A Discussion with Christopher Voss, Managing Director, Insite Security's Kidnapping Resolution Practice, and Consultant, Triad Consulting Group

May 22, 2011

Background: As part of the Future of Track-Two Diplomacy Undergraduate Fellows Seminar, in spring 2011 Brandon Butterworth interviewed Christopher Voss, managing director of Insite Security's Kidnapping Resolution Practice, a consultant with the Triad Consulting Group, and a retired FBI agent, about the intersections of U.S. foreign policy, religion, and track-two diplomacy.

How did you get to where you are today?

I was in hostage negotiations in New York. Before that I was on New York SWAT, but I had a knee problem. One day I tore up my knee and couldn’t do SWAT, but I still wanted to be part of the process. So I got into negotiating and ended up leading the New York team.

I did part of my training on the voluntary suicide hotline. It’s the best training for any negotiation. Most people think that negotiation is making an offer, then the other side has a counteroffer, and you see if they match up. But that’s not listening to the other side, not making a compromise, which is poor negotiation tactics. Recognizing the other view is not enough. Empathy must be there, as anyone who teaches can tell you.

Is that what’s missing when the government negotiates? Empathy?

Politicians are more concerned with what constituents think and not what the other side thinks. For example, President [Barack] Obama went to Saudi Arabia and bowed as a sign of respect to the other side. People stateside didn’t think that the president should bow to anyone, and his staff said that he didn’t bow. They were worried about what the U.S. public would think. But displaying respect got him influence.

For example, the original meaning of a handshake was submission. It was showing the other person that you were not armed. If someone in a Middle East country refused to shake our hand, we would think that was a sign of disrespect.

But the Saudis, the people in the room, were not who was most important. It’s the people in the middle who you must win. Bowing gains influence with other Middle Eastern countries who see that President Obama respects their culture and ways. This also isolates Iran. Secondary consequences, the track-two, are the most important.

What about your experience in government negotiating?

Management left kidnapping efforts pretty much alone. We had a relationship with [the U.S. Department of] State when we were in a foreign country where we ran by whatever we were doing with them, and they always had an opportunity to shoot our idea down. Sometimes we’d have to renegotiate our terms with them, but not often.

The FBI were consultants. So State could choose to not take our advice or not allow the FBI to do certain things. The FBI could also stop their side of the relationship. That’s the best way to run it, where both sides can say no at any time and end the relationship.

For example, I was in the Philippines. I wanted to go to Manila, and the member of the diplomatic security told me that the ambassador didn’t want me to go there. I said that the ambassador could curtail my travels, but if he did then I’m leaving. I went to Manila, talked to the head of the diplomatic security, and told him his guy did a good job. I wasn’t curtailed.

We sometimes tried to do track-two efforts, but State would sometimes say that we couldn’t do it because this or that person was a criminal. But that guy could get stuff done. Like politicians who State didn’t think were legitimate could come out in the press and help our efforts. But there was no time when a disagreement with State harmed a case.

Why do you need to do track-two?

Track-one is always the bad guys, and you never deal with them directly. We coached victims and associates, and then coached track-two people that had influence in the public and would help us. You of course have to always be cognizant of the emotions involved in these people.

What about your private efforts now?

Now I don’t have to ask for permission. Some years ago there was an FBI agent, Bob Levinson, who disappeared off the islands of Iran. I worked the case when I was there. In January there was proof of life, and in February it hit the press. Fox News asked me to comment on the story. I had been talking to people I knew were still in the [FBI] and could bounce things off of them. Of course they couldn’t tell me certain things, but I could tell from their silences what the status was. I had the freedom to say what I wanted on the show, but I knew that what I said could get back to Iran. I was cognizant of my words and always kept in mind that I wouldn’t make the situation worse. So even though I didn’t have to ask for permission I still spoke knowing that my words could get back to Iran.

In statements you always have to tell the indisputable truth. Posturing is always a negative. I told that to a couple of police chiefs, and they thought I was accusing them of lying, or saying that they were going to lie. That wasn’t what I was saying, though I could see how they thought that. You just have to tell the indisputable truth that both sides can’t deny. President Gloria Arroyo in the Philippines would say that she’d crush Abu Sayyaf, the terrorist organization in the Philippines, but that wasn’t the truth. She couldn’t and wouldn’t crush Abu Sayyaf. Abu Sayyaf knew that and so learned to ignore her. She was more worried about what her constituents would think. Threats aren’t good. So one day we told a general to just say that they’re responsible for the lives that they take. That worked.

Terrorists like to say that they’re administers of justice carrying out a sentence. They liken themselves to the executioner in a trial. He wears black and pulls the switch, but he is not culpable for the killing. A public figure must say who’s responsible for the call. He must say that the hostage died because the hostage taker killed him. It’s framing. This works, and if it doesn’t work then it at least always has a chilling effect on the terrorists. Terrorism is theater. That’s essentially what it is on both sides. You need to get to the neutral people, the audience, and win them over.

So why is understanding the other side’s religion important? Is it important in a negotiation?

