The Victim, the Family, the Company: The Three Dimensions of Consequence During a Kidnapping

By Christopher Voss
In the end, this case taught me how to properly support a family.
The US Department of State’s American Citizen Services have some phenomenal people. One of them working on the Burnham/Sobero kidnapping was a great guy named Ted, who made it a point to call up family members every few days to brief them and answer their questions, whether he had anything new to say or not. He’d often say, “I’m calling to let you know I’ve got nothing new to tell you.” The family respected his candor and his consistency. They never had to wait wondering if they were going to hear from him. He became a constant, someone they knew they could rely upon in the midst of chaos.
Unfortunately, the Burnham/Sobero case ended in tragedy. Guillermo Sobero, who was an American citizen, and a number of Filipino hostages were beheaded in the early days. Thirteen months later, in the kidnapping’s final event, Deborah Yap and Martin Burnham were killed, while Gracia was wounded in a botched rescue attempt by the Philippine military.
Families will not sit still during a kidnapping and let the “professionals” handle it. They will become very involved. They will check every internet source, call every government agency, and ask many pointed questions. They will ask the same questions of many different people and seize with suspicion on any variation between answers.
They are entitled to this. A kidnapping is a family’s darkest hour. When the incident is all over, the rest of us move on, and they are the ones left to pick up the pieces.
Involve your human resources people in the process and preparation. They will be invaluable. Let human resources partner with your security personnel and support the family.
The Employer. There is nothing wrong with preserving and protecting the interest and the image of the victim’s company. The company most likely has a legitimate purpose that in turn provides a livelihood that supports families, that ensures their place as a productive and contributing member of several communities. This is an important aspect to be considered when making decisions during a kidnapping crisis.
First, utilize ethical professionals. Ask your K&R consultant how, not if, they deal with National Security Presidential Directive-12 (NSPD-12).  The directive is the U.S. policy on kidnapping. It was signed in 2002 by George W. Bush and has survived because it is a sound policy. A portion of it is classified. Shockingly, many K&R professionals who were doing business prior to its signing not only do not follow NSPD-12, they have never even seen it.
NSPD-12 is a policy and not a law. It plays a major role in determining whether a company or person has broken the law. Not only your K & R professional, but your company’s lawyer, needs to know it. Don’t ask your lawyer to learn it in the middle of a crisis. When is the worst time to ask a lawyer a question? When you need an answer. Ask them before you need the answer. Give them a chance to research it and give you a good, solid answer.
The primary principle in NSPD-12 is transparency. This can be a little difficult to grasp when the document itself is written a little “gray.” K&R professionals and government officials alike aren’t all that familiar with its nuances. When I was in Baghdad in May of 2005, I brought the document to the attention of one of Department of State’s primary legal counsels in the embassy there. The attorney had never heard of it.
At the time, Baghdad was experiencing a kidnap-for-ransom boom that was unprecedented in modern times. Baghdad was literally the kidnapping capital of the world, and the trend had sprung up in a matter of a few short months. The kidnap-for-ransom spike was a phenomenon that surpassed anything seen even in Mexico or Colombia. Yet in the midst of this explosion, many US-government personnel didn’t even know that there was a US-kidnapping policy known as NSPD-12. Even one of their primary legal advisors was unaware of the policy’s existence.
If your K& R professional doesn’t believe in transparency with US government authorities, then there must be reasons for this, and none of them are good. Even if the victim is not a US citizen, US laws can still be broken, such as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and the Material Support to Terrorism laws. Transparency is still the key, and the process can still be worked in a way that protects your company, even if during the crisis you are dealing with US-government officials who are ignorant of the policy.
The worst time to ask people to learn to make high-stakes, instant decisions under pressure is when lives are literally on the line. There is no substitute for practice. If your K & R professional can’t come to your organization and help you prepare with a practical simulated kidnapping exercise, find one who can. You can prepare and you can be ready.
In a crisis, we do not rise to the occasion. We fall to our highest level of preparation.

 Christopher Voss is the Managing Director at Insite Security and leader of the firm’s Kidnapping Resolution Practice. Mr. Voss was formerly Supervisory Special Agent in the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit (CNU) from 2000 to 2007 and the lead international kidnapping negotiator for the FBI

♦ Photo by Katie Tegtmeyer/Flickr




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