The Real Bergdahl Error

For more than a decade, starting with a fellowship at the National Institute of Justice and subsequently conducting research in Europe and Israel, I studied hostage negotiations. Some of these were hostage and barricade situations, a tactic widely used in the 1970s and 80s by both nihilistic and irredentist terrorists. Others were hostage exchanges, like the current episode involving Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. 

Officially, we never negotiated for hostages. Unofficially, we talked. In a barricade situation, where we controlled the scene, the phones, and the electronics, talk was part of the psychodrama. Talk was the conduit to life over death. And only rarely did anyone in the West, back then, deal with terrorists that actually wanted to die. Even Palestinian terrorists went into the field with elaborate, if not self-deceptive, plans about escaping.

In those instances where we had no control, we strived to make a distinction between talk and negotiation. Talk meant talk acceding to symbolic demands, but not demands of consequence. Negotiation meant real exchanges. We did not negotiate although everyone on both sides knew that if terrorists took a high-value hostage who possessed highly classified information, we would have to negotiate. The exception proved the rule.

Truth was the hostage negotiator’s sidearm. Hostage negotiators did not promise what they could not deliver if there was a chance that the terrorists would capitulate. NYPD Detective Captain, Frank Bolz, arguably the best hostage negotiator of his time, said, success is when everyone -- including the terrorist -- walks out alive. 

Why was truth so important? Why didn’t police or military promise the world, gain a tactical advantage, and then kill the terrorists?  Because no hostage negotiation -- of whatever kind -- is about the individual negotiation. Hostage negotiations are not about one episode. They are about the episodes that preceded it, and more important, the ones that are yet to come. That is why credibility is not to be squandered.

If I learned anything from my years laboring in the world of hostage negotiations, it is indelibly imprinted in those last lines. All previous hostage scenarios are preludes to the current one, as the current one is prelude to the next.

The hostages themselves are overtly never important. Their health, their lives, their families, all of that is an insignificant distraction. No seasoned negotiator begins a dialogue by asking about the hostages. That might come later, but it is never the first thing.

Sound cold, sound cruel? It isn’t. Once you make the hostages important you lose the advantage, not just in the current exchange but in every following exchange. The terrorist then has something that is important. 

The communication has to be about resolving a problem, not about getting back the hostages. Getting back the hostages is a byproduct of the intangible, abstract, amorphous problem.

Sergeant Bergdahl’s military record is best left to others to discuss. That is the least of the problems with this exchange. Showcasing his release as a White House event was a consummate act of irresponsibility, if not stupidity. It made Bergdahl disproportionately important. In doing so, it sacrifices the safety of our troops for an ill-conceived Kodak moment. 

The Taliban leaders now have an incentive to kidnap more troops, just as Hamas escalated its attempts to kidnap more Israeli soldiers in the wake of the lopsided exchange for Gilad Shalit.

In Bangkok, in December 1972, the murderous Black September Organization (BSO), the group responsible for the Olympic massacre earlier that year, took hostages at the Israeli embassy. The Thai government sat down for talks and refused to discuss the hostages. The BSO had taken hostages during the investiture of Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn.

The Thai officials wanted to talk endlessly, if need be, about this insult to the royal family and all of the people of Thailand. They refused to hear or respond to the BSO’s demands. They simply wanted to talk about the insult. The hostages were not important; the royal ceremony was.

After nineteen hours of being harangued about the meaning of the investiture ceremony to the people of Thailand, these brutal terrorists capitulated in exchange for a flight to Egypt. To this day, in hostage negotiations circles, it is a classic case of making the hostages appear unimportant and diverting the conversation.        

And the Thais never revealed if this was a strategy or they really were so enraged over the violation of the royal ceremony that the hostages didn’t matter.

In future teaching moments, President Obama standing in the White House with the parents of Sergeant Bergdahl, before the cameras and microphones of the international media, will be the text book case of what not to do in hostage negotiations.

Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science, University of Cincinnati and former consultant to the National Institute of Justice in the area of hostage negotiations.

