Families of Americans detained abroad want more US government attention, study finds

An analysis of US hostage policy found that efforts to free Americans wrongfully detained abroad are hampered by unclear policies and confusion.

al-monitor A man holds up a sign in memory of US journalist James Foley during a protest against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria in Times Square in New York, Aug. 22, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Carlo Allegri.

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Apr 2, 2020

As the Donald Trump administration calls on foreign governments to release Americans held in prisons where coronavirus may run rampant, a new report finds that some detainee families are having trouble getting the attention of the US government agencies meant to rescue their loved ones.

Diane Foley, whose son Jim Foley was murdered by the Islamic State (IS) in August 2014, hopes the findings will prevent other families from experiencing what hers went through trying to free Jim, a freelance journalist abducted while reporting on the Syrian civil war.

“Everyone told me he was their highest priority, but the reality was it was nobody’s mission to bring him home,” said Foley, founder and president of the Foley Foundation. 

Criticized for his administration’s handling of Foley and three other Americans captured by IS, President Barack Obama ordered a broad overhaul of US hostage policy in 2014. Out of that restructuring came an FBI-led fusion cell designed to oversee hostage cases, a State Department special envoy and a hostage response group within the National Security Council. 

The organizational changes were a significant improvement in the government’s handling of Americans held overseas and “largely continue to function effectively,” according to the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation study, which was based on interviews with 25 former American hostages and detainees, their families and advocates.

Despite the progress in recovery efforts, there remains a significant disparity between US hostages held by terrorists and those wrongfully detained by foreign governments, “with the latter receiving less attention, information and access” from US officials, the study found. 

Part of the problem stems from confusion over what constitutes a wrongful detainee in the first place, explained Cynthia Loertscher, the report's author. 

“If an American broke a foreign country’s law, however they’re being detained for purpose of putting leverage on the United States,” Loertscher explained, “that’s where we start to wade in the waters of wrongful detentions.”

In the absence of a legal definition on whether a case like that is considered an unlawful detention, she said those families are often deemed ineligible for hostage recovery services and end up at the Bureau of Consular Affairs, the State Department office responsible for the general protection of American citizens overseas. 

According to Diane Foley, the fusion cell and special envoy have gradually taken on more detainee cases, particularly those individuals whose imprisonment is not acknowledged in countries like Syria and Iran. She credits the Trump administration for recognizing the needs of those families, but said more can be done.

“There are a lot of cases in limbo not able to get the best of our government behind them,” Foley said.  

In a statement provided to Al-Monitor, a spokesperson for the FBI’s Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell said although families can work with other government agencies, it takes the lead on family engagement matters: “We try to coordinate and deconflict all US government interactions through one point of contact to lessen the burden on families.”

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment. 

President Trump touts a long list of imprisoned Americans freed during his time in office. Those released under his watch include Danny Burch, an engineer held captive in Yemen for 18 months, and Caitlan Coleman, who was held for five years by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Other high-profile releases include North Carolina pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey, aid worker Aya Hijazi in Egypt and three Americans in North Korea who were sent home ahead of the president's May 2018 summit with Kim Jong Un.

More recently, Lebanon released Amer Fakhoury, a 57-year-old naturalized citizen accused by Lebanese authorities of running a torture prison while part of an Israel-backed militia in the 1980s and 1990s.  

Bob Levinson, a retired FBI agent who disappeared in Iran 13 years ago, is believed to have died in Iranian custody. In a statement announcing his death, the family thanked the current administration for its efforts while also calling out “those in the US government who for many years repeatedly left him behind.” 

Two Americans detained in Iran were also released under Trump, Xiyue Wang in 2019 and Robin Shahini in 2017.

The coronavirus outbreak has brought renewed attention to those who remain behind bars. Administration officials have in recent weeks publicly urged Iran, Venezuela and other foreign adversaries to release their American detainees, fearing the virus will be a death sentence if introduced to those countries’ prison populations. 

In Syria, Bashar al-Assad’s government is known to be holding at least two Americans: psychotherapist Majd Kamalmaz and freelance journalist Austin Tice. 

In a recent news conference, Trump for the first time publicly called on Syria to let Tice out “immediately.”

In Iran, several Iranian-Americans, including businessman Siamak Namazi, are being held on dubious charges. But citing coronavirus concerns, authorities have temporarily released some 100,000 other prisoners, including US Navy veteran Michael White.

His family’s spokesman, Jonathan Franks, said the complete blackout of information in Iran had held up White's release.

“Does the government have to do a better job on the wrongly detained? Absolutely. But that’s an ongoing thing,” he said. “The issue that we had was that all the information coming out of Iran was shut down … It’s not like the US government can just bop over to the prison.”

A common frustration among those interviewed for the Foley study was how much information about their missing relatives remained classified. Tired of being told “we can’t talk about that,” some participants said they had developed relationships with congressional staffers who might have access to information about their loved ones. 

A fusion cell spokesperson told Al-Monitor, “We always seek to ensure that relevant information is shared quickly and fulsomely with families and are always looking for ways to more efficiently partner with families to meet their expectations.” 

Former hostages and their families also said they still were unsure of the government’s position on paying private ransoms to terrorists. During Jim Foley’s captivity, US officials repeatedly warned his family they could face criminal charges if they paid IS for his release. The Obama administration reversed itself after his death and said the United States would no longer prosecute families who paid ransoms to hostage-takers. 

Today it’s unclear whether that immunity extends to friends who contribute to a ransom fund or banks involved in the transfer. It’s these kinds of uncertainties Diane Foley hopes other families who find themselves in her position can avoid.

“As Americans we can definitely do better than what I experienced,” she said. “We want every American who is brave and out in the world doing things to have the backing of our government to bring them home.”

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