US must communicate better with hostage families, report says

The James W Foley Legacy Foundation has examined shortcomings in the US hostage recovery process

Diane Foley, the mother of murdered journalist James Foley, speaks in Washington DC as a report is released into the treatment of families of Americans held hostage abroad. AP
Diane Foley, the mother of murdered journalist James Foley, speaks in Washington DC as a report is released into the treatment of families of Americans held hostage abroad. AP

The United States must do a better job of communicating with families of American hostages held abroad, including telling “hard truths” to loved ones about the chances for rescue.

It should also clarify Washington’s position on ransom payments to captors, found a new report by the James W Foley Legacy Foundation.

Another finding of the report is that 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 US as hostages held by terrorist groups.

The foundation is named after James Foley, a journalist from New Hampshire in the United States who was kidnapped in Syria in 2012 and killed by ISIS two years later.

Its study is the first non-government effort to measure the successes and shortcomings of changes to the hostage recovery process enacted by the Obama administration and left in place by US President Donald Trump.

Actions in 2015 included the creation of an FBI-led intra-government fusion cell that works full-time on hostage cases and the appointment of a State Department presidential envoy to handle diplomatic negotiations.

The changes were meant to streamline the hostage recovery process after complaints from American families that the government had failed to prioritise the rescue of their loved ones and communicate with them effectively.

Researchers conducted interviews with 27 people connected to hostage cases, including former hostages themselves and loved ones.

Their findings make 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 US 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 each 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 in the report as saying “the US government should not make assumptions on what I can and cannot handle.”

The report also suggested that the US improve its communications of laws and policies to families.

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 who were trying to negotiate their loved ones’ release.

“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 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, the report said.

“The US 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 US government support for families, both foreign and domestic.”

The report acknowledged 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 lawyer told The Associated Press news agency this month that he would like to see his client receive support similar to that given to hostages.

Updated: June 24, 2019 05:21 PM

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