'We Have to Do Everything Possible' to Bring al-Qaeda Hostage Warren Weinstein Home
WASHINGTON -- "My name is Warren Weinstein," began the "letter for media" handwritten on ruled notepad paper. "I am 72 years old and have been a prisoner of Al Qaeda since mid-August 2011. I was born July 3, 1941, and was taken prisoner while working as a consultant in Pakistan. I have a heart condition and acute asthma."
Dated Oct. 3, 2013, it accompanied a video sent to several outlets including the Washington Post last Christmas. It followed three videos released by al-Qaeda in 2012.
A resident of Rockville, Md., living and working in Lahore at the time gunmen overcame his guards and burst into his home, Weinstein pleaded in the December video for President Obama to help him.
"You are now in your second term as president of the United States and that means that you can take hard decisions without worrying about reelection," he said. "I hope and pray to God that you, as leader of the United States, along with your administration, will feel an adequate level of responsibility toward me and work for my release."
Gaunt in a gray track jacket and black beanie, Weinstein said he worried every day about his wife, Elaine, and family, and appealed to Obama as a "family man" to not forget him.
He stressed that he came to Pakistan to help the U.S. government "at a time when most Americans would not come here."
"And now, when I need my government, it seems I have been totally abandoned," he added.
The Weinsteins' congressman, Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), watched the video and thought, "We have to do everything possible to get him out."
Delaney wasn't yet in office when Weinstein was kidnapped while working for Arlington contractor J.E. Austin Associates. "It was obviously deeply troubling to learn about this situation," he told PJM this week, adding, "the sense of sadness that I have for Warren and his family is overwhelming."
"It's really just a terribly sad and tragic story that we all hope has a happy ending," he said.
The understandable feeling of helplessness, as Weinstein is al-Qaeda's only American hostage, is coupled with "thinking about how to put pressure on the various resources and assets we have as a nation," Delaney stressed, and trying to ensure that the contractor remains a "top priority."
In early January, Weinstein's family asked for "date-specific" proof from his captors that he's alive.
“We are extremely concerned about his health and implore his captors to attend to his medical needs," they said in a statement. "More importantly, we ask that they find it in their hearts to release him immediately so he may return home to us for the additional urgent care he needs."
A former professor in the New York State University system, Weinstein worked in development with the Peace Corps in Togo and the Ivory Coast. He put in several years with USAID and the World Bank before becoming a consultant in 2003.
"I have appealed several times to President Obama to help me but to no avail," continued Weinstein's letter. "I am therefore writing now to the media to ask that you help me to gain my release and rejoin my family -- my wife, two daughters, two grandchildren and my son-in-law.… I hope that the media can mount a campaign to get the American Government to actively pursue my release and to make sure that I am not forgotten and just become another statistic. Given my age and my health I don't have time on my side."
"I realize that you have many people asking you to take up their cause; yet, I hope you will find my cause worthy of your attention and time."
In the video, Weinstein also addressed Secretary of State John Kerry, stating, “I hope that one day soon I will be able to meet you as a free man and thank you for your efforts.”
The State Department answered the video by renewing its call for Weinstein's release.
"We have called immediately on the terrorists holding him to release them. We also continue to actively work with the Pakistani authorities to try to secure his release, as we’ve said, over the months that he’s been held," department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters on Dec. 30. "Obviously, this is a heartbreaking and terrible situation. We’re going to keep working with the Pakistanis, working behind the scenes, and the FBI of course is involved as well – because he’s an American citizen being held – to try to secure his release. And we’re certainly committed to doing that as we all are with all American citizens who are being held overseas."
"We’ve long said that we don't make concessions to people who kidnap U.S. citizens," Harf added. "That’s not something we do. We’re not in the business of doing that. We’ve called on those who are holding him to release him immediately. We’ll keep working with folks to try and achieve that goal."
Delaney told PJM that he supports the policy of not negotiating with terrorists and wants to see Weinstein freed without violating that principle.
In early January, Delaney sent letters to Obama and Kerry urging that they "make Warren’s release a priority matter."
Weinstein, the congressman noted, "is widely recognized as a scholar and humanitarian who has spent his career working to improve the lives of men, women, and children around the world. Warren has now spent more than two years in captivity. It is far past time for him to come home."
"I encourage you, in the strongest sense possible, to do everything you can to work with Pakistan and our global partners to secure Warren’s release and bring him home to his family. Doing nothing is simply not an option," he wrote.
"…We, as Americans, must be relentless in our efforts to bring him home, and we must maintain a sense of outrage and determination."
Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin (D) and Barbara Mikulski (D) have also intervened on behalf of their constituent, asking Obama in a Jan. 8 letter to "provide Mrs. Weinstein with a dedicated contact at the Department of State in order to better facilitate communication about her husband’s status."
"Mr. Weinstein’s wife, Mrs. Elaine Weinstein, is concerned that the U.S. Government is placing an insufficient level of urgency on her husband’s case. She also has serious concerns about her husband’s health and mental well-being as he enters his third year of captivity at age 72," the senators wrote.
"We appreciate that the White House has called for the immediate release of Mr. Weinstein and that the Department of State is reportedly working with Pakistani authorities to secure his release. However in light of the December 26 video, we urge you to redouble efforts, using the considerable national security resources of the U.S. Government, to find Mr. Weinstein and bring him home safely to his family."
Obama has not mentioned Weinstein in any public speeches or statements. White House press secretary Jay Carney last mentioned Weinstein at a May 2012 briefing, after the release of a video in which he tried to appeal to Obama by stressing that they each had two daughters.
"Well, the president is aware of it. I do not believe he’s seen it, or I do not know that he’s seen it. We remain greatly concerned for Mr. Weinstein’s safety and his well-being. Our hearts go out to him and his family," Carney said. "We condemn his kidnapping in the strongest terms and call for his immediate release. The U.S. government will continue making every effort to see Mr. Weinstein released safety to his family, but we cannot and will not negotiate with al-Qaeda."
Both senators' offices didn't respond to requests for comment about the letter and the administration's response. Delaney said in response to his letter, though, the administration "made it clear that it's their highest priority."
Forces in Washington are also pushing Pakistan "to cooperate fully and completely," added the congressman.
He said the heart-wrenching December video fostered a "renewed sense of optimism" in the players working to bring Weinstein home.
"Seeing him and knowing he's alive, it renewed hope in people working to try to get him free and his family," Delaney said. "Obviously, we know the challenges; it doesn't dissuade us from fighting the good fight."
What can ordinary Americans do to help bring Weinstein home?
"They can pray," Delaney said. "I definitely believe in the power of prayer. They can also write letters of encouragement if they care about this or other situations."
Given the daunting circumstances, with an American in the hands of Ayman al-Zawahiri's group, "I think that we're doing all that we can," he said.