WASHINGTON — Relatives of Americans who are wrongfully imprisoned abroad or held hostage by militant groups say in a report Thursday that the U.S. government must do better in communicating with them, though they cite improvements over the past five years.
Several of those interviewed for the report say they do not believe that the cases of their loved ones have the attention of the highest levels of government. In particular, family members of Americans detained by foreign governments on trumped-up charges are less satisfied with the attention and information they receive than are relatives of hostages held by militant or criminal groups.
The report from the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation is based on interviews with 25 former hostages and detainees as well as their relatives and advocates. It cites improvements in the government’s response since U.S. officials overhauled the hostage policy five years ago, but says relatives still want more complete and accurate information and clarity about which agency is supposed to help them. Some, for instance, want the government to declassify more information so that it can be more easily shared, or to provide limited security clearances.
The report is the latest outside effort to scrutinize how the government interacts with hostages and detainees and their families back home. It examines the changes to hostage policy that were instituted by the Obama administration in 2015 and that largely remain intact under President Donald Trump. Those include the creation of an FBI-led hostage recovery fusion cell and the appointment of a State Department envoy for hostage affairs.
The policy revamp followed the beheadings of Westerners, including Foley, a freelance journalist, at the hands of the Islamic State group in Syria. Relatives of hostages demanded changes after they said U.S. officials threatened prosecution if they tried to raise a ransom, kept them out of the loop on rescue attempts and didn’t clearly communicate government policy.
Foley’s mother, Diane, established the foundation to raise attention for hostage issues and to advocate for Americans held overseas.
The report says the policy improvements have been effective and durable, resulting in better government access for hostage families and more resources. But it also says families of other detainees don’t feel like their cases are prioritized in the same way.
The U.S. government distinguishes hostages who are captured by overseas criminal organizations or by militant groups designated as terrorists from detainees who are held by foreign governments, often arbitrarily or on exaggerated or fabricated charges. The distinction matters in terms of which government agency is responsible for the case.
Hostage cases are worked by the FBI-led Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell and the State Department through its envoy for hostage affairs. Detainee cases are run through the State Department, largely through its consular affairs office but also its hostage office if the detention is regarded as being for illegitimate purposes.
Though the hostage policy overhaul sought to establish lanes of responsibility within the government’s response, several of the report’s participants expressed confusion about which agency was supposed to be their primary point of contact.
Many relatives of hostages who were interviewed said they felt they had reliable access to the government, but relatives of detainees did not feel the same, with one family advocate saying they “had to work way too hard to get the State Department’s attention and help.”
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment. The FBI had no immediate comment.
“There is a notable disparity in the treatment of hostage and wrongful-detainee families by the U.S. government, with the latter receiving less attention, information, and access,” the report said. It said “the U.S. government can do more to support the families of those Americans wrongfully detained abroad.”
Several interviewees said they were concerned about having less access to the State Department’s hostage affairs office because of turnover there. Robert O’Brien, the official who used to hold the position, is now Trump’s national security adviser.
The Trump administration has made the return of hostages and detainees a priority. Officials have eagerly touted the release of multiple high-profile Americans as validation of those efforts. Danny Burch was freed last year, 18 months after being abducted in Yemen and Kevin King, an American professor, was released by the Taliban in a prisoner exchange last November.
Still, other cases remain unresolved or have not had positive outcomes.
American journalist Austin Tice remains missing after vanishing in Syria in 2012. Trump recently mentioned Tice by name, saying the government was working to bring him home.
Last week, the family of retired FBI agent Robert Levinson, who vanished on an unauthorized CIA mission to Iran 13 years ago, said it had been told that the U.S. government had concluded that he was dead. U.S. officials have not said what evidence led them to make that determination.