Book review of "Stalling for Time," by ex-FBI hostage negotiator Gary Noesner

Sunday, October 10, 2010


My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator

By Gary Noesner

Random House. 227 pp. $26

Desperate, unhinged or downright sociopathic: These are the words that best describe the people Gary Noesner regularly encountered during his 23 years as an FBI hostage negotiator.

Noesner crisscrossed the United States and the globe as one the bureau's foremost experts on how to save lives using words instead of force. His memoir, "Stalling for Time," makes clear that this work is practically an art form. His accounts of dealing with right-wing militias, prison rioters, terrorist hijackers and even jealous ex-husbands show that negotiators must be masters of persuasion, pillars of unflappability and skilled improvisers who can make split-second decisions in perilous situations.

In addition to detailing some of Noesner's most challenging cases, the book explains the basic principles that inform his approach to negotiation. "Most hostage takers do not begin their day planning to kill someone and then die in a hail of bullets," he writes. "They are usually focused on getting their demands met."

The most in-depth and absorbing section is devoted to the 1993 siege near Waco, Tex., at the Branch Davidian religious compound headed by David Koresh. Noesner's anecdotes about the long hours he and fellow negotiators spent on the phone with Koresh and his lieutenants are riveting, and his depiction of the destructive rift between the FBI's tactical and negotiating teams helps explain why this operation was largely a failure.

-- Sarah Halzack

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