Waco Week 3: A Chat with Gary Noesner, Former FBI Negotiator
Hear Gary's firsthand perspective of the grueling Waco negotiations.
Welcome to SOC Soundsystem! I’m Shannon Nico Shreibak, the wordsmith behind this weekly dispatch about the weaponization of sound and music. Each month, we’ll delve into a different historical event through essays, interviews, reading lists, and more.
On deck today: An interview with Gary Noesner, former FBI Negotiator and author of ‘Stalling For Time: My Life as an FBI Negotiator.’
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You decided to join the FBI after a Mickey Mouse club episode. Can you tell me about that realization and your journey into negotiation?
Like a lot of kids, I didn’t really have much sense about what I’d do in life. But watching that program, it just triggered something in me. It’s hard to explain. I thought, “Wow, this is so exciting to be a G-Man [short for “government man”] and chase gangsters and spies.” And they went down to the FBI gun range and shot the Thompson machine gun and I knew that this was the job for me. It sort of became a dream and many, many years later it actually came true for me.
How did you get into hostage negotiation specifically?
At the orientation of your training day, they introduce you to things that are up-and-coming in law enforcement—trends, new areas in training, new focuses. Profiling was probably one of those back then, but there was also hostage negotiation. In hearing the explanation about it and what it attempted to do, it really intrigued me. I made a mental note that when I had sufficient time as a functioning agent, I would attempt to get the specialized training.
For most FBI negotiators, it’s a part-time function, so you go to our two-week National Crisis Negotiation course, you get trained, and if you get assigned to Omaha and there’s a bank robbery hostage situation in Omaha, for example, you go out and negotiate it. I did that out of the Washington Field Office — not the headquarters — and I did that for many years in addition to my field work, which was mostly in terrorism. Eventually, I was asked to be one of three full-time negotiators at the [FBI] Academy, both to respond operationally and teach it. After the Waco incident in ’93, I became the Chief Negotiator of the FBI.
When you were going into Waco, what were your expectations?
Well, I was informed about that on a Sunday: February 28th of ’93. I was out with my family…I think we were at a hardware store at the time…and my beeper went off. This is before we had cell phones, so I had to go find a phone booth to call my boss and find out what the crisis du jour was. He told me about this incident and to get to the airport and jump on an FBI plane that was heading out that way in a couple hours.
On the way out, I got some updates and the incident had become stabilized. Cease fire had been obtained between the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents and the Davidians, so I was optimistic that we would stand a chance to open up the dialog and come to a peaceful resolution. I’m always optimistic that reason and common sense will prevail.
I heard an interview where you talk about negotiators taking shifts. Can you tell me about how you all tap in and tap out of those conversations while still keeping people comfortable?
Negotiation is about relationships, but it’s also a team operation. One person may be the voice of a team at a time, but there’s a certain interchangeability of negotiators. What we don’t want is for one negotiator to get burned out and be so emotionally overwhelmed that they stop functioning at optimal levels.
David Koresh might have felt like he was talking to one person, but there was a whole team listening. There’s someone passing notes to the primary negotiator, there’s situation boards, there’s summaries and reports. And there’s a whole support structure behind the scenes that enables that person to assess what’s going on. We have long discussions between calls, asking each other, “What did you hear,” “What do you think about this,” “What subjects should we avoid?” All those kinds of team analysis prepare you for the next step, the next call, the next phase of strategy.
We typically work in 12-hour shifts in the FBI because…you know the old parlor game where you sit around a table and you whisper a secret to somebody and it goes around the table? By the time it gets back to you, it’s totally distorted. We’ve learned that, although a 12-hour shift can be exhausting, the people that relieve you are the people that you relieve. In other words, there’s less complexity to obscure the message or lose a vital piece of the conversation. As the overall coordinator of that effort, I’m bridging both shifts. If I’m working a 14-hour day, half is with each shift for another layer of insurance that we’re not losing anything. It’s a pretty organized process.
You disagreed with the use of music in the negotiation because it violates FBI guidelines. Can you tell me how that decision was reached?
For a long time, our hostage negotiation policy guidance spoke against the use of what we call “aggravation or depravation techniques.” We found that they’re counterproductive. The primary goal of negotiation is to build a relationship of trust, so when you’re—for lack of a better term—screwing around with somebody, that conveys quite a different message.
It didn’t work with Noriega. People assume that by blaring loud music and exhausting someone and bringing them to their wits end, they’re more likely to surrender. It’s not based on any sort of empirical evidence. Negotiation is about a paradox of power: The harder you push, the more likely it is that you’ll get resistance.
The negation team knew nothing about it. It took me several days to get it stopped. Only then by sticking my neck out by doing an end-around and going straight to headquarters and saying, “Will you tell the on-scene commander here that at best this is ineffective and at worst, we’re being made to look like fools.” Both of those things were true. It’s simply indefensible.
People become impatient—FBI, managers, law enforcement across the world, leaders, military, so forth. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, so when things aren’t moving along the way they’d like, they feel they have to do something. We call it “the action imperative:” You have to be seen as doing something.
