Diane Foley, left, and Debra Tice, center, talk with PBS’ Judy Woodruff at the Newseum.
WASHINGTON — The mothers of American journalists kidnapped in Syria agreed in a forum at the Newseum tonight that communications breakdowns and bureaucratic song-and-dance are frustrating families’ efforts to bring U.S. citizens home.
Diane Foley, whose son James was the first U.S. hostage beheaded by “Jihad John” in an August ISIS video, said she didn’t even find out from the U.S. government that the video had surfaced.
“I didn’t know Jim was killed until a hysterical AP reporter called me,” Foley said, adding they didn’t get a call from anybody in the government all day. “That’s not acceptable.”
James Foley, 40, was kidnapped while working for Agence France-Presse in northwest Syria on Thanksgiving Day 2012. His mother said she knew something was wrong when she didn’t get a call from him on the holiday.
Three months before Foley was kidnapped, 33-year-old journalist and Marine Corps veteran Austin Tice went missing in Syria. 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. They even brought me whiskey. Hands down, best birthday ever,” reads Austin’s last tweet, on Aug. 11, 2012.
On Sept. 26, 2012, 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. The Assad regime has denied any involvement.
Part of Debra Tice’s frustration, more than two years later, is not knowing who exactly is holding her son.
“It is unlikely to be an opposition group,” she said, sitting beside Diane Foley. “We don’t think it’s the Syrian government. They have denied holding him.”
Tice said she and her husband, Marc, have been “sort of pushing on both ends” trying to get information from the U.S. government and the Syrian government. The Houston resident gave credit to their congressman, Rep. Al Green (D-Texas), and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) for helping in whatever way they can. Cornyn raised Austin’s case on the Senate floor last summer at the two-year anniversary of his disappearance.
Foley said her son “would want to right this wrong” of families left in the dark, even left on their own to try to talk with captors when Americans go missing.
“Jim really believed in America,” she said. “He was an idealist. He believed until the end that our government would find a way to free them.”
With some countries paying ransom for hostages, and groups including ISIS then being stimulated to take more hostages to reap cash and publicity, Foley said she fears “this issue is going to be with us for a while.”
She hopes to “stimulate discussion” and “advocate for a clearer policy that will bring our citizens home.”
One policy that Foley thinks the American public should weigh is how families of those held by ISIS, including her own, were under a blackout “that was recommended to all of us to not talk to media.”
She now personally regrets not enlisting more media while he was being held captive to keep her son’s story alive.
“Americans need to reflect on these issues not just for journalists, but aid workers, tourists who may end up in the wrong place…” Foley said. “It could happen to any American… what is an American citizen worth to our country?”
“We did not feel Jim was a very high priority,” though they were told so by the government, she added.
The family knew he was being held with other Westerners, thus made trips to London and Paris to try to press his case. At home, there was a “huge communication problem,” particularly with the White House.
“We were privy to nothing,” Foley said. “‘Just trust, don’t talk to the media, trust in us, Jim’s a high priority.’ We did trust for a year.”
“It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just our bureaucracy didn’t work for us. It didn’t work for Jim.”
If the U.S. government decides it cannot give priority treatment to the case of every American citizen missing or held abroad, she said, officials at least need to be up front with the families about that. The FBI had information they could have shared with the Foleys’ private security team “that could have saved Jim’s life,” she said, such as his location within six months of his capture.
And for a month, Foley added, ISIS captors were emailing the family but they were left on their own as to how to respond to the terrorists. “We had no idea what we were doing,” she said. “That angered the captors.”
Tice said Reporters Without Borders is taking the lead on launching a big awareness campaign about the threats that journalists “embrace,” not just endure, to report the news in some parts of the world — a campaign that also urges President Obama to do all he can to bring Austin home.
The Tices are in D.C. for the week to work with the National Counterterroism Center on drafting recommendations for potential policy changes on how the U.S. deals with hostage crises.
Obama ordered the review after two more Americans — journalist Steve Sotloff and aid worker Peter Kassig — were beheaded on video by ISIS. The terrorists are known to be holding at least one more American, a 26-year-old woman believed to be an aid worker whose family is not speaking with the media.
Tice said she’ll naturally think the U.S. government can do more “until I have my arms around my son again.”
She said the Texas family has had issues trying to deal with the FBI, which she called an “information vacuum” — they ask the family for info but don’t give any in return. That relationship has become “a bit acrimonious in a bit of middle-school way, unfortunately.”
Tice spoke carefully when asked if the U.S. government should entertain paying ransom for hostages.
“I think there are ways of moving money around without saying the government paid ransom,” she replied.
“Every option is on the table and you can be very clever how you exercise your options.”
(The Tice family has set up a website, www.austinticefamily.com. Follow @FreeAustinTice on Twitter. Tips about Austin’s case can be sent to email@example.com or to the Yellow Ribbon Project.)