Gary Noesner was Chief Hostage Negotiator for the first half of the siege on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. The Branch Davidians are a breakaway sect of the Seventh Day Adventists. The siege began on February 28, 1993 as a result of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF)’s failed attempt to raid the compound for suspected possession of illegal firearms. Six Branch Davidians and four ATF agents were shot to death in the initial raid, at which point the FBI intervened, initiating what would become a 51-day siege of the compound. Under Noesner’s leadership FBI negotiators managed to secure the release of 35 people. After his departure, on the morning of April 19, the FBI inserted incendiary tear gas cannisters into the building. At noon, as tear gas continued to be put inside the structure, a fire broke out. The source of the fire remains in dispute: those inside maintain that it was ignited by the tear gas, while the federal government claims the Branch Davidians set it purposely in a mass-suicide attempt. Nine people managed to escape the blaze. The remaining 76, including 25 children, died inside.
Noesner served 30 years in the FBI, where he became the first Chief Hostage Negotiator in the bureau’s history. Beyond Waco, some of the other crisis situations he negotiated include prison riots, right-wing militia standoffs, terrorist embassy takeovers, airplane hijackings, and over 120 kidnapping cases involving American citizens. Many of these stories are recounted in Noesner’s autobiography, Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator, which became the subject of a Paramount Pictures miniseries Waco, alongside fire survivor David Thibodeau’s book Waco: A Survivor’s Story. Noesner has been featured in The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, among others. Now retired, he currently resides in Virginia with his wife Carol.
Amelia Spalter: So much of this story is characterized by what went wrong, but what went right in the FBI’s management of Waco?
Gary Noesner: In my time at the FBI, Waco has been both the thing that I am proudest of and the thing that I am most troubled by. It is pretty simplistic to look at the FBI as some monolith that dealt with David Koresh and the Davidians as the crazy cult people. Both sides were complicated ecosystems, so to speak. While it did not end the way anybody wanted, and the whole thing certainly not the FBI’s finest hour, I’m extraordinarily proud of what we did as negotiators. In fact, a lot of the things that we implemented in Waco, in terms of how we functioned as a negotiation team, set a standard that now is followed around the world.
AS: This was not a hostage situation, yet David Koresh had the authority to lead everyone out. How did he control things inside simultaneously with the Davidians retaining their free agency?
GN: Inside the compound, David Koresh had been successful in spreading the idea that he alone had the knowledge necessary to fulfill the religious aspect of the lives of his followers. You can question how much David Koresh actually believed about his own divinity, for lack of a better term, but you can’t question the blind loyalty his followers had. They really believed he was the Messiah or whatever the proper term may be. That’s hard to deal with, because even when we were successful in dealing with other individuals inside, we knew that ultimately it was David Koresh who drove the train.
AS: Paradoxically, you were most successful in negotiating people out almost immediately after the ATF had shot and killed six people inside the building. How did the FBI distance itself enough from the ATF to regain the Branch Davidians’ trust?
GN: We understood that from the Davidians’ point of view, the raid the ATF had undertaken ended up going so badly that they had some real justification to think the government was out to get them. We were beginning to understand more as the incident went on that this series of events fit their apocalyptic philosophy about the end times. The big, bad, evil government was portraying the forces of evil and Babylon, which they believed were going to cause their ultimate demise. They, of course, would then rise up again and inherit a better earth.
Our initial mission was to separate ourselves, to the extent that we could, from the ATF and to play the good cops. Just continuing to reiterate, “Our job is to investigate this and find out what happened, but the first thing we have to do is get it resolved peacefully.” That’s the general approach the negotiators took throughout the entire ordeal. The problem was that the frustration that periodically surfaced on the tactical side of the FBI incited a more aggressive response. Negotiators basically want to sweet-talk you out; tactical teams want to force you out. Negotiators had to try to convince others involved that we were taking this approach not because we’re soft on criminals or are sympathetic to their cause, but because it’s the safest way to resolve things in a manner in which nobody gets hurt.
AS: Despite early success, the negotiation team struggled to implement a lot of their ideas. What stood in your way?
