Report urges improvements in US approach to hostage cases
The Biden administration should create an additional senior-level position at the White House National Security Council to focus on cases of Americans who are wrongfully detained in foreign countries, and give more power and funding to an FBI-led interagency office tasked with helping free hostages, according to a report Wednesday from a leading advocacy group.
The report from the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation also recommends that Congress authorize funding to pay for hostage families to visit Washington to meet with U.S. government officials, as well as to provide support — whether clothing, temporarily housing or medical care — for returning hostages.
The annual research report is based on interviews with 60 people, including former hostages and wrongful detainees and their relatives as well as former government officials.
It was released amid heightened public attention on the plight of American hostages and detainees, thanks in part to the continued imprisonment in Russia of WNBA star Brittney Griner on drug-related charges. The U.S. has been trying to bring home Griner another American jailed in Russia, Paul Whelan, but those efforts have so far not been successful.
There have been some high-profile releases in the last six months, including an April prisoner swap with Russia that secured the release of Marine veteran Trevor Reed and a deal with the Taliban that last week freed an American contractor, Mark Frerichs, who had been abducted in Afghanistan more than two years ago. Two Americans, including an oil executive, were released from Venezuelan government custody in March, though Caracas is continuing to hold numerous other Americans.
In addition, family members of detainees have demonstrated in recent months outside the White House and in New York, and a mural unveiled this summer in Washington depicting faces of Americans jailed abroad has added to the publicity.
Yet more than 60 Americans are still being held hostage or wrongfully detained, and the report's authors say such cases appear tougher to resolve than they were a decade ago. Nearly half of the U.S. nationals who are still held hostage have been held for more than five years, the report says.
The report also says the number of countries holding Americans captives has grown over the last decade, totaling 19 in 2022. Seventy-five percent of currently detained Americans are being held by China, Russia, Iran and Venezuela, the report says.
The Biden administration has said publicly that it regards the release of hostages as a top priority, though officials have also noted that such resolutions can involve difficult decisions — particularly in the case of prisoner swaps involving lawfully convicted felons in the U.S. — and that the U.S. is not the only country with a say in the matter.
In the case of Griner and Whelan, for instance, the administration says it has not received a productive response from Russia to a substantial offer it made several months ago for their release.
The report makes 10 recommendations, including empowering and funding the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, a unit based at FBI headquarters but comprised of representatives from different agencies.
Because the interagency cell is led by the FBI, the report says, it creates the perception that the unit operates on the FBI's behalf rather than the whole of government. It recommends that the cell be supervised by rotating leaders from across different agencies, “so it can remain neutral, impactful, and influential across the interagency,” and that the Biden administration consider relocating it away from the FBI and elevating the position of director to a more senior role.
The White House does already have senior administration officials dedicated to detainee and hostage cases, including a director for counterterrorism for hostage and detainee affairs.
But the report envisions the creation of a new, high-level position at the National Security Council under the title of deputy assistant to the president and special coordinator for detentions. The person would also engage with regional directorates within the NSC to make sure that hostage and detainee concerns are prioritized alongside other diplomatic considerations — interests that can sometimes be in conflict.
“In addition,” the report says, “having direct access to the president is critical to ensure that wrongful detainee issues are better prioritized and understood.”
The foundation was named after James Foley, a freelance journalist who was among a group of Westerners brutally murdered in Islamic State captivity in Syria in 2014. Two British IS militants, El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey, have either pleaded guilty or been found guilty by a jury in connection with those deaths and are serving life sentences.
The murders of Foley and other Americans reshaped the U.S. government's approach to hostage-taking, spurring the creation of the fusion cell as well as a new office within the State Department known as the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.