Dec 7, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Inside Jake Sullivan's call with U.S. hostages' families

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan is seen speaking at the White House.
Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images

National security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke last week with relatives of U.S. hostages and others wrongfully detained abroad, after more than two dozen families expressed frustrations about their inability to get a meeting with him or President Biden, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: Participants on the video call, which began at 7pm ET Friday and lasted more than an hour, told Axios they didn't get satisfactory answers to many of their questions. Nonetheless, they were encouraged by Sullivan's commitment to follow up and pledge to be personally available to them and others going forward.

  • Sullivan told families he'd been unaware they were seeking meetings with him, participants said. Several told Axios they expect the White House to get a flood of requests this week.
  • The call on Dec. 3 came about five weeks after 26 families signed an open letter expressing frustrations — and about a week after Axios reported several advocates saw Sullivan as the main obstacle to more direct engagement with the president.

Behind the scenes: Sullivan dialed in alongside deputy homeland security adviser Joshua Geltzer, one of the architects of the Obama administration's hostage policy overhaul in 2015, and senior director for counterterrorism Clare Linkins.

Also joining were special presidential envoy for hostage affairs Roger Carstens and Christopher O'Leary, director of the FBI-led Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell.

  • Sullivan and Geltzer delivered an opening presentation about the administration's general hostage policies, then moved to answering pre-screened questions families had been asked to submit.
  • Officials "made a concerted effort to not focus on any specifics" of any individual case because of their sensitive nature, leaving some families disappointed, one participant told Axios.
  • But in a surprise move, Sullivan also took unfiltered questions from participants who'd raised their virtual hands in the chat room.

Details: Elizabeth Whelan, whose brother Paul Whelan has been detained in Russia since 2018, pointedly asked why families can't meet with Sullivan to discuss strategy — given they sometimes know more about the cases than the government.

  • Sullivan said he didn't know she'd sought a meeting three times, and pledged to ensure she and other families would have a more direct line to his office.

Sullivan also was grilled about whether the Justice Department considered the fate of the six American Citgo executives held in Venezuela when seeking the extradition of Alex Saab, a Colombian businessman with ties to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

  • The Citgo 6, out on house arrest in October, were re-detained by Venezuelan forces hours after the news of Saab's extradition broke.

Toward the end of the call, families with loved ones held in China also spoke up.

  • They asked Sullivan why the president didn't raise the specific names of American detainees during a recent call with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

What they're saying: Whelan told Axios Sullivan's engagement went a long way toward addressing her frustrations with the administration's response.

  • “I definitely feel that progress was made," she said. The engagement "really speaks to a certain amount of bravery. ... It can't be easy to be the recipient of so much emotion and passion when you're trying to deal with these issues from a larger viewpoint of national security."

A senior Biden administration official confirmed the call happened but declined to share specific details out of respect for the families.

  • "We will never ask families to be content, knowing that their loved one is not home with them," the official said.
  • "We continually assess our effectiveness and rely on families’ candid feedback. We will continue to relentlessly pursue their loved ones’ release and return."
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