Discovery Network Hostage Negotiations: What Are the Tactics?

Environmental Militant Takes Hostages at Discovery Channel HeadquartersHandout
A gunman, possibly carrying explosives and who police say is an enviornmental activist, has entered the headquarters of the Discovery Channel, fired shots and taken hostages, according to police and witnesses in Silver Spring, Md.

Keep him talking. That's the key objective of hostage negotiators who are talking to a suspect who police say has taken over the headquarters of the Discovery Channel networks in Silver Spring, Md., outside Washington D.C.

The apparently armed suspect, identified as James J. Lee, has a "small number of hostages," Montgomery County Police Chief Thomas Manger said.

Police are in contact with the man believed to be Lee, but Manger would not say what he wants.

Brad Garrett, a former FBI agent and ABC News consultant, said authorities have two important advantages in the situation: They believe they know who the man is, and they may be able to watch him on closed circuit TV cameras located in the building.

"The key is to get him to communicate and find out his demands," said Garrett.

It will be up to the police and Discovery Network officials to decide whether those demands can be met.

One of the suspect's demands could be to have his complaints aired on Discovery or another TV network.

"He wants an audience," said Garrett. "What you do is chip away at the list down to what is reasonable. At the end of the day, there may not be anything that he wants that the negotiator or Discovery Channel can do anything about."

It will be important to determine if the suspect has any mental health issues, Garrett said. If there are, he added, "that creates a problem with people who aren't functioning on a base of reality."

Time is not a big factor at the moment, as long as no one has been hurt, Garrett said. In fact, time may work to the negotiators' advantage.

"[The suspect] may lower his demands over time," said Garrett.

A negotiator never can be sure what he or she will have to deal with. There may have to be negotiations with the suspect over bringing in food and allowing hostages to use bathrooms.

"That can become a logistical nightmare," said Garrett.

The willingness to talk may dwindle as the standoff continues.

"Negotiators may have to decide: 'Can we let this go on and be safe?'" said Garrett. "They may have to tactically end this barricade."

Dr. Harold Bursztajn, a hostage negotiation consultant and associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard University, said it's important for anyone communicating with a hostage taker to remain calm.

"Probably the hardest part [as a negotiator] is that you have to be non-judgmental," Bursztajn said. "This is hard when every fiber in your body wants to judge this person."

"Much of the technique is a matter of attitude," he said. "You have to be very self-reflective so that the attitude you have when you approach him is a non-judgmental, calm attitude."

Getting the Suspect Out Alive

One of the negotiators' goals is to prevent a suspect from taking his or her own life. To accomplish that, Garrett said, hostage negotiators might talk about something that would be missed if a suspect is considering suicide.

"You have to get to the heart, find out if anything has any meaning to him," he said. "Let's say he has a kid who he wants to see. Maybe he wants to stay alive for him."

But often, negotiators are fighting a losing battle.

"It's a huge long shot in these types of situations that the [suspect] will come out alive," Garrett said.

Garrett said negotiators can use the conversation to steer a suspect toward a window and possibly become a target by snipers, especially in an instance where a peaceful ending looks unlikely.

"The communication and the negotiation many times in situations like this is just a time-buyer," he said. "You're buying [time] ... so that you can get more information and boost your intelligence."

Jack Cloonan, a former hostage negotiator with the FBI and an ABC News consultant, said that not knowing whether a suspect is under the influence of any drugs or prescription medication also can make the situation hard to navigate.

"It's a highly charged environment," said Cloonan. "Do we know if the person is doped up? Self-medicated? You just never know."

Location Can Be Revealing

Suspects often want to talk to negotiators about exactly why they did what they did, Cloonan said.

"More times than not the person on the other hand is going to tell you what happened," said Cloonan. "They are going to want to explain their thinking because they're proud of what they've done. They want to be recognized."

"They will explain in some detail what their grievances are," he said. "You can elicit a lot of information by simply saying, 'What happened? People are not shy about talking."

Cloonan said hostages who have escaped the scene can be very useful to hostage negotiators.

"The hostages themselves and witnesses are absolutely critical," he said. "One thing you want to know and what these people can sometimes tell you is if the [suspect] is acting alone."

ABC News' Emily Friedman and Dan Childs contributed to this report.