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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."

Go deeper

Jan 14, 2022 - World

U.S. braces for Russian escalation as talks hit “dead end”

OSCE Chairman-in-Office Zbigniew Rau said Thursday "the risk of war in the OSCE area is now greater than ever." Photo: Askin Kiyagan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The crisis over Russia's threatening military buildup on the border with Ukraine entered a dangerous and unpredictable new phase in both Vienna and Washington on Thursday.

Driving the news: Russian diplomats said this week's round of security talks from Geneva and Brussels to Vienna have resulted in a "dead end," and it's time for them to return to Moscow to brief President Vladimir Putin on the "very disappointing" state of affairs before deciding the path forward.

Updated 45 mins ago - Science

Volcanic eruption in Tonga caused "significant" damage

This satellite image of the eruption on Jan. 15 taken by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite operated by Japan Meteorological Agency and released by National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT). Photo: NICT via AP

Significant damage has been reported in Tonga following an undersea volcanic eruption on Saturday, which covered the Pacific nation in ash and cut off communication lines.

Driving the news: The eruption triggered tsunami warnings across Tonga's islands and in other regions, including the West Coast of the U.S. and New Zealand.

58 mins ago - World

North Korea launches 4th suspected missile test this month

A news broadcast in Seoul, South Korea, of an apparent North Korean missile test on Monday morning local time. Photo: Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images

North Korea's military fired "two suspected short-range ballistic missiles" eastward from Pyongyang on Monday morning local time, per South Korean and Japanese officials.

Why it matters: The fourth such launch since Jan. 5 comes days after North Korea's military warned of "stronger" action if the U.S. moved to have more sanctions imposed on the country.