Families of U.S. hostages, whether held by the regime in Tehran or kidnapped by terrorist groups, have consistently expressed frustration with the bureaucracy of trying to get their loved ones returned.
Whether it’s not being able to get current information on the status of efforts to locate or negotiate the release of loved ones, or receiving vague directions to not talk to the media or respond to communications from captors, families have expressed a desire to have a point of contact who can also coordinate the hostage response between departments.
“I didn’t know Jim was killed until a hysterical AP reporter called me,” Diane Foley, whose son James Foley was the first U.S. hostage beheaded by “Jihadi John” in an August ISIS video, said at a February Newseum forum. In fact, the Foley family didn’t get a call from anybody in the government all day. “That’s not acceptable,” she said.
Debra Tice, mother of missing journalist Austin Tice, said at the same forum 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.
Tice 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 a middle-school way, unfortunately.”
President Obama ordered a review of how the U.S. handles hostage crises after journalist Steve Sotloff and aid worker Peter Kassig were beheaded on video by ISIS, and the results of that review are expected to be released tomorrow.
Multiple news outlets have reported that the administration will recommend flexibility in letting the families communicate with captors and negotiate while holding to a no-concessions policy.
“Over the course of the day today, many of the families of American citizens who’ve been held hostage around the world are meeting with members of the administration who conducted this review. And we’re using this opportunity to let them know about many of the decisions that were made, many of the recommendations that were offered and give them the opportunity to see for themselves the contents of the report,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters today. “…It will also include a presidential policy directive as well as an executive order that the president will sign.”
“I think the goal of this review, when we set out to conduct it, was to make sure that we were better and more closely integrating the wide variety of U.S. government assets that are used to try to safely recover U.S. citizens who are being held hostage,” he said. “We also wanted to improve the process of communicating with families who have loved ones who are going through this terrible situation, and there is a hope and expectation that by implementing many of these recommendations that we can better integrate the resources of the federal government that are devoted to this effort.”
“They are extensive… we can improve our ability to communicate with the families of those who are placed in this terrible situation.”
Even if they’re allowed to communicate directly with captors, families have previously expressed to PJM that when terrorists or foreign governments reached out to them they didn’t know how to handle the situation from a negotiation standpoint. Afraid to do or say the wrong thing, they wanted a hand from experienced negotiators.
Foley said at the Newseum that 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.”
Senators introduced legislation today that could help families in that situation.
The bill from Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) would establish the position of Interagency Hostage Recovery Coordinator.
Original co-sponsors are Sens. Babara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).
The senators all have personal ties to recent hostage crises. Al-Qaeda hostage Warren Weinstein, a USAID contractor killed by a U.S. drone strike in January, was from Maryland. Tice is from Texas, and the Foley family lives in New Hampshire.
The new hostage coordinator would pull together a cell of representatives from pertinent departments to respond to incidents, and would give families one direct point of contact.
“American hostages held and killed by ISIS and other terrorist groups were aid workers, humanitarians, and journalists – they represent the highest of American ideals and values,” Cardin said. “Too frequently, the suffering families of hostages were left in the dark, unsure who in government was working exclusively to ensure the safe return home of their loved ones.”
Warren’s wife, Elaine, “experienced incredible heartache” during his more than three years of captivity, the senator said.
“There are no remedies to the pain the Weinsteins and other affected families have endured, but we must as a nation respond more effectively to these tragedies,” Cardin added. “That is why this legislation is so vital.”
Cornyn stressed that “families of Americans held hostage by terrorists, rogue regimes, or other bad actors deserve as much information as possible about the work being done to ensure their loved ones are returned home safely.”
“The weeks, months and years of silence about a loved one’s well-being are unbearable, and we need to do more to help those here in the U.S. waiting for answers and to ensure some unity of effort by the federal government,” he said.
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.”
“We did not feel Jim was a very high priority,” though they were told so by the government, she added.