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5 Americans Who Need Washington’s Help to Come Home

As the Obama administration takes renewed heat over Benghazi, as the Americans lost in Algeria are mourned, others are crying for their government to get involved.

by
Bridget Johnson

Bio

January 22, 2013 - 5:43 pm

As President Obama was celebrating the beginning of his second term yesterday, Algeria’s prime minister delivered the sobering news that a standoff with terrorists at a remote natural gas facility ended with 37 hostages dead.

That included three Americans: Victor Lynn Lovelady, 57, of Houston; Gordon Lee Rowan of Oregon; and Frederick Buttaccio, 58, of Katy, Texas. Another American, Steven Wysocki of Ebert, Colo., hid for two and a half days with the terrorists at times just steps away before escaping to a nearby Algerian military facility.

The administration rejected an offer to trade the Americans for blind sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman and Pakistani scientist Aafia Siddiqui. Algerian special forces twice raided the plant, with hostages perishing each time, out of fear that the militants, believed to be powered by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, would scuttle the hostages over to new al-Qaeda playground Mali.

“Out of respect for the families’ privacy, we have no further comment,” the State Department said Monday afternoon, confirming the fatalities and perhaps deferring comment until after Inauguration Day.

It was on the mind of departing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, though, who lamented the loss of the three Americans to a group of reporters as he was leaving the inaugural lunch on Capitol Hill.  “That just tells us al-Qaeda is committed to creating terror wherever they are, and we’ve got to fight back,” Panetta said.

Today at the White House press briefing, spokesman Jay Carney wouldn’t lump President Obama in with leaders who have been criticizing the Algerian government’s response.

“We will remain in close touch with the government of Algeria to gain a fuller understanding of what took place so that we can work together to prevent tragedies like this in the future,” Carney said. “But let’s be clear in terms of the specific question you had. The blame for this tragedy rests with the terrorists who carried it out. I mean, the United States condemns those actions in the strongest possible terms.”

The loss of the Americans echoes in the case to be resurrected on Capitol Hill tomorrow when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations and the House Foreign Affairs committees on Benghazi. One of the central tenets of criticism from lawmakers on the terrorist attack that left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, is the simple principle that Americans were left without any support or hope of rescue from the hours-long terrorist assault.

“Over the past month, we and our colleagues have sent 13 separate letters to senior Administration officials, including President Obama, seeking an explanation for why no U.S. armed forces were available to go to the aid of the four American citizens who died during the September 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi,” Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said in a statement in November after receiving one explanation, from Panetta.

“Unfortunately, Secretary Panetta’s letter only confirms what we already knew – that there were no forces at a sufficient alert posture in Europe, Africa or the Middle East to provide timely assistance to our fellow citizens in need in Libya. The letter fails to address the most important question – why not?”

As the dead Americans from the Algerian attack are mourned, as fresh questions will be asked about why the Benghazi consulate workers didn’t get the help they needed, there are more Americans languishing around the globe as their loved ones and other concerned parties try to get the government’s assistance — or even attention.

Robert Levinson

A former FBI agent and 64-year-old father of seven, Levinson was working as a private detective on a cigarette smuggling case on Kish Island, an Iranian resort port in the Persian Gulf with looser entrance requirements. He disappeared in March 2007, and his wife made subsequent trips to Iran to try to find out any information. A hostage video of Levinson was sent to the family in late 2010, and in April 2011 they received photos of him. They only released the photos on Jan. 8, though, out of frustration that not enough is being done. “There isn’t any pressure on Iran to resolve this,” Robert’s wife, Christine, said in turning the photos over to the Associated Press. “It’s been much too long.”

Washington has admitted they believe the government of Iran knows more than it claims, and even tried some PR antics in 2011 to deflect blame from Tehran in hopes that the regime would free him. In August, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland released a statement marking Levinson’s 2,000th day in captivity.

“The United States reiterates its call on the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to provide any information on Mr. Levinson’s whereabouts and to help ensure his prompt and safe return to his family,” Nuland said. “Determining Mr. Levinson’s whereabouts and reuniting him safely with his family continues to be a priority for the U.S. Government. The United States also continues to welcome the assistance of our international partners in this investigation.”

