30 maggio 2020

Waco: an interview with FBI negotiator Gary Noesner

An Italian translation is available here.

The Waco siege was one of the most drammatic events of modern American history. To discuss some details about what happened and to talk about David Koresh's weird personality, FBI negotiator Gary Noesner accepted our proposal for an interview which we are offering today our readers. Gary Noesner is also the author of the book Stalling for Time in which he discusses the most relevant cases he was involved with, among which the Waco siege.

We would like to thank Gary Noesner for his kindness and availability.

Nastro di Mobius: How was the Waco siege different from other cases you've been involved with as a negotiator?

Gary Noesner: Waco was on a much larger scale than anything I had been involved in prior, or anyone for that matter. In addition, the FBI role began only after there had already been significant loss of life. When you start a situation with death already having occurred it makes if very difficult to create a relationship of trust, something essential for successful negotiations.

Nastro di Mobius: In your opinion did David Koresh believe he was the son of God or was he faking believing it? In other words, was he a completely mad man or a successful liar?

Gary Noesner:: I don't think Koresh was mad in the meaning of mental illness. I think he was a very manipulative narcissistic individual who used religion as his vehicle to control his followers and be the King over all of them. I have my doubts about how much he did or did not believe about his being a Messiah, but there is no question his followers totally believed he was chosen by God to lead them.

Nastro di Mobius: What was the hardest obstacle you had to face during the negotiation?

Gary Noesner: The hardest obstacle at first was what I stated above, that there had already been a significant loss of life on both sides. Koresh was angry at the ATF and the government and was suspicious of the FBI's motives. It was a major challenge to establish trust. After we had established some level of trust and started getting kids and some adults out safely (35 in total came out) the biggest problem was aggressive tactical maneuvers by the tactical team in their effort to apply external pressure to force them out. Of course this was counter-productive and sent mixed signals to the Davidians.

Nastro di Mobius: Do you think the branch could have been dangerous for the outside world with their arms trafficking activities?

Gary Noesner: I do not believe that the Branch Davidians were an external threat. They did engage in illegal activities and stockpile massive amounts of weaponry and ammunition, but I am unaware of any intent they had to be a threat to anyone outside their isolated world.

Nastro di Mobius: What mistakes were made, in your opinion, by law enforcement agencies?

Gary Noesner: As stated, the big mistake was the ATF conducting the raid to begin with. They should have tried to arrest Koresh when he was away from the compound. Then, after the element of surprise was lost, they made the fatal error of moving forward with the raid even though they new they had been compromised. After that, the FBI's fault was in the on-scene Commander supporting both the negotiation effort and tactical effort at the same time, without understanding the contradictory messages these opposing strategies were conveying to the Branch Davidians.

Nastro di Mobius: What do you think of the Waco TV series, if you have seen it? Doesn't it give a sugarcoated view of Koresh that doesn't mirror reality?

Gary Noesner:
I was involved in the Waco TV series. My book was the basis for the portrayal of the FBI's role and I consulted on the film. Overall I like the show but there were some inaccuracies. The show had the ATF fire first and that is in dispute, with some witnesses saying the Branch Davidians shot first. Also, the TV show makes the viewer think the FBI started the fire at the end. The FBI did indeed insert tear gas, but much evidence, including an independent arson investigation clearly, shows that the Branch Davidians started the fire. In my view the TV show portrayed Koresh far too sympathetically. In real life he was far more dark, sinister, manipulative, and self-serving.

Nastro di Mobius: Do you think Koresh killed himself or did he ask somebody else to shoot him?

Gary Noesner: As I understand it, the crime scene investigation after the fire suggests that Koresh had Schneider shoot him, as depicted in the TV show, and then Schneider killed himself, also as depicted.

Nastro di Mobius: What "lesson learned" did you gain from the Waco siege?

Gary Noesner: The major lesson from the siege is that the FBI had been world renown for leading in the field of hostage negotiation and we knew how to properly manage such a siege. Waco was a departure from that practice based on the personalities of the tactical and on-scene Commanders, who made a number of bad decisions that negatively impacted upon the negotiation effort. In short, we learned that we should have done what we always had done prior.

Nastro di Mobius: Let me ask you something more personal. Do you think being an FBI negotiator helped you in your everyday life, like in discussions with your families or friends or in any other personal situation?

Gary Noesner: I think my work as a negotiator has had a profound impact on my life in everyday. That being said, long standing relationships, family and otherwise, carry with them a history and other emotional baggage, that sometimes comes into play. For example, my wife would probably suggest that at times I could be a better listener at home, despite teaching active listening around the world. I am indeed guilty of that sometimes.

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