As fellow parents of an international hostage, our hearts are broken again by the tragic news of the death of Luke Somers. These recent events in Yemen once more bring into intense focus the need for the participation of hostage families in the policies and procedures of the United States government.
On Aug. 14, 2012, when our son Austin was taken captive in Syria, we abruptly became part of an international hostage crisis and our lives were turned inside out. The oft-repeated cliché is “there is no handbook,” but that hardly begins to express the challenges we have faced. In reality, there is no government policy and no established support network to assist in navigating the many questions suddenly requiring an answer: questions regarding interaction with the government; questions about how to protect Austin’s identity and assets; questions of how to best manage a relationship with the media; questions of preserving some semblance of normal life for the family; all of which pale in comparison to the biggest question of all – what can and should we do to get Austin safely home as soon as possible?
The White House has ordered a review of United States government hostage policy. The issues, which are likely to affect any international captive, need to be discussed and addressed as part of this review. Hostage families, former captives, and the government entities charged with bringing captive Americans safely home should be involved in this discussion.
As part of an effective hostage policy, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence needs to be ordered to coordinate efforts among and between all the agencies involved – both to improve inter-agency information sharing and to avoid redundancy.
Currently, according to the website of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence , “Seventeen separate organizations unite to form the Intelligence Community. Each member agency operates under its own directive.” Each agency has a defined mission that prioritizes its objective.
As it relates to current and future hostages, these agencies must be aligned with a single primary objective – the safe return of an American citizen.
Prior to leaving for Syria, Austin was living as an independent adult, with all the usual responsibilities and obligations. In our experience over the past 847 days, we realize there is no policy in place to safeguard the identity, assets and obligations of our missing son. We face often insurmountable obstacles as we struggle to protect his online identity, secure his bank accounts, freeze his outstanding debts and in other ways try to ensure that he has a life to come home to. There needs to be a policy for suspending obligations such as rent, loans and insurance, as well as preserving a phone number.
In this digital age, U.S. policy should allow a hostage’s online identity, including social media, messaging and email, to be appropriately accessed and managed. There also should be an immediate, comprehensive evaluation of “vulnerable” assets. If these assets are not frozen, there should be appropriate monitoring for malicious activity, with a clear and efficient policy for the return or reimbursement of stolen assets to the hostage.
Since Austin did not provide us with access and instructions, it is easier for government agencies to subpoena accounts and mine that information for clues. In Austin’s case, government officials often refuse to share this information with us; moreover, we cannot even be certain it is shared among relevant agencies – it may just be stored away in a file.
When the family of an American citizen realizes it has become involved in an international hostage crisis, the many necessary decisions can be overwhelming. Some are immediate, while others unfold as the days become weeks, then months, and sometimes years. Because each case is unique, truly there can be no “handbook.” There can be and should be frequently updated guidelines of things to consider, as well as a liaison to provide support and advice. If ransom becomes an issue, there should be an honest discussion of options. There is no simple answer for every hostage scenario.
Each unique family should be free to choose the level of involvement at which it is most comfortable. Our government should stand ready to facilitate the necessary vetting and the issuance of security clearances in order to be able to clearly communicate timely and accurate information with the family.
An appropriately vetted family can be an essential and critical part of the team, especially as it is likely to be contacted by persons with information about the captive. Additionally, the family may be the only team member with the clear and singular objective of the safe return of its loved one.
These issues, which are likely to affect any international captive, need to be discussed and addressed in any serious policy review. This discussion should include former captives, families of hostages, and the government entities charged with bringing them safely home. The current review will be less than comprehensive and fully incomplete without representation from every affected and involved party.