Just last year, the FBI offered a $1 million reward for information on Levinson’s whereabouts.

Just before Christmas, the family was resigned to start a White House petition in an effort to cross the threshold needed for an administration response.

“It is the government’s job to protect the lives of all US citizens; rescuing Levinson should be top priority right now for our country. He is greatly missed by his family and friends. Iran has been uncooperative and blocked investigations. We the people of the US wish to bring this man home no matter what it takes,” the petition stated.

The White House link now says the petition is expired because it failed to gain enough signatures — yes, even though an administration official responded to the petition to build a Death Star.

Saeed Abedini

As the Iranian government dodges questions about holding one American, it’s opening trying another on charges that could bring a death sentence.

Iran began the trial for Abedini on Obama’s inauguration day. A 32-year-old American citizen and Idaho resident who converted to Christianity as a teen, Abedini and his wife had been forced to flee Iran once before for starting a network of home churches in the Islamic Republic. He was arrested in 2009 on a visit back to Iran to see his family, warned not to evangelize, then was arrested again in July 2012 when he re-entered the country for humanitarian work. The pastor was thrown into solitary confinement in the notorious Evin prison, and has suffered abuse both at the hands of his captors and from other inmates who self-identify as al-Qaeda.

A week ago, 11 Republican senators wrote Clinton to implore that she “exhaust all efforts” and “not stand idly by while the Iranian regime arbitrarily persecutes a U.S. citizen who has committed no crime.”

“Saeed’s charges and arbitrary detention violate numerous Iranian laws and international obligations,” they wrote. “Articles 13, 14, and 23 of the Iranian Constitution guarantee Mr. Abedini his right to freely practice his religion of choice. Furthermore, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which Iran is a party to, firmly secure one’s right to practice one’s religion of choice and be free from arbitrary detention.”

When asked about the case during a press briefing a week ago, White House press secretary Jay Carney had no comment.

“Saeed’s only ‘crime’ is that the Iranian mullahs hate his Christian faith, and we need the U.S. government to speak out and engage the international community in advocating for his immediate release,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

Also facing a death sentence in Iran is Amir Hekmati, a 30-year-old Flagstaff, Ariz., native and Marine Corps veteran arrested and charged with spying in August 2011 while visiting relatives in the country. A year ago, after a televised coerced confession, Hekmati was found guilty of being “corrupt on Earth and an enemy of God” and sentenced to die.

An appeals court overturned the verdict on the basis that the verdict was “not complete” and Hekmati sits in prison awaiting retrial.

Austin Tice

Tice, 31, was one of the few foreign journalists to report from Damascus after arriving in the war-torn country in May. He’d fallen in love with this part of the world on his tours as a Marine Corps infantry officer from 2005 to December 2011. Leaving the Corps with the rank of captain, Tice soon would put his studies at Georgetown Law School on hold to become a freelance journalist. His battlefield experience lent immense credibility to the pieces he filed for McClatchy Newspapers, the Washington Post, and other outlets, and as a correspondent he quickly earned the respect of the Free Syrian Army fighters.

“Spent the day at an FSA pool party with music by @taylorswift13. …Hands down, best birthday ever,” reads Austin’s last tweet, on Aug. 11.

Two days later, he disappeared after departing for the Lebanon border.

On Sept. 26, a video titled “Austin Tice still alive” was posted on a pro-Assad website, and raised alarms about the Syrian government’s potential role in his capture. Foreign policy experts and Syrian natives alike agreed that everything from the poor production quality to the costumes and chants seemed staged to look like jihadi yokels, calling out “God is great” while leading a blindfolded Tice up a hill. Tice stammers an Arabic prayer followed by, “Oh Jesus, oh Jesus.” The video ends abruptly.

Even if the jihadis in the video were fake, family and friends confirm that it is Austin on the screen.

