Above the Tearline: Hostage Media Forensics
Vice President of Intelligence Fred Burton examines the recently released video footage of former FBI agent Robert Levinson and the various clues and techniques used by forensics to locate the hostage.
In this week’s Above the Tearline, we are going to discuss the forensic analysis of video, using the recently released video footage of former FBI agent Robert Levinson currently held hostage, possibly in Iran. The forensic analysis of video and pictures of hostages held in captivity provide a treasure trove of information, if you know what to look for.
I was one of the original founders of the U.S. government's inter-agency debriefing team. We designed a comprehensive process to examine hostage video and pictures. The goal was to identify where the hostage was being held, the health and welfare of the hostage and the identification of suspects. Back in the day, VHS and BETA hostage tapes were dropped off by hostage holders and media outlets. We would process those tapes for latent fingerprints and paper and ink analysis on the envelopes. I've worked a many hostage cases from an investigative perspective, and I can tell you, the tapes were dissected from a multitude of angles.
First, hostage tapes and pictures provide “proof of life”, so the 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 of the hostage before the abduction are compared to the current released pictures, in an effort to determine health and welfare. 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. Captors can also place things in the background in an attempt to throw investigators off.
Secondly, the tapes are broken down digitally with enhanced audio equipment to listen for background noises, such as street sounds, and 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. By also examining the lighting and ambient noises, it helps the agents draw more clues as to the hostage site, for example, underground or above ground, house or apartment, urban or rural. 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. Timing and tempo of hostage tape releases are also interesting when placed in context with other news events.
What’s the Above the Tearline of this video tape? Forensics of hostage tapes is a positive development in any long-term hostage situation. You always learn something new to help with the overall investigation. The hostage tapes also infuse new energy in the investigation and can drive new leads. The “proof of life” alone, is well worth the video tape. It may be the only intelligence you have that the hostage is still alive. However, as hostage takers get smarter, these tapes can also be used to try to mislead authorities.