Sometimes, not doing anything is the best thing to do. We’re waiting for emotion to cool, for time to pass. There’s reams of information about the value that the passage of time brings to lowering emotions and helping people come to a point of acceptance. I worked four or five prison riots that all lasted eight to ten days, and the terms those inmates accepted for surrender at day 8, 9, 10 is essentially the same thing they were offered on Day One, but they weren’t ready for it.
What always bothered me about Waco is that the FBI at that time was recognized as the source of information regarding negotiation — not just the United States, but also around the world. To know that all those people around the world saw us do something so painfully contradictory to what we taught and preached was a very painful experience. Because the public assumes that if the FBI did something, it was part of a concerted strategy. It wasn’t.
The real story is sort of pathetic. One evening around dinnertime, one of the negotiators on my team was taking a smoke break and he was talking to someone else working the command post. The negotiator comes back to me and asks, “Did you know they’re gonna play loud music tonight?” So I go into see the on-scene commander and I say, “Boss, I don’t know if this is true, but this is what I heard,” and explained why we don’t do that. So he tells me he’ll take care of it.
I went back and tried to go get a few hours of sleep at the hotel and I turn on CNN to hear this loud, blaring music. I called the command post immediately to talk to the boss, but he was gone for the evening, so I couldn’t stop it that night. So I go to see him the next night and he tells me that the nighttime commander was kind of bored and had nothing else to do, that he brought these tapes from home to do this. It took me another three days to get it stopped and it remains embarrassing because it’s attributed to my team, and nothing could be further from what we recommended.
One of the reasons I was involved in the Waco TV show, which is partially based on my book, is because the producers wanted to attempt to show both sides—the inside looking out through [Waco survivor David] Thibodeau’s book and the outside looking in through my book. I think that was a fair and balanced way to present the program. That said, I think they made Koresh far too sympathetic a character.
Were you on the Waco set often?
I was out there twice for a period of three, four weeks. I found it absolutely fascinating. Michael Shannon, who played me, was very open to my suggestions, as were the directors. I wish I could have been out there longer in hindsight to make it a bit more balanced.
They [the directors] actually spoke with David Thibodeau a year before they met me. I get along fine with David — we spoke on the phone a few weeks ago; he’s a nice fellow. I think his perspective is limited, as he wasn’t involved with the Koresh leadership team. He has a perception of what happened inside and a lot is accurate, but he also makes some inferences about the interaction between Koresh and the FBI that were not true, at least in his book. He had the chance to embed in the directors’ minds that the government was the enemy, even though it was a much more complicated situation than that.
You were rotated out after 25 days of the 51-day Waco siege. What was that like?
Not as dramatic as on the TV show. What happened was, as with any major siege, we find that personnel burn out in about three weeks. Your effectiveness and ability to think clearly can be clouded by your desire to go home, so we rotate people out. Everyone on my team had been rotated out — about 14 or 16 people — and new people had been staggered in.
The overt rationale is that I needed a few weeks of rest at home and if the situation was still ongoing, I’d come back again. In reality, I also knew that I was viewed, quite correctly, as an impediment to stronger tactical action. So there was someone in headquarters who wanted someone more supportive of the tactical team. No one else came out after I left, and negotiations fell into the abyss as Koresh refused to deal with us in any meaningful way. All 35 people that came out was when I was there…I’m quite proud but also disappointed that the strategy my team and I had laid out ended with that.
With all the examinations and congressional hearings after the fact, it was universally embraced that the negotiators had it right and that the tactical side’s activities and behavior were not. While the FBI was defending itself from public criticism, it acknowledged internally that we need to train our leaders to listen to the right experts and make the right decisions.
Do you have any general opinions on sonic warfare, like long range acoustic devices being used in current protests?
I don’t like the concept of overreaction. You can engage in thoughtful discussion in every circumstance. I oppose tricks and gimmicks. What my 30-year career in the FBI showed me is what gains cooperation is building a relationship of trust and opening dialogs.
We saw the recent BLM demonstrations with police departments doing terrible things, engaging in unnecessary violence. I also saw demonstrations of police officers kneeling with protesters, police chiefs walking with protestors and it said, “I may disagree with you, but I support your right to voice your opinion and protest, and I will ensure you can do this in a safe way.” To me, that’s the way to go about doing it. None of that is a guarantee of success, but it should be a default.
The world is not black and white. It’s always gray, it’s always nuanced. For someone to say, “All protestors are anarchists or with ANTIFA or are looters or arsonists” is unsubstantiated. And to say that all police officers engage in violence with everyone they arrest, that’s unsubstantiated, too. You can’t cast these broad strokes. If there’s problems with the criminal justice system, let’s address it. I’m a little disappointed in the discourse being oversimplified with complex issues.
As a negotiator, you deal with people holed up in a house or a building or a compound and they appear to be thumbing their nose at us [law enforcement] and not doing what we want them to. We always used to say that the most important quality in a negotiator is self-control. If you can’t control your own emotions, how can you expect to control someone else’s? And another phrase we used to make is, “Don’t get even. Get your way.” This isn’t about scoring points. It’s about getting people to peacefully comply so no one gets hurts.
When we are faced with tough situations, that’s when we want to reach out and use other tools. We shouldn’t do things when we just want to be seen as doing something.
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