WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States must do a better job communicating with families of American hostages held overseas, including telling “hard truths” to loved ones about the chances for rescue and clarifying the government’s position on ransom payments to captors, according to a report by a private advocacy group.
The report also says hostages who do make it home need more support, including for financial and mental health problems, and that Americans unlawfully detained by foreign governments should get the same level of attention from the U.S. as hostages held by terror groups.
The study from the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation is the first nongovernment effort to measure the successes and shortcomings of changes to the hostage recovery process enacted by the Obama administration and left in place by President Donald Trump. The foundation is named for James Foley, a journalist from New Hampshire who was kidnapped in Syria in 2012 and killed by Islamic State militants two years later.
The 2015 Obama administration actions included the creation of an FBI-led intra-government fusion cell that works full time on hostage cases, the appointment of a State Department presidential envoy to handle diplomatic negotiations and a family engagement coordinator to serve as a liaison between the government and relatives.
The changes were meant to streamline the hostage recovery process after complaints from American families that the government had failed to prioritize the rescue of their loved ones and communicate effectively with them.
“We all recognized that this was a massive loss for the families but also a real loss on the U.S. government’s part,” Luke Hartig, a former Obama administration national security official who was involved in the process changes, said at a panel discussion Monday to announce the report.
“And as we started to peel back the layers, we were really shocked at what we found,” he added. “We saw just appalling stories of how families had been treated by their government. We saw really minimal progress on actually bringing U.S. hostages home.”
The report — based on interviews with 27 people connected to hostage cases, including former hostages themselves and loved ones — makes clear that those changes have led in some instances to better interactions between government officials and hostage families but that challenges still remain.
Among its main recommendations is that the U.S. should communicate more honestly and regularly with hostage families, and be straightforward about capabilities and limitations in recovery efforts as well as the outcome of the case.
“Families asserted that they want to be spoken to directly and not placated; to be told hard truths and not how to feel,” the report says. One anonymous family member is quoted as saying “the U.S. government should not make assumptions on what I can and cannot handle.”
The report also suggested that the U.S. improve its communications of laws and policies to families, particularly the government’s stance on ransom payments to captors. The Obama administration in 2015 reaffirmed its position that while the government would not make ransom payments, it would also not prosecute families who did so and would support families attempting to negotiate their loved ones’ releases.
“Nonetheless, given the complexity revolving around negotiations and private payments of ransoms, confusion among hostage families persists,” the report states.
Left unclear, for instance, is how far immunity from prosecution extends and whether friends and acquaintances could be prosecuted for contributing to a ransom fund.
The report also cites a disparity in treatment given to hostages and to Americans who are wrongfully detained by foreign governments.
The 2015 actions were meant to cover hostages — people held by an individual or group looking to extract concessions as a condition of release — “but only optionally and partially” apply to cases in which an American is held overseas and is acknowledged to be detained by a foreign government, according to the report.
“The U.S. government, and more importantly the State Department, must ensure that cases in the second category also benefit from the June 2015 reforms,” the report says. “This includes an increase in information sharing and U.S. government support for families, both foreign and domestic.”
The report acknowledges that additional support for the thousands of Americans held by a foreign government would require additional personnel and resources. Among those who could stand to benefit is Paul Whelan, a Michigan man held in Russia on espionage charges that he and his family say are baseless.
His attorney has told The Associated Press that he would like to see his client receive support similar to what hostages receive.
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