The State Department, though, has been hedging. “We’ve seen the video. We are not in a position to verify whether it’s him, whether it represents an actual scene that happened or something that may have been staged,” spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Oct. 1. “There’s a lot of reason for the Syrian government to duck responsibility, but we continue to believe that, to the best of our knowledge, we think he is in Syrian government custody.”

On Jan. 2, Nuland said there’s nothing new to add on the case. Tice’s family is still trying to get help in Washington.

James Foley

This Boston freelance reporter and Marquette University grad already got out of one wartime capture. Taken by pro-Gadhafi forces in Libya in April 2011, he was released 45 days later after a global campaign spearheaded by his friends and family. Foley, 39, was kidnapped this past Thanksgiving Day in Syria while working for Agence France-Presse. At first, his family thought silence could aid in his release as they privately searched for him. At the beginning of this new year, they couldn’t keep quiet any longer.

Witnesses saw a gunman take Foley in the Idlib province, and his driver and translator were later released. It’s the same region where NBC’s Richard Engel evaded capture by militia loyal to dictator Bashar al-Assad two weeks before Foley disappeared.

“Jim is the oldest of five children. He has reported independently and objectively from the Middle East for the past five years,” the Foley family states on their website appeal. “Prior to his work as a journalist, Jim helped empower disadvantaged individuals as a teacher and mentor assisting them in improving their lives.”

The State Department last commented on the case at the Jan. 2 press briefing, when Nuland said there was no information to share.

“Without getting into individual cases that would take me into privacy issues, let me just say that in general we work through our protecting power,” she said. “We make our own appeals through various channels and those with influence directly to the Syrian regime for information.”

After his release from Libya, Foley told Marquette Magazine that he found strength in the voice of a hostage American contractor reading the Bible in a neighboring cell.

“In a very calm voice, he’d read me Scripture once or twice a day,” Foley said. “Then I’d pray to stay strong. I’d pray to soften the hearts of our captors. I’d pray for God to lift the burdens we couldn’t handle. And I’d pray that our moms would know we were OK.”

(Photo: Nicole Tung)


Xue Feng

This American citizen and Houston resident languishing in prison on trumped-up espionage charges appealed directly to Obama for help in November 2011.

The University of Chicago graduate and petroleum geologist is married with two U.S.-born children, Rachel and Alex. In 2007, while working for IHS Inc., he helped arrange the acquisition of a petroleum database of existing oil and gas wells that was made classified by Beijing after its purchase. He was arrested in November 2007 and tortured by Chinese authorities. After a three-day, closed-door trial in 2010, he was sentenced to eight years in prison.

In February 2011, then-Ambassador Jon Huntsman attended the appeal. “I’m extremely disappointed in the outcome, although it wasn’t completely unexpected. The original sentence was upheld, that of eight years in prison and a 200,000 RMB fine,” he said afterward. “…I think he expected exactly what was handed down. I think he was mentally prepared for it. Disappointed of course, disappointed of course, we’re all very, very disappointed.”

The day after Thanksgiving that year, Xue sat down to write the president.

“I am writing from an abyss of despair, to seek your help to bring me back home to America,” Xue wrote Obama in meticulous cursive on lined notebook paper. “…Over the last four years of imprisonment, my physical and mental health has deteriorated at an accelerating pace to a state that requires proper medical treatment in the U.S. In the course of the four years, my family have been thrown in unfathomable depths of hardship. Deprived of their father, my two angelic children, of comparable ages to yours, suffered from emotional trauma.”

“I, therefore, take courage to ask for your personal involvement in my case by calling your Chinese counterpart to secure a release on parole for me,” Xue continues, explaining precedent under Chinese law. “…However, only with your involvement is the parole doable.”

Xue signs off “loyally yours” with new year and Christmas wishes to Obama and his family.

Bridget Johnson is a career journalist whose news articles and opinion columns have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe. Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor at The Hill, where she wrote The World from The Hill column on foreign policy. Previously she was an opinion writer and editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. She has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, Politico and more, and has myriad television and radio credits as a commentator. Bridget is Washington Editor for PJ Media.
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