Nov 24, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Hostage families' mission to meet the president

Countries where Americans are currently held hostage or wrongfully detained
Reproduced from The James W. Foley Legacy Foundation; Chart: Axios Visuals

Relatives of American hostages and political prisoners held overseas are increasingly impatient for a meeting with President Biden.

Driving the news: Last week's release of a U.S. journalist held in Myanmar has elevated some expectations. So, too, did four years of Donald Trump's unusually public enthusiasm for and prioritization of hostage negotiations — with some notable successes.

  • The Myanmar junta's release of Danny Fenster was secured by former UN ambassador and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who runs a non-profit that has played an outsized role in private hostage negotiations.
  • "Sometimes it takes an unconventional approach, and it can't be the government," Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs (SPEHA), said at a press conference celebrating Fenster's homecoming.

Fenster's release came after an Oct. 25 open letter in which more than two dozen families called on the Biden administration to do more to secure the release of their loved ones. They expressed frustration that they had not been able to meet with Biden or his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan.

  • Last week, Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine who has been jailed in Russia since August 2019, released a letter detailing his poor prison conditions. A family spokesman urged the Biden administration to make a deal with Russia to bring him home.
  • And Els Woodke — the wife of American aid worker Jeff Woodke, who was taken hostage by jihadists in Niger in 2016 — called on Secretary of State Antony Blinken to "honor the promise" he made to her that he would "not take any options off the table" in Jeff's case.

Why it matters: Hostage crises are among the most emotionally excruciating issues any president deals with. Every administration must strike a balance between prioritizing the freedom of detainees, easing the suffering of families, and managing thorny bilateral issues with foreign governments.

Behind the scenes: In half a century in politics, Biden has long worn his empathy on his sleeve. Multiple hostage advocates told Axios they believe the president's key advisers are deliberately shielding him from the personal agony of these stories to minimize the potential for emotional decision-making.

  • They see Sullivan, a Yale and Oxford graduate with a reputation as a highly skilled foreign policy strategist, as their biggest obstacle to a personal audience with Biden. Some told Axios they believe Sullivan views most hostage cases as unsolvable.

A senior Biden administration official told Axios that while the government does view these cases as difficult, Sullivan treats them with the highest priority and consistently raises them in conversations with foreign counterparts.

  • The official pointed to comments from a White House press briefing on Oct. 26, where Sullivan said he had been personally briefing Biden every day on the 16 U.S. missionaries kidnapped in Haiti. Two have since been freed.
  • On the question of why Biden hasn't met with any families, the official said the NSC views "recurring" and "sustainable" engagements with the families as the best long-term approach.

How it works: The SPEHA office was created by the Obama administration in 2015 to break hostage advocacy out of the lengthy list of bilateral issues the U.S. must address with unfriendly governments like Russia or Venezuela.

  • Biden asked Carstens, a Trump appointee who is widely respected by families and advocates, to continue serving when he took office.

Zoom in: Trevor Reed's parents say they have weekly engagements with Carstens and the State Department.

  • Reed's father, Joey, told Axios that Blinken held a virtual meeting with dozens of hostage families six days after his confirmation in February: "He stayed on the phone until everyone had gotten to ask questions or make statements about their loved ones, and he seemed extremely, very sincere."
  • Joey Reed also told Axios he was grateful that Biden raised his son's case when he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in June. But demands for his release have been rebuffed, and the family has been unable to speak with Trevor since he was transferred to a labor camp in August.

The other side: Trump — for better or for worse — relished the idea of a deal-making role for himself and embraced the optics of a high-profile release, like American pastor Andrew Brunson, who was freed from Turkey in 2018.

  • "If I was a single-issue hostage voter and I didn't care about anything else — 150% I'm voting for Trump," said one advocate, who described themselves as a "card-carrying Democrat."

Yes, but: Both administrations have at times struck deals at the expense of Americans held abroad, demonstrating how fraught the issue can be in the context of broader U.S. foreign policy.

  • Trump and Biden each agreed to withdraw from Afghanistan without bringing home Mark Frerichs, the only American believed to be held captive by the Taliban.
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