GN: Within the FBI, we always used to say the toughest negotiation is the negotiation within the negotiation. In many respects, negotiating with my bosses and the FBI’s decision makers was as challenging as negotiating with David Koresh. You have to look at it from the culture of the FBI, where an on-scene commander was sort of a king in a fiefdom. It changed after Waco, but at that point, because he had achieved a certain level of “rank” so to speak, the special agent in charge was given the latitude to manage incidents however he saw fit. We train FBI leaders to do a whole myriad of functions, but at that time we didn’t train on-scene commanders in how to negotiate. As a consequence, I found myself essentially having to conduct a class on negotiations in real time for someone who felt that they already knew everything. In reality, nobody had much experience in ever dealing with anything like Waco.
I don’t want to turn it political, but I imagine that must be what it’s like for Dr. Fauci to talk to Donald Trump. Dr. Fauci knows his business. He’s got years and years of experience, but he also recognizes that he does not make any of the ultimate decisions, Donald Trump does. You’ve got to gauge what the president’s mood is today and identify the driving factors behind his decision making. Before you can, in this case, tackle the disease, you’ve got to tackle the guy that’s managing the disease. That’s a fairly good analogy for Waco.
AS: At a certain point, David Koresh said he was waiting on a sign from God to tell him to come out. The negotiation team came up with many creative possible signs, one of the most remarkable being visibility of the Guitar Nebula. Who came up with this idea and how was it implemented?
GN: Somebody on the negotiation team was listening to Paul Harvey News and Comment, a very popular radio show. On that particular broadcast, he mentioned that astronomers had seen this guitar-shaped nebula screaming through space at an unbelievable rate of speed. We immediately thought, “Oh, my God, we’re negotiating with David Koresh, a musical rock band wannabe superstar. Maybe he’ll view this as the sign that he says he’s waiting for.” We got Steve Schneider, who was Koresh’s top assistant, on the phone. We explained this to him, and he was excited. But no one inside had been listening to the radio show, so the FBI actually called Paul Harvey and got him to rebroadcast it so he could hear it. But when we talked to Koresh, and we’re like, “Is this what you’ve been waiting for?” he said, “Well, it’s not traveling very fast.” Then he just sluffed it off.
AS: You said in your book that David Koresh would invoke religion primarily in ways that were convenient for him. Considering he was leading a religious tradition that had existed for decades before he was even born, how did that manifest?
GN: The Guitar Nebula incident was one of a variety of indicators that led us to believe that David was conveniently interpreting things to serve him one way or another. In other words, I’m not saying he didn’t have a religious philosophy, but it varied. For example, at one point in time he said, “If you can tell me what the Fifth Seal of the Seven Seals means, I’ll release a child.” We immediately pulled out the Gideon Bibles from our hotel rooms and looked up the Fifth Seal of the Seven Seals. Then we consulted the religious scholars at nearby Baylor University. Our negotiation team did thorough research. We got the commonly embraced interpretation of what the Fifth Seal means. Of course, when we recited that to Koresh, he simply said, “Not even close.”
There was another time where David told us everyone was coming out on Easter. Fast forward, “David, Easter’s here. Are you coming out?” He said, “It’s an Easter, it’s not my Easter.” He was changing his religious perspective as we went along. Another time he asked us what we were eating that night. One of the negotiators said, “We usually go to Whataburger.” “Whataburger?” he replied. “You know, if it turns out I am the son of God, the world’s going to find out about Whataburger.” Now, would somebody that really believed he was the son of God say, “If it turns out that I am the son of God?”
AS: One of the only areas in which the negotiation team has been directly criticized is not adequately addressing the Branch Davidians’ religious theology, which in many ways mirrored the ongoing events of the siege. Why did you opt to largely avoid religious discourse?
GN: To get into someone’s core ideology is a slippery slope. It’s true even in situations that do not apply to David Koresh. For example, if somebody has some mental impairment or believes in some weird conspiracy, if you look at their personality like a pie chart, maybe 80% of their personality is fine. But if you talk to them in the area of that other 20%, that’s where things go to cuckoo land. Otherwise, in that remaining 80%, they come across as a normal person. That was the situation with David Koresh. We weren’t sure how big that piece was, but we knew there was a slice of his pie that had deeply embraced his religious perspective.