You must understand their religion. You have to let go of your own perspective. Understanding their religion, you can get to their hot buttons and know what influences them, find out what’s important.

For example, the government loves to call terrorists “barbarians.” Their acts are “barbaric.” But that’s asinine. We respect barbarians. We even have Conan the Barbarian, and we consider him heroic. We’re using a word from our perspective, which is the first mistake, and furthermore we’re using a term that we respect.

When Paul Johnson was taken in 2004 in Saudi Arabia, the terrorists executed him before the deadline. We know because before the deadline they had a videotape of him being executed. During that time we were preparing the strategy to go out to the press to win the neutralized people if that happened. We advised them to use the word “cowardly.” You have to use words that mean something to the other side and not just words that mean something to you. They want to be called terrorists…anything other than “criminal,” “thug,” or “coward.” Because then they see how the neutral audience sees their actions. The audience will hear those words and think, “Yeah, beheading someone who’s drugged up with his hands behind his back is a cowardly thing.”

Some years ago the Palestinian Authority used the words “cowardly” to describe Israeli actions. If they use a word as an insult, chances are they're thinking it would be an insult to call them that. You must know what terms they think are insults.

How does that, winning the neutral audience, help?

When terrorists see the neutral opinions then it slows them down. It began with Nick Berg’s family [Berg was kidnapped in Iraq in 2004] criticized President [George W.] Bush and Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld. This was exactly what the terrorists wanted and was music to their ears.

The expressed opinions of the family were different with Johnson’s family. They criticized the criminals; the neutral audience then participated, which the terrorists didn’t like. The murders eventually stopped. There were two things that happened that might help explain it. First, Ayman al-Zawahiri, [Osama] bin-Laden’s deputy, sent a video message telling cells that they should stop the kidnappings because it was counterproductive. Second, the Marines took Fallujah, which took away the infrastructure that the kidnappers were using for a lot of their operations. Both of them and the response to Johnson’s kidnapping probably played a role. I don’t know how much can be attributed to each, but the point is that in May there were a bunch of kidnappings, and by the fall something changed, and there were none.

But sometimes the changes won’t happen immediately. Sometimes it won’t save the loved ones. And it’s hard for family members. Why should family members listen, then?

There was a meeting I had with Johnson’s wife and his boss. His boss came, and I could tell that he genuinely cared for Johnson, that it wasn’t just that he was concerned about losing a faceless employee. At that time we kind of knew that the kidnappers were probably going to kill him. Well, we had a meeting, me, his wife, and his boss, and his boss asked me, “So what are the chances that he comes back alive? Because it determines whether we’ll continue to sit at the table and work with you.” Well, I answered that there wasn’t much of a chance, and he said, “Okay, that’s what I thought too. Tell us what to do.” He wanted to see whether I would lie to him, in which case he was going to leave. They do what they need to when they trust you. You need to tell them the truth and don’t hide your motives, and they will trust you. Sometimes you only can offer a long shot, but a long shot is better than no shot.

We had a case later: Jill Carroll, two years later, who was kidnapped in Iraq. We needed a family member to say something, but not beg because begging is counterproductive. It’s never good to say the predictable thing to a kidnappers. It’s counterproductive to say that Jill is innocent or the wrong person. The terrorist knew who she was; they picked her up. It’s an insult. But you must instead say the indisputable truth that Jill was not the enemy. Sure, she was writing as a journalist, but she was reporting for the Iraqi citizens. Her mother and sister were too scared, but we ended up getting her father to go on TV and say simply that she was not the enemy. He then did ask for the terrorists to give her back, but that was okay because he said everything else we asked him to say. We found out later that after seeing that video, the terrorists went to Jill and said to her that her father was an honorable man. And there was a marked difference.

In the first video we saw a prelude to murder. There was one man in the background in all black—black is what the executioner wears. And in the foreground was a man with a book—the man with the book is the law and provides judgment. And in the video they showed her with her hair uncovered to show that she was an infidel. Well, lots of third-party people were watching, and some we coached saw that they disrespected her by showing her hair. The father then went on TV and just said the truth. The next video showed the effect. In the next video, her hair was covered, and they were not wearing the same black clothes themselves. In the third video she looked even better. Then she was released.

Now, would it in that case have been counterproductive to call them “cowards” and use that insulting language? Oh yeah, you use “coward” only after the fact, if they had murdered her. It’s an intentionally insulting term. Using that is a question of timing.

So what are the advantages you have now as a private citizen if you were called in on a negotiation?

Well, whatever advantage I have is due to experience. I would have fewer people to convince. Unfortunately often times the status quo is an influence to not doing anything.

For example, we had the [Ingrid] Betancourt case in Colombia. Betancourt was held for six years and some others who were there for 10 years, including some Americans. Well, there was a disagreement in the government very early on how to address it. We advised early that no one was going to do anything. Years later we then advised to do something, which the government didn’t want to do because if something bad happened, then other people would say that the change in strategy was what caused it.

Affirmative steps are needed to change the status quo when it’s necessary.

What about whether families listen to you or not?

Interestingly, me as a private citizen doesn’t change whether families listen to my advice. It’s not whether I work in the government or not.

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