The Forensic Value of Hostage Videos

3 MINS READDec 31, 2013 | 15:32 GMT

In August 2011, Warren Weinstein, an employee of JE Austin Company, a USAID contractor in Lahore, Pakistan, was abducted from his home. Last week, a new hostage video surfaced of Weinstein that we would like to examine. I've discussed in the past the tremendous forensic value of video and picture analysis of hostages held in captivity. The imagery can provide a treasure trove of information; if you know what to look for.

As background, I was one of the original founders of the U.S. government's inter-agency hostage debriefing team. I discuss those days in detail in my first book, "Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent," for those of you more interested in the process. We designed a comprehensive process to examine hostage video and pictures. The goal was to identify where the hostage was being held, determine the health and welfare of the hostage and identify the suspects.

First, hostage tapes and pictures provide "proof of life," so the intelligence analysts and agents investigating the abduction, along with the family, know the hostage is still alive. Hostage tapes are positive developments from a psychological perspective and can bring comfort to the family, even in a very bad situation. Photographs and video of the hostage before the abduction are compared to the current released media content, in an effort to determine general health and welfare. U.S. Government medical doctors and psychiatrists also review the tapes. Video images are carefully combed for clues that could indicate where the hostage is being held. It can be a cat and mouse game, because captors can also place things in the background in an attempt to throw investigators off.

In examining the current video, Weinstein is wearing a black ski hat and a tracksuit jacket — both appear new. This tells me he could be held in a colder climate or in an underground location. In my past debriefings of hostages, many are kept in basements, under barns, or in modified jail cells. The hostage looks like he has lost weight, which is to be expected and not unusual.

Secondly, the tapes are broken down digitally with enhanced audio equipment to listen for unique background noises, such as street sounds, calls for prayer, children playing, dogs barking, airplanes arriving or departing. These facts might help the agents narrow the scope as to the location the hostage is being held at. By also examining the lighting and ambient noise, it helps the agents make educated guesses about the hostage's location. For example, audio clues can reveal if the hostage is underground or aboveground, in a house or an apartment, in an urban or rural setting.

Intelligence can also be gleaned as to how the tape was released, in what format and where. Digital fingerprints may also be left behind in video files. Little things are important, such as whether or not the hostage is reading from a prepared statement or not. Psycholinguistic analysis of the text of the statement can also be conducted to give you a window into the mindset and motive of the hostage holders. Files are compared and reviewed for similar text and content. Timing and tempo of hostage tape releases are also interesting when placed in context with other news events. It's not unusual to see hostage tapes surface around the holidays as part of the psychology strategy of the hostage-holders.

In Mr. Weinstein's case the long-term "care and feeding" of a hostage takes resources and good operational security, on the part of the hostage holders, to keep the hostage hidden. That, in itself, is most telling.

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