For more than a decade, starting with a fellowship at the National Institute of Justice and subsequently conducting research in Europe and Israel, I studied hostage negotiations. Some of these were hostage and barricade situations, a tactic widely used in the 1970s and 80s by both nihilistic and irredentist terrorists. Others were hostage exchanges, like the current episode involving Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. 

Officially, we never negotiated for hostages. Unofficially, we talked. In a barricade situation, where we controlled the scene, the phones, and the electronics, talk was part of the psychodrama. Talk was the conduit to life over death. And only rarely did anyone in the West, back then, deal with terrorists that actually wanted to die. Even Palestinian terrorists went into the field with elaborate, if not self-deceptive, plans about escaping.

In those instances where we had no control, we strived to make a distinction between talk and negotiation. Talk meant talk acceding to symbolic demands, but not demands of consequence. Negotiation meant real exchanges. We did not negotiate although everyone on both sides knew that if terrorists took a high-value hostage who possessed highly classified information, we would have to negotiate. The exception proved the rule.

Truth was the hostage negotiator’s sidearm. Hostage negotiators did not promise what they could not deliver if there was a chance that the terrorists would capitulate. NYPD Detective Captain, Frank Bolz, arguably the best hostage negotiator of his time, said, success is when everyone -- including the terrorist -- walks out alive. 

Why was truth so important? Why didn’t police or military promise the world, gain a tactical advantage, and then kill the terrorists?  Because no hostage negotiation -- of whatever kind -- is about the individual negotiation. Hostage negotiations are not about one episode. They are about the episodes that preceded it, and more important, the ones that are yet to come. That is why credibility is not to be squandered.

If I learned anything from my years laboring in the world of hostage negotiations, it is indelibly imprinted in those last lines. All previous hostage scenarios are preludes to the current one, as the current one is prelude to the next.

The hostages themselves are overtly never important. Their health, their lives, their families, all of that is an insignificant distraction. No seasoned negotiator begins a dialogue by asking about the hostages. That might come later, but it is never the first thing.

Sound cold, sound cruel? It isn’t. Once you make the hostages important you lose the advantage, not just in the current exchange but in every following exchange. The terrorist then has something that is important. 

The communication has to be about resolving a problem, not about getting back the hostages. Getting back the hostages is a byproduct of the intangible, abstract, amorphous problem.

Sergeant Bergdahl’s military record is best left to others to discuss. That is the least of the problems with this exchange. Showcasing his release as a White House event was a consummate act of irresponsibility, if not stupidity. It made Bergdahl disproportionately important. In doing so, it sacrifices the safety of our troops for an ill-conceived Kodak moment. 

The Taliban leaders now have an incentive to kidnap more troops, just as Hamas escalated its attempts to kidnap more Israeli soldiers in the wake of the lopsided exchange for Gilad Shalit.

In Bangkok, in December 1972, the murderous Black September Organization (BSO), the group responsible for the Olympic massacre earlier that year, took hostages at the Israeli embassy. The Thai government sat down for talks and refused to discuss the hostages. The BSO had taken hostages during the investiture of Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn.

The Thai officials wanted to talk endlessly, if need be, about this insult to the royal family and all of the people of Thailand. They refused to hear or respond to the BSO’s demands. They simply wanted to talk about the insult. The hostages were not important; the royal ceremony was.

After nineteen hours of being harangued about the meaning of the investiture ceremony to the people of Thailand, these brutal terrorists capitulated in exchange for a flight to Egypt. To this day, in hostage negotiations circles, it is a classic case of making the hostages appear unimportant and diverting the conversation.        

And the Thais never revealed if this was a strategy or they really were so enraged over the violation of the royal ceremony that the hostages didn’t matter.

In future teaching moments, President Obama standing in the White House with the parents of Sergeant Bergdahl, before the cameras and microphones of the international media, will be the text book case of what not to do in hostage negotiations.

Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science, University of Cincinnati and former consultant to the National Institute of Justice in the area of hostage negotiations.