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The Waco Siege – BPR Interviews: Gary Noesner [Part 2]

*Part one of this interview is located here.

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 the Paramount Pictures miniseries Waco, alongside fire survivor David Thibodeau’s book Waco: A Survivor’s Story. Part two of David Thibodeau’s interview is located here. Noesner has been featured in The New YorkerThe Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, among others. Now retired, he currently resides in Virginia with his wife Carol.

Amelia Spalter: In your previous interview, you talked about seeing a clear path to surrender when negotiations began, but eventually coming to realize that all hope was lost. When was that point, and how did you arrive there?

Gary Noesner: We had been through a number of ups and downs. We had gotten people out and then the tactical team would cut off the building’s electricity. We would get somebody else out, then tactical would go forward with a tank and crush one of the Davidians’ cars. Eventually the negotiation team was almost suspicious that the tactical side was doing things to purposely thwart the negotiations, and a real argument could be made.

We had a theory we called “trickle flow gush,” that meant that we weren’t expecting the Davidians to buy into a single grand solution, rather we just wanted to gradually erode Koresh’s stranglehold over those inside. The metaphor I used was a train station with everyone on the platform. A train is waiting, its whistle blows, and all the people from inside are getting on board. I asked my team, “Will David Koresh get on the front of the train or the back?” And we all agreed he’d get on the front of the train, because once he saw that his followers were leaving, he’d want to be characterized as having led them all out rather than having followed them out at the end. The strategy was slow but yielding positive results.

What happened on the particular day you’re referring to, is we had gotten seven adults out. That was major progress. In our eyes, this was a time to open the champagne. Yet immediately after that, the tactical team went forward with a tank and crushed a car. So, Koresh basically said, “That’s it, we’re done.” Not his words, but essentially what he was conveying was, “There will be nobody else coming out.” I was convinced that we had finally dug ourselves a hole that we could not climb out of, because the negotiators, through no fault of our own, had lost our credibility. The Davidians, understandably, had come to believe that no matter what we said, no matter how well-intended we were, we weren’t the ones controlling things on the outside. That was when I told the boss, “I don’t think anybody else is coming out.” And nobody else did. 

AS: Is any one person or group ultimately at fault for what happened?

GN: Life is not black and white. It’s never, “You’re all good and they’re all bad.” I think the FBI, as it had been with Ruby Ridge, was quickly put into defensive mode, you know, “These are a bunch of nuts and quacks and they committed suicide.” There was a fair amount of truth to that, but it in my mind, it did not explain away the FBI’s mistakes. I’ve always told people, “You want to know whose fault it was? It was David Koresh’s fault.” Now, does that mean that the FBI was incapable of doing anything wrong? No, we did a lot of things wrong. Does that mean we were ultimately responsible for the outcome? No, because certainly as a negotiation team, we gave David Koresh opportunities on a daily basis to do the right thing and take care of his people.

AS: To what extent did the presence of the children influence your negotiation strategy?

GN: The children were always our top concern. You could use many words to describe David Koresh and most of them would not be charitable, like that he was a manipulative con man or a charlatan of some kind. Then you could say the parents and other adults inside were naïve people that fell prey to Koresh’s demagoguery. You could fix some blame on all the adults’ choices, decisions, and behaviors. But the children were innocent. It was always our primary goal to get as many kids out as we could.

Unfortunately, the kids became a factor in a different sense after I left. The tactical leader was called back to Washington to recommend that the attorney general put gas in the building. The tactical and on-scene commander went to speak with her, and they didn’t bring a negotiator with them at all. I didn’t even know about this meeting. As I understand it, they went in knowing that Janet Reno had made cases involving the protection of children a focus of her prosecutorial career up to that point. So they appealed to her to approve the use of gas by convincing her that each day that the incident continued, the children inside were being abused.

In the larger sense, it’s hard to argue that they weren’t subjected to some form of abuse, but they made it sound more draconian than it was; they implied the children were being sexually molested. While Koresh had indeed had relations with underage girls in the past, we had no information that he was engaged in that during the siege or that the children were being mistreated in any way. Yet they pressed that theme heavily and it was a primary factor in convincing Janet Reno to approve putting in the tear gas. She did not understand how the tear gas might affect the kids.

AS: People unaffiliated with either the Branch Davidians or law enforcement managed to enter the compound during the siege. Though, unsurprisingly, this happened after you left, do you know anything about them?

