everyone as evil - which they may well be -doesn't really help us solve the problem.
GROSS: You retired from the FBI - was it in 2003?
Mr. NOESNER: Yes.
GROSS: And then you joined a private company that helps families and businesses when one of their people has been held hostage. You even did some work on the case of Danny Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was beheaded by jihadists. So I'm just wondering - you know, it seems like there's parts of the country in which kidnapping hostages has become an industry. It's one of the main ways that some terrorist groups stay alive - you know, make an income. It's - in Iraq, it was a way that a lot of individuals, you know, made their money. That's probably still the case - maybe not as much as it was a couple of years ago. But have you seen an enormous rise in hostage-taking?
Mr. NOESNER: Well, more specifically, it's the kidnapping issue. Hostage-taking in the United States is a relatively low-percentage crime. Now on the overseas business, it's quite different. Kidnapping is a growth industry in much of the developing world. We've seen a lot of it in Latin America, but also other places in the world. And that's because there's inefficient, corrupt or incompetent law enforcement. So those kidnappers get the payoffs, and they don't get arrested, and they don't get prosecuted. And consequently, the crime perpetuates.
GROSS: Now, in the case of reporters who are kidnapped, the newspaper has such a difficult decision to make. Do they pay a ransom that's being asked for? Or do they not, thus risking that their journalist will be killed? And you know, I think the government's position is, basically, you don't pay terrorists, and that that encourages other terrorists to take people - to kidnap people for a ransom.
As somebody who's worked with businesses and with families who have people who have been kidnapped, what's your position on paying - hostages? Like, you worked on the Danny Pearl case. If there was a ransom that was asked for, would you have promoted the idea of paying the ransom?
Mr. NOESNER: Well, for clarification, when my unit worked the Danny Pearl case, I was still in the FBI. But what I've done since retiring from the FBI, I do work for an international consultancy that helps corporations and families resolve situations where their employees or their loved ones, family members have been kidnapped. The reality - it's a sad reality, I will tell you - is that in most cases, without the payment of a ransom, you're simply not going to get your person out alive. It is true that paying a ransom perpetuates the kidnapping problem. But the question I pose to people is: What's the alternative? It's your family member, your loved one. Are you willing to draw a line in the sand and say, you'll never get money from me - and see them be executed?
There's some pretty ruthless kidnappers out there. So the reality is, to get them home and get them out safe - it requires, in most cases, some negotiations and often, some payment. Some hostages escape; some are rescued. But in most cases, they've got to be negotiated out, and it's going to require the payment of a ransom. Now, with terrorists, I would certainly agree with the U.S. policy. The United States government should not make substantive concessions to terrorists.
However, in my judgment, that should not mean that the U.S. government does not engage in a dialogue, in a conversation. Negotiations does not necessarily mean acquiescence or capitulation. It provides us information. It provides us alternatives and options and oftentimes, can lead to a successful resolution.
GROSS: You imply in your book that you're afraid that there's going to be a terrorist siege in United States that we will be totally unprepared for, and unprepared for in terms of negotiation. What are you thinking?
Mr. NOESNER: Well, if you look, for example, at the recent situation in Mumbai, or the Russian Moscow theater incident, the Beslan School situation, I think as a nation, we have to be prepared to respond to these events. We could very well find ourselves subjected to teams of terrorists who end up holding hostages at hotels or schools, or whatever it might be. And it's all well and good and appropriate and quite necessary to have a tactical capability - to have well-trained police officers or military who could intervene and try to save lives. However, I think we have come to a point in our country now where we are undervaluing negotiations as a tool to help solve the situation and, at least at a minimum, to buy time so that when we do take action, it's going to be more successful.
GROSS: There was part of your career with the FBI where you were the head of the negotiation team. And a lot of your job was negotiating with your own people - negotiating with the heads of the FBI for more resources for your team. So how did your skills as a negotiator help - or maybe not so much - when you were using them in an administrative capacity?
Mr. NOESNER: Well, I used to tell negotiators that worked for me, I said your job is easy. You just have to deal with a hostage-taker. I have to deal with decision-makers in the government. It can just be far more complicated. I think you have to be a diplomat, and you have to be knowledgeable, and be able to articulate the philosophy or the approach that you think is going to be most successful in a situation. And you are successful when you are able to use statistics and personal experiences and make a valid argument for the position that you're supporting.
So I found that my job as the chief negotiator for the FBI was often really a tough one, having to convince high-level officials who were very bright and, you know, very talented, but may not have any specific expertise in this field. And that's one of my concerns about a potential future terrorist siege in America - that I'm not really sure that our top decision-makers, both in law enforcement and the larger government, really have the experiential base, or the training, to make those good decisions that would support a balanced approach to resolving the situation in the most successful way possible. I believe that we should use force only when we have no other option.
GROSS: Well, Gary Noesner, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. NOESNER: My great pleasure.
GROSS: Gary Noesner's new memoir is called "Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews an album by a Dutch big band that first became known for performing Sun Ra's music.
This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.