Updated: Aug 1
Image Credit: Gary Noesner
“Before we can influence others we must first listen and understand. Listening is the cheapest concession we can ever make.” -- Gary Noesner, Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator
Gary Noesner served as an investigator, instructor, and negotiator for the Federal Bureau of Investigation for 30 years. His trailblazing work is evident as seen upon his retirement in January 2003 he was serving as the Chief of the agencies’ Crisis Negotiation Unit, which he did for 10 of his 30 years with the FBI and was the first person to ever hold the position.
Mr. Noesner, became a Senior Vice President at Control Risks after retiring and has appeared on various televised documentaries produced by, Discovery, TLC, the History Channel, A & E, and National Geographic. He now speaks to corporations and law enforcement groups about the communication lessons he learned in his law enforcement negotiation career.
Having served as a hostage negotiator for 23 years in the FBI, one of the most well-known and historic moments was his work as the Chief Hostage Negotiator for the first 26 days of the David Koresh’s Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, Texas that ended on Apr. 19, 1993 after a 51-day standoff where 76 Branch Davidians, which included 25 children that lost their lives.
His book "Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator," was published by Random House in 2010 and provides insight to readers on a career that was built upon and has a mission aimed at saving lives.
The book also reveals obstacles and difficulties of convincing the agency of the importance of using negotiation opposed to physical force.
During his leadership of the negotiation team at Waco all 35 people came out safely, including 21 children.
Mr. Noesner was removed from the case halfway through when FBI senior management decided to take a more aggressive approach to getting the Branch Davidians to come out.
On the 51st day, the FBI inserted tear gas into the Mount Carmel building over several hours.
According to Noesner, an extensive arson investigation determined that the Branch Davidians started the fires inside in response to the insertion of the tear gas. After the fire broke out within the building. 9 individuals escaped, but 76 people died inside the building.
As the founder of the National Council of Negotiation Associations, which represents about 18 organizations and thousands of law enforcement negotiators nationwide, he remains active in speaking and advocating for the law enforcement negotiation profession, saying, "I thought I could become a tremendous advocate for the profession I spent so much time working in.”
Mr. Noesner graduated from Fletcher High School in Atlantic Beach back in 1968 and Florida Southern College in 1972 and earned his Masters Degree in Education from the University of Virginia. He currently resides in Virginia with his wife Carol and has 3 adult children and seven grandchildren.
Netflix’s “Waco” premiered in 2018 on Paramount and quickly became a hit amongst audiences as it soured to the top 10, where Michael Shannon plays the role as Mr. Noesner as he attempts to talk cult leader David Koresh into surrendering and the series also depicts his character as one that was at odds with the decisions of some FBI Officials.
How long did it take you to write the book, “Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator?”
I spent a year writing the book for Random House.
What led you to joining the FBI?
He wanted to be an FBI agents from around the age of eight, seeing it as an exciting, challenging, and meaningful career.
What is the number one piece of advice you would give to law enforcement today?
I believe every law enforcement officer should spend as much time learning life saving crisis communication skills as they do learning self defense and firing their weapons. Armed with such capabilities, an officer or agent can avoid conflict in most instances when dealing with citizens, or quickly defuse tense situations that arise.
You told Oxygen.com that the “Waco” series, adequately depicted the conflict within the FBI saying, “The head butting between my team which was the negotiation team and the tactical team which wanted to take a more aggressive approach” adding, “That it was all laid out pretty accurate,” Is this still true or would you have changed anything in the series?
I believe the series did a good job of showing the significant human emotion involved in the entire Waco tragedy. The internal disagreements within the FBI were fairly represented. I was disappointed to some extent David Koresh being portrayed as far more reasonable and likable than he was in real life. In reality, he was far more sinister, manipulative, and narcissistic.
My other complaint was the series left open how the fire was started. In reality, multiple items of evidence have clearly shown that the Davidians started the fires under the orders of David Koresh in response to the FBI inserting tear gas.
What are your thoughts on issues associated with cults? Do you have any advice for people who think they might be involved in one?
