Talking to Bastards

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CULTURE SEPTEMBER 21, 2010

Talking to Bastards

Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator
by Gary Noesner
Random House, 240 pp., $26

The consequences of a bungled hostage rescue are grave. That much was evident this July, when French commandos stormed a remote camp in northern Mali occupied by members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Three months earlier, AQIM had kidnapped a 78-year-old Frenchman and was holding him hostage. There were negotiations aimed at securing his release, but the talks stalled. Commandos took over the job. When the soldiers arrived at the camp, however, the French hostage was nowhere to be found. A shoot-out left at least six people dead. The next day, Abdelmalek Droukdel, the leader of AQIM, announced that his group had executed the French septuagenarian in retaliation. President Nicolas Sarkozy in turn declared war against AQIM, to which Droukdel replied that Sarkozy had “opened the doors of hell.”

The episode illustrated the fragility of kidnap negotiations: reach an agreement and the victim goes free, or rush in, guns blazing, and find your country at war. Some might consider it a fool’s errand to negotiate with AQIM at all. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, kidnapped people for political theater, often beheading his victims on television. No negotiator could possibly deter him, let alone “talk him through it.”

Unlike al-Zarqawi, most kidnappers are businessmen. And their nasty business presents civilized societies with a quandary because paying ransoms very likely perpetuates the kidnapping-for-ransom industry. One might assume, therefore, that a memoir from a career kidnapping-negotiator would be rife with material for psychologists and moralists to chew on. Gary Noesner’s book does not wrestle much with these questions, but there is plenty else here to praise. Noesner’s engrossing first-hand look inside the world of kidnapping negotiations charts the rise, fall, and resurgence of negotiation as a valued component in the FBI’s playbook of crisis management. The book is also an intimate history of contemporary American militia movements.

The explosion of kidnapping cases in Iraq, Afghanistan, North Africa, and Mexico characterize the evolving global kidnapping market. But Noesner’s story is primarily a domestic one. (In the epilogue he mentions his post-FBI employment with Control Risks, the world’s leading kidnapping-and-ransom consultancy, though he does not describe any of its cases in much detail.) Two years after he joined the FBI in 1972, the Bureau established a hostage negotiation training program at its academy in Quantico, Virginia. The program was modeled on one previously adopted by the New York Police Department. Noesner wanted in from the get-go. “I had always been a kind of mediator and peacemaker among my friends,” he writes, employing a glib and familiar memoiristic device whereby the author’s childhood fits squarely into a career trajectory. In 1980, Noesner completed the two-week negotiation course. He spent the next decade working cases involving a Colombian drug trafficker who held up a train car in North Carolina, an erratic husband who used his ex-wife and child as human shields in rural Virginia, and a loony Vietnam vet who took over a decommissioned battleship in South Carolina.

But his work began to change during the 1990s. It started with a prison riot in 1991 in Talladega, Alabama, in which Cuban prisoners overpowered their guards and took control over a section of the jail. Noesner, one of the lead negotiators, worked together with another FBI squad, the elite Hostage Rescue Team, commanded by a “perpetually tense,” “clearly type A” agent named Dick Rogers. Using a carrot-and-stick approach, Noesner bargained with the inmates while Rogers’ men prepped for battle. After ten days, Noesner agreed to send inside a feast, which the inmates immediately consumed. With their adversaries by now stuffed and complacent, HRT and SWAT members scaled the prison walls in a pre-dawn assault and quickly regained control of the prison. “This was a great moment for the FBI,” Noesner writes, “compelling validation…of the wisdom of the Bureau’s standard approach to crisis management, an approach that integrates negotiation and tactical operations as two parts of the same whole… But as the after-action review took place I began to wonder whether the Bureau fully appreciated the negotiation team’s role in the successful rescue….The limited lesson that some officials took away from the Talladega success would have escalating and tragic consequences.”

One year later, Rogers’ HRT was in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, where Randy Weaver, a former soldier sympathetic to right-wing causes, was holed up, armed, in a remote cabin with his family. “Rogers had no interest in dealing with Randy Weaver through any means other than force,” says Noesner. On August 22, 1992, FBI snipers shot Weaver’s wife Vicki, killing her instantly. Weaver eventually surrendered but the damage had been done. The story of Ruby Ridge, and its themes of government intrusion, had entered the folklore of militia movements across the United States.

But the outcome at Ruby Ridge, and later the atrocious one at Waco, were not inevitable, according to Noesner. His chapter on Waco offers a unique glimpse into a cultural divide within the FBI. While Noesner convinced David Koresh’s lead negotiator to let people leave, albeit slowly, Rogers waited impatiently for the chance to overrun the Branch Davidian Compound. Other agents echoed Rogers’s enthusiasm for a military approach. Noesner found them “cavalier and flippant about the [negotiation] process.” At one point Noesner recalled one of them fuming, “No use trying to talk to these bastards. We’ve got to just go in there and cut their balls off.” According to Noesner, a handful of tough, overconfident FBI agents ignored the double-barreled approach of negotiation and military tactics that brought success in Talladega, and ultimately steered the country into crises whose consequences are still felt today.

Did the FBI learn from its mistakes? Noesner himself shows cautious optimism on this question. In 1996, three years after Waco, the FBI was once again locked in a standoff with another well-armed “Christian Patriot” group, this time the Montana Freemen. There was one major difference then, according to Noesner: “we planned to negotiate in good faith with the Freemen.” (The Freemen ultimately surrendered after eighty-one days.) But the pendulum continues to swing back and forth as the FBI considers the most effective techniques for interrogating terrorist suspects.

Unfortunately, Noesner’s book suffers from a damaging lack of deeper reflection. Kidnapping is psychological sport, after all. And while Noesner takes readers through the mechanics of a kidnapping in great detail, his forays into the psychological realm are superficial and unrevealing. After the debacle at Waco, he describes falling into a “funk.” “I still loved my job, but something wasn’t right,” he says. “I felt very sad.” That’s all the thinking there is. It is a pity that someone who held one of the most stressful, vertiginous, and mentally taxing jobs around—and lived to write about it—cannot quite bring us into his own head.

Nicholas Schmidle is a fellow at the New America Foundation, a 2010 International Reporting Project fellow, and the author of  To Live or to Perish Forever.

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