Did he believe it because he’d been saying it for so long, or was he saying it because he believed it? It really didn’t matter to us, because we knew that when we were in that realm, that slice of his pie, he would not act in a cooperative way. In fact, if you look back at all the people who we got released, none of them came out when we were discussing religion. Our goal was to neither agree nor disagree, but rather to try and respectfully move the discussion into the other areas that made him more positive towards working with us.
AS: What was the most challenging element of successful negotiations?
GN: As I said earlier, with any crisis situation, there are always two negotiations always going on. There’s one with those inside, and there’s one with our decision-makers, who in this case were also being influenced by a tactical commander who was very aggressive. He was a strong willed, experienced FBI agent, but really not the personality type that you want in command during a crisis, because he would let his emotions drive his decision making. I had to sit down with him multiple times each day, and those were often extraordinarily challenging meetings that required some of my best negotiation skills. When receiving bad news or bad instructions from him, I had to come back and explain the unsatisfactory outcome to my people.
I began to realize my team must be questioning my negotiation abilities, because the things we were recommending made so much obvious sense, and I was unable to get them approved. They’re probably saying, “Why the hell isn’t Gary able to convince the boss?” I began to be a little self-conscious. Then one day, it’s too long a story to go into what the particulars were, the tactical commander walks into the negotiation room and just goes off the rails. He became completely unhinged. The whole negotiation team witnessed this episode and their jaws dropped. He leaves the room and all couple dozen members of my team looked at me like, “We had no idea what you were dealing with.” I said, “See, what you guys are doing is a piece of cake. You just have to negotiate with David Koresh.”
AS: Waco came right on the heels of similarly mismanaged Ruby Ridge. Considering the two shared many parallels, what led those in command to believe that behaving this way towards the negotiation team was any kind of winning strategy?
GN: The funny thing about Ruby Ridge is that it didn’t really become a big scandal until after Waco. Ruby Ridge was August of ’92 and Waco began in February of ’93. It was almost as though after the public spectacle that was Waco, people started to look back a little more earnestly at Ruby Ridge. A series of events led up to this; in 1991 we had the Talladega Prison riot in which a hostage rescue team (HRT) commander ran a very successful rescue operation. The downside of that success was he and the top brass at FBI headquarters came away giving him a lot more credit than he was due. So, when Ruby Ridge happened, he was given free rein to do whatever he wanted, and he screwed it all up. He should have been removed from his position right then and there, but he wasn’t. There was some awareness of mounting criticism from Ruby Ridge, but not surprisingly, the FBI was defensive. Circle the wagons.
Had he been removed from his position, it would have appeared the FBI was admitting fault. So when Waco happened, he was still there, thinking he knows how to do everything, and that we’re going to tighten the noose until David Koresh releases everyone. He was completely oblivious to the fact that this was not a hostage situation. Understanding that was critical to the basic psychology of the crisis. It saddened me a bit that our own people were once again disregarding negotiations when the FBI is internationally recognized as being the leader in the theory and practice of it.
AS: Did your early impressions lead you to suspect the catastrophic ending, or did you see a path to surrender?
GN: I definitely saw a path. We did know there was a risk. In fact, we went in with Jonestown on our minds, and we raised that issue with them directly, saying, “We’re concerned you guys are going to kill yourselves.” And they insisted, “No, no, no. We’re not going to do that.” So we were aware that it could have an unhappy and tragic ending, but I remained hopeful throughout that, despite the peaks and valleys of the negotiations, we could ultimately prevail in getting them to behave in a reasonable and cooperative way. That was ultimately undercut by some of these other more aggressive activities. So, sadly, when I left halfway through, I told the on-scene commander behind a lot of that activity, what had become clear to me — “I don’t think anybody else is coming out.” Nobody did.
*Part two of this interview is located here.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that 44 people had been negotiated out. 35 were negotiated out, the remaining nine escaped during the fire.