Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator
© 2010 Gary Noesner
Having read extensively about the Ruby Ridge and Waco debacles, I couldn’t help but be curious about the “other side’s” perspective: the state’s. How did the FBI and ATF make such astonishingly bad judgment calls? In search of answers, I found Gary Noesner’s Stalling for Time, his brief memoirs of working as an FBI negotiator in the eighties and nineties, his highest profile case being the first month of the Waco siege. By the time his career ended, Noesner had visited all fifty states and forty different countries. Engaging in its own way, Noesner also shares insights about communication and persuasion along the way, reminding me of the skills taught by ABQ police officer George Thompson, elaborated on in his book Verbal Judo.
Noesner was riveted by the media of his youth which portrayed FBI agents as superpotent knights of truth, justice, and the American way. He joined the bureau as a clerk, and with the help of an agent who was mentoring him, became an agent in his own right. His mentor stressed the power of communication and persuasian as part of the agency’s toolkit, both to prevent situations from escalating and to make subjects more readily available to volunteer information. Having absorbed those lessons, Noesner was quick to volunteer for the new negotiation teams the FBI formed in the late seventies, and in the eighties he both handled his own cases and advised on others. Much of his early work dealt with overseas terrorism. Throughout this time, Noesner realized that the FBI’s negotiation and tactical teams had to work in concert: both performed better together. Negotiators with armed men behind them could work with confidence, and their “stalling for time” allowed situations to defuse themselves, or else gave the tactical teams more time to gather information on how to do their part without any hangups — or provided information directly.
Noesner was not involved in Ruby Ridge, but he followed the siege via newspaper and was horrified at the sloppy work there. The rules of engagement prescribed by the commanding agent, Dick Rogers, were reckless and asking to turn into trouble for both sides. When the ATF started an even larger cock-up in Waco, Texas, Noesner was asked to assist — and was astonished to find that not only Dick Rogers had retained his job, but that he was even more confident about taking care of the Waco situation in the same way. By Noesner’s account, Rogers commanded the tactical teams, and Noesner the negotatiors: unfortunately, the agent in charge of both didn’t desire to coordinate the two, and allowed them to run separate, conflicting strategies. The most obvious example of this would be Noesner’s efforts to establish a rapport with the Davidians by providing them milk immediately being undermined by Rogers’ team cutting power. Noesner’s frustration with the increasing aggressive tactics of Rogers saw him removed from the negotiating team, replaced by someone who was just as enthusiastic about Revelations as Koresh — and eager to explain Why He was Wrong. Despite growing success from negotiations — a steady trickle of Davidians leaving the complex — ultimately the affair would end with dozens dead, including children. Noesner wasn’t in Texas when everything went sideways and fire consumed the Davidian complex, but he was so disgusted by the spectacle, by both Rogers’ mishandling and Koresh’s intransigence, that he walked out of work in disgust. Despite helping a prison riot reach a successful conclusion shortly thereafter, Noesner writes that he was in a funk for months afterward. The incident did prompt the FBI to be more mindful of the ‘paradox of power’, in which greater force creates greater resistance, and to take negotiation teams more seriously. This bore fruit at an incident in Montana, when the FBI were able to conclude the Freeman affair without gunshed. Easily the most interesting part of that siege was Randy Weaver (from Ruby Ridge) arriving to help mediate, hoping to help his ideological kindred spirits holed up in their ranch from making the same mistakes he did. The FBI didn’t take him up on his offer, though Noesner believed Weaver sincere.
Stalling for Time made for compelling reading, given the variety of incidents and Noesner’s frequent sharing of insights into the art of persuasion. Noesner comes off here as extremely sympathetic, earnestly trying to reach a peaceful resolution and always horrified when the tactical teams get overly rowdy.
Waco: A Survivor’s Story
The Ashes of Waco
Ruby Ridge: The Truth and Tragedy of the Randy Weaver Family