GN: There were two guys who went in, but not at the same time. One guy rode a horse right up to the door, Jesse Amen, and I can’t remember the other guy’s name. Obviously these were people who had some mental health issues. But there is humor that goes on, even in a serious situation, so I called back to negotiations when I heard that one and said, “You know, when I was there people were coming out, now more are going in.” That was pretty embarrassing, because here’s this elite tactical team that thinks they can do anything, then two nutjobs walk right past them and go inside the compound. It was a mess.

AS: Thankfully, there is now as much to say about what the FBI has learned since Waco as what went wrong there. When did you first get to see those lessons implemented firsthand?

GN: In 1996, three years after Waco, we had Louis Freeh the new director, and we were handling the Montana Freemen siege. I was on a conference call out there with the on-scene commander and the new tactical leader and none of the leadership from Waco. Louis Freeh says, “Gary, I want you to know I’m in no rush for this to end. I want this to end the right way. Do you understand?” He was, in essence, telling all the decision-makers and people who I had to report to there, to take the negotiators seriously. That we were not going to do anything just for the purpose of flexing our muscles.

Sure enough, the siege took 85 days, but there was no negative press for the FBI, because nobody was hurt. Everybody came out alive. It was a big success, though of course, nobody even knows about it today because nothing got burned down. It was a great extension to Waco in the sense that we had finally returned to doing things the way we should be. When people say, “What did you learn from Waco?” I tell them, “The biggest lesson is to do what we were doing before Waco.” We had it right before, we just didn’t do what we knew we should have been doing.

AS: What steps did the FBI take to get from how they functioned at Waco to how they responded to the Montana Freemen? 

GN: After Waco was over, the on-scene commander and the tactical commander were encouraged to move on. They weren’t fired, they weren’t prosecuted, but their careers were dead in the water and they knew it. Then the FBI started saying, “We’ve got to train our leaders in how to [better deal with these types of crises going forward.]” So, I became one of two key figures who developed a curriculum that taught every special agent and every assistant special agent in charge at the FBI the lessons of Waco. It focused on how you manage one of these situations, such as, “Here’s how you blend the capabilities of the tactical team with the work of the negotiation team.”

In the FBI, we’ve always said since the ’70s, “We use force not because we can, but only when we are left with no other choice.” But, clearly, we didn’t always practice that. Things got off kilter with Ruby Ridge and Waco when we started using force not because we had to, but because we decided we could. By the time I retired in 2003, we had done a pretty exhaustive job in better preparing to handle crises like Waco. We had opened up a liaison with the American Academy of Religion to tap into the knowledge of their scholars. We had done direct outreach with right-wing militia groups. We had done quite a lot of things that would position us to effectively deal with future incidents.

AS: What do you hope the legacy of your involvement with Waco will be?

GN: I’ve always been focused on, “The only way we stop future Wacos is fully appreciating what we did wrong at the other one.” The biggest motivating factor to write my book was not so much to tell interesting stories to the public, but to be a guide for future FBI leaders, in terms of, “Here’s how you do this, here’s how you don’t do that.” So, I’ve always been candid about what we did right and what we did wrong. I believe in the truth. I’m willing to talk about the FBI’s mistakes. I know today the FBI is being criticized in certain circles, but it is now less because of the nature of its decision making, or even its actual shortcomings, and more to support a political narrative. The FBI is like any institution, such as the military or the Supreme Court; it’s complex, it’s got a lot of grey areas, and there is both good and bad.

A good analogy would be to education. Are there some bad schools? Yes. Are there some bad teachers? Yes. Does that mean that education itself is bad? No. Are there bad people in the FBI? Probably. Has the FBI made big mistakes? Yes. Does it mean that the FBI is bad? No. Any way you look at it, the FBI has done far more good for this country than bad. In our current political environment, people are looking for easy answers to pigeonhole everything into neat boxes of good and bad, and it is just so much more complicated than that.

I want to leave the public knowing that you’re pretty well served by the FBI. There are a lot of the most amazing, dedicated people I’ve ever known in my life currently in the FBI, and I will go to my grave being proud of having served in one of the finest organizations in the world. However, it’s not without its flaws. Don’t be naïve. Particularly where Waco is concerned, people quickly gravitate to either seeing “big government is bad” as the takeaway, or “those dangerous, crazy, nutty people got what they deserved” as the takeaway. You can believe what you want to, but it is far more complex than that.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.