As President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take over from the outgoing Trump administration, the goal for the families of Americans unlawfully detained and held hostage abroad remains the same: to see their loved ones returned home.
While some are holding out hope that progress could be made in the final three weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency, the families are also now looking to the incoming administration to keep up the efforts to secure their relatives’ freedom. The Biden team has pledged to “work tirelessly” to reunite the families.
According to the Foley Foundation, there are at least 42 publicly known hostage or detainee cases in 11 countries, including Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Venezuela, Russia, and even apparent allies such as Saudi Arabia.
For the families of these individuals, each day brings more anguish and concern. Some have been separated for years, missing birthdays and holidays, the birth of grandchildren and other key milestones.
‘An empty chair’
“President-elect Biden, during the debates, you know, many times he mentioned about families that have empty chairs because they’re missing loved ones, and we’re missing our loved one,” said Ibrahim Kamalmaz, the son of Majd Kamalmaz, a humanitarian worker who disappeared in Syria in 2017.
“We have an empty chair for my father, and now we’re coming up on four years of that empty chair. And hopefully, knowing that President-elect Biden cares about families, we hope that he will care about the families of the detainees and proactively and aggressively try to bring them home,” he said.
His sister, Maryam Kamalmaz, told CNN that they “still have hope that the Trump administration will be productive up until their last day, but we’re hoping that the Biden administration will be able to pick up exactly where the Trump administration left off.”
Marc and Debra Tice, the parents of journalist Austin Tice, who went missing in Syria in 2012, told CNN that their request of the US government remains the same regardless of who is in charge.
“Our plea is simple: We ask the governments of the Syrian Arab Republic and the United States to make every possible diplomatic effort to bring Austin safely home,” they said.
Some of the efforts by the Trump administration to free Americans have been reported publicly. Two senior administration officials engaged in rare direct talks in Damascus as part of an effort to secure the release of Americans like Tice and Kamalmaz who are believed to be held by the Assad regime.
‘I know it’s taking its toll on him’
In Russia, US Ambassador John Sullivan acknowledged to the BBC that there were discussions underway with the Russian government regarding US citizens there.
“I have no higher priority in what’s left of the Trump administration than to advocate for Paul (Whelan) and to do all we possibly can to get him released,” Sullivan said last week, but noted that “we also need a willing interlocutor to engage in discussions of what would be remotely possible and acceptable, something that an American president could agree to.”
Whelan has been detained in Russia for more than two years, sentenced to 16 years in prison by a Moscow court in June of this year on espionage charges. Another American, Trevor Reed, has been held for more than 500 days in Russia. He was sentenced to nine years in July for for endangering “life and health” of Russian police officers in an altercation, per Russia’s state-run news agency TASS.
His mother, Paula Reed, said that she’s been told the ball is in Russia’s court with regard to Trevor’s release. In the meantime, she’s worried about her son’s wellbeing, telling CNN that she “can already hear a change in his personality” during their phone calls.
“He’s not the happy-go-lucky kind of guy, even though he always makes it a point to tell me that he’s fine and not to worry about him, I can just, I know it’s taking its toll on him,” she said.
Elizabeth Whelan told CNN that she too is worried about her brother’s continued imprisonment.
“We want to give the Trump administration every opportunity to come up with something, to work something out with the Russian authorities before the end of President Trump’s term, but that’s approaching pretty quickly,” she said, noting that the apparent lack of movement on the case is “extremely worrying.”
“Every day that goes by is another day of Paul’s life that he’s spending in a Russian prison for no fault of his own,” she said.
‘Extremely hard to resolve’
The Trump administration has had success in freeing hostages and detainees, including Michael White and Xiyue Wang from Iran and Andrew Brunson from Turkey. But there have also been failures. American Otto Warmbier died shortly after being returned home from North Korea, after suffering significant brain damage, and Mustafa Kassem died in Egyptian custody, where he had been detained for more than six years.
Peter Bergen, a vice president at New America and CNN national security analyst, noted the complexity of some of the cases, like that of Tice, are “extremely hard to resolve” regardless of the administration because of other complicating factors like broader policy considerations. “There are other foreign policy issues that may be bigger than the question of hostage releases,” Bergen said.
However, Bergen noted that “there’s kind of a long and honorable tradition in America, around issues about hostages and kind of counterterrorism in general, where there’s a lot of agreement between the Republicans and the Democrats about what to do and who should do it.”
Bergen also told CNN, “the way that the government deals with the hostage families is markedly better than it was at the midpoint of the Obama administration,” when President Barack Obama faced heavy criticism for the handling of the cases of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and humanitarian workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig. All four were detained and murdered by ISIS in Syria, and their deaths led to a 2015 review of US hostage policy.
Diane Foley, the mother of James Foley, and Sarah Moriarty, the daughter of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran more than a decade ago, called on the Biden administration “to make the return of Americans taken hostage abroad a top priority, both in words and swift action” in an opinion piece in The Hill last week.
“Mr. Biden knows us. He and all of America felt the horror with us when journalist James Foley was kidnapped, brutally tortured and murdered by ISIS, and when Bob Levinson was taken hostage by the Iranian regime and imprisoned, with no contact with the outside world for 13 long years,” they wrote.
“Our families know President-elect Biden’s compassion from his time in Congress and as vice president,” they continued. “But we also believe he and the American public will agree that more could have been done to have brought Jim, Bob and too many others home alive. So much more work remains.”
The two said it was “essential to ensure continuity where possible, including a joint review with the outgoing administration of all active cases of Americans held hostage and wrongfully detained abroad” in order to “ensure that no momentum or information is lost.”
Their piece laid out a series of requests, including the swift appointment of the special envoy for hostage affairs, the National Security Council’s Senior Director for Counterterrorism, and the Director of the Hostage Recovery Fusion cell, and “that any deals made with foreign entities put the recovery of Americans front and center, not as an afterthought.”
Foley Foundation executive director Margaux Ewen told CNN that they are slated to meet with incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan next week.
‘We will work tirelessly’
Many of the families who spoke to CNN expressed optimism about the continuity of the efforts to free their loved ones.
Gabriela Zambrano Hill’s father and uncle are among the “CITGO 6,” the six US executives who have been jailed in Venezuela for more than three years.
She said she’s been told “that the biggest goal here is to maintain as much momentum as possible and keep it going throughout the transition and that that plan seems to be working and that there’s promising signs that the new incoming team places as much value on my family’s freedom as the current administration has.”
Transition spokesperson Ned Price told CNN that the “Biden-Harris administration will have no higher priority than the safety and security of Americans — both at home and around the world.”
“We will work tirelessly to reunite Americans held unjustly against their will with their families and other loved ones,” Price said.
Many of the officials who work on the hostage and detainee cases are career government workers, but some — like the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs (SPEHA) — are political appointees.
The families who spoke to CNN praised the current special envoy, Roger Carstens, with some saying that they would like to see him stay on in the role after Biden takes office, at least in an interim capacity. A source close to Carstens indicated he would be willing to stay on.
“Our goal has and will always be to support the families of US hostages and wrongful detainees with every available resource and tool,” Carstens said.