WASHINGTON — The FBI, brought in to help negotiate with the Somali pirates holding an American freighter captain, is no stranger to overseas hostage crises.
Since 1990, its Crisis Negotiation Unit has worked on more than 100 foreign hostage situations in Iraq, the Gaza Strip, Haiti and elsewhere.
The unit, based in Quantico, Va., routinely deploys negotiators to assist in kidnapping and other incidents involving U.S. citizens. Called the negotiating arm of the U.S. government, the FBI has about 340 crisis negotiators in 56 field offices.
FBI spokesman Bill Carter confirmed that the agency is assisting Navy personnel in negotiations with the pirates but would not comment on specifics. Among the cases on which the FBI has worked is the kidnapping of Jill Carroll, the American freelance journalist who was held for 82 days in Baghdad in 2006.
Chris Voss, a former FBI international kidnapping negotiator who worked on the Carroll case, said that with the pirates' boat out of gas, the best tactic for negotiators is to wait.
"Like having a criminal trapped on his back, you just don't want to inflame the situation," he said. "It will work its way out when the criminals see the only answer is to cooperate with authorities."
Voss said the situation could become more complicated if the pirates try to trade Capt. Richard Phillips for fuel. "With any luck, that won't happen," he said.
The best course for negotiators, Voss said, is to be honest with the pirates about the situation and work to defuse it.
"Hostage negotiators have a good way of gauging threats; it's very similar to assessing if someone is threatening to commit suicide," he said. "You have to understand if it is bluster versus for real."
Stephen Romano, a former chief of the Crisis Negotiation Unit, said the No.1 goal for the negotiators would be to talk directly to the pirates.
"In any hostage-barricade situation there's always a significant degree of danger to the person being held," Romano said. "There are so many variables. If the hostage-takers are feeling a level of desperation it can lead to poor and tragic decisions on their part."
Romano also said that patience was important, as it can help the negotiators get more information. And it offers the hostage-takers time to reconsider their actions and think about how they will extricate themselves from the situation.
"Good things happen over time," he said.
The bottom line for negotiators is "how much ammunition they have in their trick bag," Romano said. They do everything they can to ensure any deal is honored.
"Their goal is to try and convince the hostage-takers to let the captain go and that they seek a peaceful resolution to the crisis," Romano said.
Another case the FBI worked on was that of Steve Centanni, a Fox News correspondent who was kidnapped by Palestinian militants in Gaza in 2006 along with his New Zealand cameraman, Olaf Wing. They were released unharmed after two weeks.
The FBI also worked the case of two North Carolina missionaries who were kidnapped in Haiti in July 2006 while aiding relief efforts. They were held for four days and freed unharmed.