The problem is that most people in a cult do not realize they have been manipulated, isolated from outsiders, and essentially brain washed. It takes individual resolve to keep from getting sucked into such groups, always dominated by a charismatic leader. Seek help from family and others who have your best interests in mind.
If a cult leader tells you he has all the answers, has special knowledge, needs your unquestioning devotion, and seeks to isolate you from family and friends, then run away as quick as you can. Anyone can be victimized by this, as we have already seen in our own larger national political scene in recent years.
Do you have a favorite quote?
I like the partial Rudyard Kipling quote: “If you can keep your head while all else are losing theirs.”
Do you have a favorite author?
I enjoy historical fiction and thoroughly enjoy the work of Bernard Cornwell.
What advice do you have for negotiators?
Be natural and authentic. Be sincere and genuine in trying to help the person you are dealing with. Your tone, demeanor, and projection of empathy will carry the day.
Throughout your career in law enforcement is there anything that you enjoyed the most?
I was able to visit a great many countries around the world for either operational deployments or instructional presentations. This exposure to so many other countries has given me a great appreciation for the good that you encounter throughout the world and while we a different in many ways, we are just the same in more.
Do you have any hobbies that you enjoy doing?
Boating (I live on a lake), golf, reading, travel
Your quote, “Before we can influence others we must first listen and understand. Listening is the cheapest concession we can ever make.” is from your book, do you feel you have listened to Mr. Thibodeau, a survivor who said, “I don’t believe that any of the people inside set the fire,” Thibodeau told Megyn Kelly on Today in January 2018.
I came know David Thibodeau while we were both involved in the filming of the Waco mini- series. I have great respect for him and consider him a friend, but I disagree with him on this point.
I don’t know what he witnessed inside, however, the evidence that the fire was started from within is overwhelming. That include hidden FBI microphone recordings that have Koresh ordering individuals to spread the fuel. The day after the fire one of the surviving Davidians said he did not witness anyone starting the fires yet he did see individuals spreading fuel.
FBI personnel observed Davidians through openings in the compound literally starting the fires, and an independent arson investigation proved the fire was started inside at three different locations simultaneously. There is no question.
You met David Thibodeau, one of the few survivors in 2017 as you both worked as consultants on the mini-series, what was it like meeting him?
I enjoyed meeting David and had many pleasant chats with him and also his mother who visited the set. I think we were both able to expand each others views of events from our different perspectives.
Do you still currently assist clients in international affairs, including overseas kidnapping incidents?
I no longer provide Consulting services in the operational sense. My work these days is focused on corporate and law enforcement group keynote addresses, and assisting with several television projects in various stages of development.
What has been the hardest or scariest moment in your career?
There have been quite a few, but I have to say the Sperryville incident (first chapter in my book) stands out as a critical event where I had to entice a man to come out of a house so that an FBI marksman could shot him to save a woman and child.
Is there anything you would like for others to know or be aware of?
When you hear about some incident like Waco you are inclined to think about it in black or white terms, one side is good or bad, when assessing what the ATF, FBI, or Branch Davidians did. Resist the temptation for simplistic explanations. Such incidents are full of complexity and what many view as a conspiracy is almost always incompetence or well intended errors not some sinister plot.
The government made many mistakes at Waco, but everyone there I worked with wanted to see everyone come out alive. Also don’t buy into the false belief that Koresh was just a nice innocent guy and should have been left along. Be smart enough to research and learn the facts before coming to an opinion, don’t embrace someone else’s simplistic view of complex events.
Do you feel the FBI has improved its tactics since Waco?
The tragedy at Waco was essentially not a failure in the FBI knowing what to do, but rather the FBI not doing what it had always done. In short, FBI decision makers tragically made some poor decisions at Waco in contradiction to long standing practice and policy. Those errors have been corrected.
Law Enforcement often faces criticism regarding use of force, recently George Floyd has sparked more issues for the public's perception of law enforcement, as a negotiator that advocates for non-violent de-escalation techniques, what are your thoughts on this?