A Former FBI Negotiator on Waco and 30 Years of Standoffs

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Brian Bahr / AFP / Getty Images

Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and local Texan authorities stand at a checkpoint near the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993

For most of his 30-year FBI career, Gary Noesner served as a hostage negotiator — including 10 years as chief negotiator — talking directly with emotionally enraged and desperate people, including Branch Davidian leader David Koresh. In his book Stalling for Time, Noesner recounts his most intense standoffs. In a chat with TIME, he explains how negotiators and tactical rescue teams sometimes butt heads, how more Branch Davidians could have been saved in Waco and how hostage-negotiation skills could help American politicians.

You explain that the back-and-forth between your negotiation team and others charged with rescuing the hostages during the David Koresh and Branch Davidians standoff hampered so much of what you were trying to achieve. How so?
I was only there the first half of it, but what was really challenging was I had a great team of negotiators who were able to accomplish so much in a really challenging case where there had already been significant loss of life. But I had often told them that even though they were talking to a pretty bizarre and difficult individual in David Koresh, I had a tougher job because I had to deal with a very emotionally volatile on-scene commander and a very strong-willed tactical-team leader. It's frustrating when you feel really secure about pursuing a particular strategy, and are seeing that even achieve some of your goals, and then have that — albeit unintentionally — eroded and neutralized by someone else's perception on how to proceed.

Do you think that if it had been easier to work together the situation would have ended differently or not have lasted as long?
It may well have lasted as long. It's all speculation, but I weigh success or failure on one very definable goal, and that is, Did we secure the release of everyone that we could have? And if that's the criteria, we didn't. We as an organization failed to secure the release of everyone we could've. I would make the argument that had we not taken some wrong turns there, had the approach that my negotiation team recommended continued, I think we stood a chance of getting them all out, certainly a lot more of them.

Do you think David Koresh would ever have surrendered?
I kind of equated it to a train station. There's a train at the station, and slowly people are getting on the train and those people are Branch Davidians. I perceived metaphorically that Koresh would be watching his flock get on the train to pull out. He would have a couple of choices: get on at the end or wave goodbye to everybody. I think he would've chosen something different. I think he would've gotten in front of the train and all of a sudden decided to lead them out. That's how controlling he was.

What is it like having to deal with a high-stress situation while also having to deal with the media?
The media's need for information certainly distracts us from the primary task of dealing with the folks we're trying to get out. Typically as a negotiator we wouldn't be doing the immediate interface with the media. At Waco, we wanted the Branch Davidians to watch the daily press conferences. In those press conferences, FBI and ATF leaders would make a statement and then they would answer questions. The negotiation team was tasked with providing the talking points. The reason we did that, and wanted to do that, was that it was an alternative means to which we could convey messages to the Davidians. When we were on the phone with David Koresh, we were only talking to David Koresh, but we wanted to reach his followers and hopefully convince them to walk away from this hypnotic sway he had over them.

You describe the inadequacies at the Munich Olympics that led to the tragic hostage situation in which 12 people were killed, which brought to mind the recent standoff in the Philippines in which a former police officer took over a tourist bus. What was your take on that?
I don't have all the details, but I know there was an effort undertaken to open a dialogue with this guy. Who did it? Were they trained negotiators or was it just some police official? I don't know. The man undertook this bus-jacking to bring attention to his unhappiness about being dismissed from the police department. I think negotiations can be done well, and they can be done not so well. And if you don't do them so well, then it may in fact contribute to the need to have to use tactical force. I would have thought there would have been a lot of opportunity to pursue meaningful negotiations with this guy.

You write a lot about restraint versus the aggressive approach. Is there a point at which you know that things need to be stepped up?
It is determined by the behaviors and actions of the perpetrator. If the person's becoming less stable, more dangerous, more threatening, has put a deadline on, [saying] he's going to kill somebody soon, and we also sense that we're not really connecting with this person and are unlikely to in the near term, then that mitigates toward strong consideration for a tactical rescue. It's an incremental approach, where you're contrasting the benefits of negotiations with the risks of tactical intervention. You just don't go from one to the other. You try to nudge them toward the negotiation resolution by demonstrating — but not too aggressively — that, hey, we do have a capability [for force] here.

You worked for most of your career revamping how negotiation skills are taught, including changing the strategy to focus more on dealing with people under extreme emotional stress rather than bargaining situations. What's the difference?
When the business was founded, all the concern in law enforcement was somebody was going to take a hostage. Broadly speaking you could say anybody being held is a hostage. In reality they're not. If I'm holding my wife in a hotel room and I'm threatening to kill her because we've been having a big argument, she's really not a hostage unless I say I want a million dollars to let her go or a getaway car. Hostage-taking is a very specific subset where the hostage or victim is held for a specific reason, and it's to force somebody else to do something. Early negotiations were focused on that. What we found through time was that most of the situations, and almost all of the ones that ended tragically, were emotionally enraged situations, where we're dealing with somebody who's just out of control.

Have your negotiation skills been useful to you in your personal life?
There have been times where my wife's been angry and I'll say, Well tell me what you're mad at. And she'll say, Don't you try that stuff here at home. If I put on a more empathic ear than she's used to hearing on daily basis, I get caught pretty quickly. It probably works a little bit better with strangers. But these skills have pretty broad applicability. Everybody's gotta work with a boss, a co-worker, have a relationship, many have children, and all of those are ripe for conflict if we don't manage them properly. Our two political parties in the country today could really learn from some of this and step back from this constant bickering and polarization. I have this old-fashioned belief that reasonable people can come up with reasonable solutions.