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'Stalling For Time' With An FBI Hostage Negotiator
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
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
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
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 a 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
Mr. NOESNER: To some extent, yes. This situation was very typical of
what we see quite commonly, and that is the â 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 where 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
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
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 that 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
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
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 â
not a real possibility, that it was going to happen, and he'd be able to
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
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 â 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
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
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 question, 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
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
(Soundbite of music)
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 â 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
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
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
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
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
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
GROSS: Okay, so you are 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.
(Soundbite of laughter)
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
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
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.
(Soundbite of music)
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
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?
(Soundbite of laughter)
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
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 to 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
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
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
So what we tried to do is 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
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 constituency, I think that can
take those ideas to an extreme at 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.
(Soundbite of music)
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 the squad of a few individuals that
worked overseas hijackings. I was investigative case agent for the TWA
847 hijacking, in Achille Lauro and a few others and I worked the
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, makes an income. It's - in Iraq, it's 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
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 U.S. policy. The United States government should
not make substantive concessions to terrorists.
However, in my judgment, that should not mean that the United States
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's 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 from 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
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
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,
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.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Joost Buis And Astronotes: Controlled Anarchy
TERRY GROSS, host:
In the mid-1990s, trombonist Joost Buis put together a little big band
called The Astronotes, which played often at community centers in
Amsterdam. At first, they performed the music of intergalactic free-jazz
bandleader Sun Ra. They only began recording in 2003, after Buis begun
writing for the band himself.
The Astronotes second album is now out. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has
(Soundbite of music)
KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Trombonist Joost Buis' Dutch, German, Scottish,
Australian, American band, The Astronotes, some acting up there by
drummers Alan Purves and Michael Vatcher and guitarist Paul Pallesen.
That's from The Astronotes' CD "Zoomin," on the Dado label.
Most of the tentet's original members are still around after 15 years,
and know how to work with and around each other. Buis' pieces don't
sound much like the cosmic music of his onetime inspiration Sun Ra, but
he learned something from the master about repetition and variation and
how to build the music in layers that diverge and converge.
(Soundbite of song, "Zest for a Zizz")
WHITEHEAD: Bandleader Joost Buis also learned a lot from Duke Ellington
pieces. Like Duke, he gives his players a long leash, the better to
involve them in the creative process. On Buis' tune "Zest for a Zizz,"
he suggests the opulence of Ellington's dozen horns by skillfully
arraying The Astronotes' five winds in background and foreground roles.
Horns include cornet player Felicity Provan and the rapturously breathy
tenor saxophonist Tobias Delius.
(Soundbite of song, "Zest for a Zizz")
WHITEHEAD: Coming up in Amsterdam and working for some of the city's top
bandleaders, Joost Buis and his Astronotes were exposed to myriad
approaches to contemporary music-making. His piece "Icy" borders on a
genial parody of the chugging saxophones and mysterious pauses found in
some severe Dutch concert music.
(Soundbite of song, "Icy")
WHITEHEAD: Buis picked up good composing tips from some former
employers. Willem Breuker taught him about making 10 pieces sound like
more by keeping everyone busy all the time. And he learned about booting
his soloists with a catchy vamp tune from Sean Bergin. Guus Janssen
showed him how different themes in a piece can collide or interrupt each
other in a friendly way.
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: Controlled anarchy is a code these Astronotes fly by. They
play Joost Buis' tunes clean and true, and still let weird details
nibble at the edges. That sort of despoiling playfulness typifies a lot
of Holland's improvised music: Just because you're serious doesn't mean
you have to be so serious all the time.
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for eMusic.com. He reviewed
"Zoomin," the new album by Joost Buis and Astronotes on the Dado record
You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.