Life on the Edge as an
FBI Hostage Negotiator
Clint Van Zandt
With Daniel Paisner
(Putnam)Being a hostage negotiator is no pudding-pie. The hostage-taker has a few too many cards: one or more victims, weapons (guns, rifles, AK-47s, bombs, dynamite), sometimes a well-fortified site of operation, and most important of all, one foot in the grave. If you are faced with a SWAT team, a police cars, sharpshooters, the FBI, the military and sometimes a tank or too, it might be just as easy to let the forces of might take you (and the hostages) out. Indeed, Van Zandt tells us there is a form of self-destruction, known in the hostage biz as "suicide by cop."
I entered this one with some skepticism. I figured hostage negotiators were just a delaying tactic so that the SWAT teams, in whatever form, could swarm in for the big hit. But Van Zandt convinces us that this ticklish business has its own set of rules and procedures and rewards; and that --- early on --- the task is to protect the hostage-taker and the hostages so that a negotiator can try to con the nut cases into surrender. Timing may be important, but, most important is making contact with the hostage-taker and, at all costs, maintaining that contact. Which involves a phone line or a two-way radio or even, in one case he recalls, yelling at each other up and down a stairwell. The negotiator has to have the smarts to keep the other guy on the line.
The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord (CSA) got themselves holed up on a farm in Elijah (sic) Missouri --- which Van Zandt calls the "precursor to another tense siege in Waco, Texas." The CSA had gotten into a contretemps with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms because they were building up a stash of weapons and ammunition. "The reports indicated that there were approximately one hundred men, women and children living on the compound, and that everybody had guns," the author tells us. The FBI, under Van Zandt, spent a month preparing for negotiations. Evidently, if you are going to talk with these nuts, he reports, you have to keep your powder dry: "Appearance was key. Every day or so, we'd take turns running back to a nearby hotel to shower and change, on the theory that it's not enough to talk a good game: you've got to look good too."
If I'm in a long, open-ended negotiations, I don't want to look like a bum or give off the impression I've been beaten down in any way ... I've got to have clean clothes. I've got to be clean shaven.
Try not to lie when you are talking with these characters, he says. When they begin asking "what kind of time CSA leaders might be facing, on what kind of charges, I wanted to be able to address the matter from a position of authority."
Van Zendt sounds like a corporate broker eager to make a major business deal: "It's okay to snow your opposite number a little bit as long as there is no chance they'll ever know they're being snowed, but the cardinal rule in these negotiations is to never tell a lie unless it's going to be your last lie, the one you tell to set up 'the final option.'" Don't lie, but you can, he reveals, flatter.
In the CSA case there is a character by the name of Robert Millar from Ellohim City (sic) Oklahoma. He meets with him outside the compound, in a "dusty FBI truck."
"Mr. Millar," I said. "we need your help."
"Why should I help you?" he shot back.
I thought, Okay, so far so good. I said, "Mr Millar, the whole world is watching to see how this works out, and only you can make it work."
I didn't know how else to play it but to pump this guy up and send him off with an inflated sense of importance. The risk, of course, was that he might enter the compound and report back on our strength and strategy and whatnot. The reward, for a guy like Millar, was the chance to be a power broker between the federal government and a survivalist group with similar leanings to his own, the chance to be a real hero in the eyes of his own disaffected community.
§ § §
Facing Down Evil gives us some powerful inside dope on what it is like to negotiate when lives and families (and the reputation of the FBI) are at stake. The thirty or so pages devoted to Charles Leaf, holding his wife and son hostage in Sperryville, Virginia, are a case in point. Here's a verifiable madman threatening to blow woman and child away unless he is given a helicopter filled with food and a get-away pilot. A helicopter!
Van Zandt agrees: "He wanted to see us load the bird up with boxes of food, so we could clearly and dramatically demonstrate our good-faith efforts to meet his reequests."
I was all for it. I couldn't think of a better visual argument for how cooperative we were were hoping to be than to load down our chopper with boxes fo food.
"Of course, there didn't have to be any canned goods or other foodstuffs in those boxes, but we had to go through the motions just the same. We had to demonstrate to Leaf that we were willing to meet his demands and that we were taking him seriously." In other words, give them all they are asking, but if you offer a helicopter, keep your guns and expert shooters (with .308 rounds) trained on the path from house to bird, and throw in something called "flash-bangs" at the last moment to divert the man's attention.
