Christopher Voss is a former FBI agent who was the agency’s lead international kidnapping negotiator from 2003 to 2007 and worked on high-profile hostage cases like the kidnapping of Jill Carroll in Iraq and the abduction of American military contractors in Colombia. He discussed with NBC News the recent pirate crisis and strategies used by negotiators in high-stakes hostage situations.
How do you see the role of the hostage negotiators in the outcome of the Somali pirates’ recent assault on the Maersk Alabama and abduction of Capt. Richard Phillips?
They had a huge role. The fact that the pirates agreed to have the lifeboat towed behind the USS Bainbridge [the Navy destroyer sent to rescue Phillips] was huge.
Somehow during the course of the negotiation they developed enough trust with the pirates to allow them to tow the lifeboat.I’m stunned that they pulled that off. They never would have been able to shoot those guys if the lifeboat had not been that close.
What is the next step in the pirating crisis? Should the U.S. get more involved?
The U.S. involvement will be ineffective unless there is an international approach. There’s got to be something done to help the economy in the region and to help Somalia protect itself.
The goal is to make it unprofitable to kidnap Americans. Kidnapping on the water and piracy is a virus. It's a lot of easy money and you have to attack the infrastructure from a number of different directions.
The pirates are fishermen who have nowhere to fish – I mean, you have to feed your family. An approach taking that into account would have to happen in Somalia to solve the problem.
Dealing with it on the ground through the social structure, the cultural structure that supports it, is definitely a big part of that piece. There are several sorts of linchpins here that hold the infrastructure together behind these pirates.
Beyond the victims, what are the larger repercussions of the kidnappings?
The business of kidnapping has a remarkably effective destabilizing effect on any government and an economy. It has a tendency to drive out anybody that has any money. It's one of the most devastating economic things that criminals can do to an economy. Kidnappers begin to focus on anybody with money, so families with money get out of the region.
What is the job of a hostage negotiators like?
The objective when you start out is to get everyone out alive.
You want to tell the hostage takers you’re going to get them out alive, too, and you’re not there necessarily to harm them. You’re there to bring a peaceful resolution.
It’s also critical to establish trust with the victim’s family. You need them to do everything you tell them to do.
The job of the negotiator is also to keep the conversation going. You have to use time to your advantage and expect it to take a long time.
How do you keep a conversation going for hours or days? Is it like in the movie “Proof of Life” with Russell Crowe, where he talked to the kidnappers day after day?
Yes and there are a million things to talk about. In this situation, you could have talked to the pilots about how rough the seas were or about the weather. You could ask if there was anyone onshore you would want us to contact for you? To let them know you’re OK?
We are paid to keep the conversation going for days, or weeks or months if necessary. The test for a negotiator is whether you can talk to an empty house for hours.
What do you mean “talk to an empty house for hours”?
[One time] we were hunting for three fugitives in New York and we heard they might be hiding on the 24th floor of a high-rise apartment complex in Harlem. We talked to them for six straight hours – and for five hours and 50 minutes we were convinced we were talking to an empty apartment.
Then one of the snipers from across the street suddenly saw a curtain move. We were like, “Holy cow! We’re not talking to an empty apartment!” One of them finally gave up and opened the door. They had not said a word during the entire six hours.
So it’s all about patience?
It’s not just about being patient – it’s about taking a completely different view of patience, not as something you have to endure, but something that can lead to an end result more quickly. When patience becomes a proactive tool to getting what you want it’s easy to be patient.
After 24 years in the FBI, Voss retired in 2007 and founded a crisis negotiation consulting business, The Black Swan Group. He also teaches international business negotiation at Harvard University.