Meet Gary Noesner, the kinder, gentler face of the FBI.
In his 30 years with the bureau, Noesner saw violence up close many times. He even used it himself. But Noesner made his name as a hostage negotiator, a line of work that calls for compassion and understanding in addition to marksmanship and aggressiveness. And that’s typically not the image people have of the FBI.
To remedy that perception, Noesner, who retired from the public sector in 2003, has collected some of his most memorable experiences in his new book, “Stalling for Time.” The book is a combination of riveting anecdotes and advice for current and future law enforcement officers, and it illuminates a portion of the FBI’s work that often goes unnoticed.
“Part of my rationale for writing this book was that I wanted to tell the story of the negotiation profession,” Noesner said in an interview. “I think it’s been underappreciated and undervalued, and the message you get across the country is that negotiators’ bosses don’t understand what they do.”
“Stalling for Time” is full of lines like, “I sensed I had purchased some time,” giving readers the impression that hostage negotiation demands good instincts in addition to good training. Noesner doesn’t dispute that notion. He said he has always been able to react calmly to tense situations, even as a child, and that attribute served him well in the FBI.
His career began in 1972 when he started as a clerk, because he was too young to apply for agent status. By 1976, Noesner had entered the FBI academy in Quantico, Va. In the next 27 years, he was assigned to cases across the U.S. and in more than 40 countries.
Much to Noesner’s chagrin, his most famous case was one that ended disastrously: the standoff at the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas, in 1993. The incident is the subject of the most insightful chapter of “Stalling for Time.” Noesner details his frustration at the lack of communication at the scene and the impatience of some of his superiors.
The Waco case was complicated by the presence of several law-enforcement agencies: the FBI’s SWAT and negotiation teams, the then-Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the county sheriff’s office, and the local police department, among others. It ended with leader David Koresh and the Branch Davidians setting their own complex on fire in response to an FBI assault, killing 75 people.
Noesner was not in Waco when the siege ended, since negotiators often are replaced to avoid burnout. But he still remembers how he felt as he watched the drama unfold on television.
“I stood and walked out of FBI headquarters without saying a word to anyone,” he writes in the book. “I didn’t ask permission to leave; I just walked out in disgust and drove home. It was the saddest and most painful day of my career.”
The antithesis of the Waco episode took place in 1996 in Montana. There, a right-wing anti-government group calling itself the Freemen holed themselves up at a complex called Justus Township for 81 days, the longest siege in American history. Noesner and his team eventually managed to build a rapport with the Freemen, mainly through a handful of intermediaries, and the group surrendered to authorities without a single gunshot.
In an interview, Noesner makes it clear that he still balances his successes, like the outcome in Montana, against the FBI’s failure in dealing with the Branch Davidians.
“You never hear people talking about Montana anymore, and Waco, which was 51 days, is a never-ending story,” he says. “If we had achieved what we wanted to achieve in Waco, that would have been a non-event, at least in terms of history.”
In “Stalling for Time,” Noesner analyzes his performance and that of the FBI from a removed perspective. The result is engaging and full of wise words — a best-case scenario for an FBI hostage negotiator.
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