§ § §
The book ends on a sour note. Van Zandt was involved in Waco and the battle with the Branch Davidians. He was one of the lead negotiators in this case (there were 850 back-and-forths with Koresh, many involved the author). He tells us that he does not want to talk about it, and he does. He apparently thinks that the whole thing was handled badly, but he doesn't want to talk about it. And he does. He is obviously, not a happy camper.
Van Zandt reminds us several times that he is a full-time practicing Christian --- something he uses with effect in his negotiations with such as the Dividians and The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord. But his charity, if not his hope and faith, only goes so far. Not only does he have a profound distaste --- understandable --- for these weirdos, but that distaste seems to creep into his view of other cultures, other religions, the world. "Probably 3 or 4 percent" of the population "are not burdened with conscience. They have no social, no moral, no ethical constraints. They rob, rape, kidnap, murder without a thought to the human toll that they leave in their wake. They do whatever they want, to whomever they want, for no reason at all." A bleak view indeed, one that tells us that there are in the world 180,000,000 individuals who have "no social, no moral, no ethical constraints." This grim view, we suggest, may have something to do with his lifetime career (he tells us he wanted to be an FBI agent from a very early age). It is an occupational hazard. If you spend your life chasing those who "rob, rape, kidnap, murder," it is guaranteed you will have a sour view of humanity, something that is, we might note, in brutal contrast to the words of Van Zandt's spiritual guru, the one who advised us to turn the other cheek, to believe that all humans were capable of redemption.
There is one more oddity we found here. When Van Zandt finds himself in the wilds of Ecuador, or in the cities of the Phillipines, his distaste knows no bounds. While involved in negotiations in Manila for an American oil company vice president who had been kidnapped on the way to his office, he develops a near-fatal case of food-poisoning.
The interesting aspect of his near-death experience (he assumed it was monkey-meat) is not that it happened at all, but that he brings it up repeatedly in Facing Down Evil. It becomes, if we may, a symbolic lock in this otherwise strait-laced character. Three percent of the world is evil. This evil gets concentrated in places like Manila: his description of the street-life there is suitably disgusted. He only feels that things are back to normal when he is inside the military fortress of the United States Embassy, yet another Green Zone, surrounded by the enemy.
Again, he is on the border between Columbia and Ecuador, seeking a CIA agent who may have some information he could use for his negotiations in a local hostage case. He is traveling with a major of the Ecuadorian army. He is offered a meal, so they go to a "nasty, filthy area littered with nasty, filthy animals, in nasty, filthy cages. There was an meandering swamp limned with green slime.
The army major walked purposefully about, inspecting the animals, and every couple steps something would lunge out at us, or pop its oily head from the swamp, or otherwise make its presence startingly known. Snakes, chickens, a weird-looking gator ... a nasty, filthy menagerie.
"The idea was, you were supposed to walk around this compound and pick out what it was you wanted to eat, after which the folks who ran the place would kill it for you and cook it up and put it on a plate and call it the daily special."
At one point, something that "appeared to be a giant rat, about the size of a small dog, began to approach from about twenty-five yards away." Van Zandt gets unnerved as the beast seemsto be coming for him, reaches instinctively for the his pistol but
"Don't shoot it," said the major. "You shoot it, you got to eat it."
Maybe it was a nasty, flithy experience in a nasty, filthy place. Maybe he would be expected to eat the rat (or whatever it was) if he shot it. But I would guess that Van Zandt not only exaggerates the horror of it all, but showsa special made-in-America prejudice against other worlds, other cultures. Maybe the major was making a rather gross joke, not atypical of people who were not raised, nor live like, our author.
Just before recounting this tale, Van Zandt recalls, yet again, his adventure on the floor of the U. S. Embassy in Manila, and the hospital "with IV tubes coming out of my arms and legs and delirious thoughts bouncing around my brain..." His message is clear. These Third World countries are weird, maybe as weird as these cults that keep popping up all over the place, threatening our peace and security, or at least the security of what some see as the country which is at the heart of Christian sanctity and sanity. The very title, Facing Down Evil, carries religious overtones, suggests that perhaps there is one only place in the world where purity of heart (and freedom from food-poisoning) exists. Except when those Christian whackos come out of the woodwork.--- A. W. Allworthy