National Security

Families of U.S. hostages say government ignored their search for answers

Late journalist James Foley speaking at Marquette University in December 2011.
Late journalist James Foley speaking at Marquette University in December 2011. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel / MCT

Within days of a video emerging that showed the beheading of journalist James Foley, his mother, Diane Foley, bluntly told President Barack Obama what she and the families of other hostages held in Syria had been feeling for months: The government failed them.

It was a stunning flash of candor from Diane Foley, who for the nearly two years of her son’s captivity consistently had urged the families of other hostages to maintain restraint and not make any enemies in the U.S. government. The families, feeling isolated under the circumstances, had formed a committee of sorts among themselves, discussing ideas of how to get their children back and, in between, their shared frustration with the government, according to several families who spoke about their experiences with McClatchy on the condition of anonymity because they don’t want to offend the Obama administration.

On Wednesday, the Pentagon said the National Security Council was leading a “comprehensive review” of the hostage policy in the face of three Americans being beheaded by their Islamic State captors in Syria. According to the letter written by Undersecretary of Defense Christine Wormuth to Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., the administration’s review was, in part, on “family engagement.”

It is unclear what the hostage policy is or whether the review committee will try to change practices or craft a better-defined policy. Also unknown are the identities of the people who will carry out the review.

But for the families of those held, the agencies involved in the review are the problem.

Family members blame them for repeated government refusals to give them details about their children’s cases. The agencies often said that revealing the information could hurt the case or demurred because the family members don’t have security clearances. Often, family members said, they would ask for information from each agency involved – the FBI, the White House and the State Department – then have to share that information with the other agencies because the agencies had not communicated among themselves.

At critical junctures in their loved one’s cases, families often learned key details from the news media.

The Foleys, for example, learned that the video of their son’s death had been posted on Twitter from an Associated Press reporter, not from the FBI agents in charge of his case. They heard that the government had authenticated the video by watching television, Diane Foley told McClatchy.

Just two months before Foley’s death, Obama refused a request from several families to meet with him, in part to voice frustration at the government’s approach. Often the families have said that they cannot get replies to questions that could help them in their own independent efforts to get their loved one released.

The families told McClatchy that they feel they are treated as a nuisance by the administration or, worse yet, as a security risk, rather than the people most committed to a shared goal of getting an American back. 

Indeed, there is nothing to suggest that the families will be included in the review, though some have asked to be included. Nor has the National Security Council reached out to any released hostages, such as Peter Theo Curtis, who was held captive for nearly two years but was released in August, or American photographer Matt Schrier, 36, who escaped in 2013. Both Curtis and Schrier told McClatchy on Thursday that they have not been contacted.

“Nobody has told us we want to review the policy,” Curtis said.

The White House declined Thursday to respond to questions about whether the review would include members of the hostage families or confirm the assertion from Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steven Warren that the National Security Council would lead the review.

An NSC spokesman, Alistair Baskey, defended the administration’s dealings with hostage families. “The administration has had regular interactions with all of the families of Americans held hostage by ISIL,” he said in an email, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “These interactions included representatives from all the relevant agencies, including the Department of State, the FBI, the intelligence community and the White House.”

Baskey added, “We do not discuss the details of our conversations with families of those held hostage, but I can say that the administration’s goal has always been to do whatever we can within our capabilities and within the bounds of the law to assist families to bring their loved ones home.”

In an earlier email, Baskey referred McClatchy to the transcript of Tuesday’s White House press briefing for details. In that briefing, White House spokesman Josh Earnest declined to say when the review would be completed.

Earnest also said that the Defense Department, the intelligence community, the FBI and the State Department have been reviewing the policy since summer, when Obama first ordered a review. Earnest said the one area the review would not touch is the government’s refusal to negotiate ransom for hostages, something several European countries were willing to pay to win the freedom of captives.

The Foleys said that in December the kidnappers had reached out seeking ransom and the U.S. government reminded the families that paying a ransom to terrorists would be illegal. That admonition contributed to the friction between many of the families and the administration.

Asked if there had been any change in how the administration interacts with the families since Foley’s death, Earnest said, “Not that I’m aware of.”

Hunter wrote Obama on Aug. 20, seeking a review of the policy after Foley’s death, prompting the Pentagon’s Nov. 11 letter in response. Pentagon spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said Thursday that the Pentagon responded to Hunter’s letter, though the White House will lead the review, for “administrative” reasons.

The families said they are happy there is a review and are eager to be included. Many said they have several recommendations: With so many government agencies involved in the kidnappings overseas, often each agency seeks to pursue its own approach to saving a hostage. No one is tasked with making the family a priority, said two of the families who spoke with McClatchy on the condition of anonymity. 

In response to the Pentagon letter, Hunter wrote on Tuesday that a single individual should be assigned “to lead all recovery efforts for missing Americans.”

The FBI is the lead organization when an American citizen is kidnapped overseas. But its priority is future prosecution. Because of that, its agents hesitate to share intelligence with either the families or other government agencies. Meanwhile, the State Department is focused on pursuing diplomatic measures needed for a release but may not be willing to sacrifice wider policy goals. The National Security Council priority is national security and, often, protecting the president politically.

“They all have important priorities but none have the top priority of the family, which is the safe return of their loved one,” said a relative who has been part of the support group. 

Because of that, often no one can answer a family’s question or consider a request, often leaving the families to wait for months for an answer or, worse, getting different answers from different agencies.

Many of the families, for example, would like to see what intelligence has been gathered on their loved one’s case. The government in several instances refused to consider such a request and strongly discouraged the families from seeking clearance to view classified information about the family member’s case through other channels.

Foley, 40, whose beheading was shown in a video posted on the Internet Aug. 19, was the first of three American hostages executed by the Islamic State. Steven Sotloff, 31, was shown being beheaded Sept. 2. And Peter Kassig, 26, an American aid worker, was reported in a video to have died Sunday.

A fourth American, journalist Austin Tice, is also missing in Syria. A freelance journalist who worked primarily for McClatchy and The Washington Post, Tice went missing in August 2012. No group or entity has acknowledged responsibility for his captivity.

The U.S. government has not said how many Americans remain captive in Syria.

Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed to the story.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect title for Undersecretary of Defense Christine Wormuth.