Families Feel Sidelined As U.S. Reviews Hostage Policy

Nov 23, 2014

First, there was James Foley. Then Steven Sotloff. Finally, Abdul Rahman Kassig, also known as Peter Kassig. All three were American hostages, brutally murdered by the so-called Islamic State.

This past week the White House confirmed that it's conducting a review of its hostage policy, but in a press conference, White House spokesman Josh Earnest says the United States will not change its policy on ransoms: America does not pay them.

Instead, the review will focus on how the U.S. government manages itself in a hostage situation and how the many agencies involved communicate with the families of the victims.

Some of the families say they've been left in the dark.

What Families Know

"We had no one who updated us. Let's put it that way ... no one at all," says Diane Foley, the mother of James Foley, who was infamously killed this August by the group which calls itself the Islamic State.

"I found out that Jim had been beheaded by a journalist who called me crying on the phone. That's how I found out," she tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "No one from State or FBI or the White House reached out to us at all. None of them confirmed the authenticity. I mean, it was just awful."

Dane Egli managed hostage situations for the Bush administration during the Iraq War. At the worst point, he says he put a poster up to keep track of all the Americans who'd gone missing — upwards of 50 at one point. His story of communication with families painted a different picture than the one Diane Foley experienced.

"The national leadership would get involved and call family members when it was appropriate. President Bush, Vice President Cheney, National Security Adviser Dr. Condoleeza Rice," he says. "There would be occasions when we might put them on the phone. They might ask to talk to parents or members of the family. Just each case was different."

The Price Of A Life

There is also the issue of ransoms. Diane Foley says her family did at points contemplate collecting and offering a ransom for James' return, which would go against official U.S. policy.

But Foley says even if the government hadn't intended to pay a ransom to free her son, talking to the terrorists could have yielded key intelligence about her son's location.

Egli, the former White House adviser, concedes there are moments when just engaging has its advantages.

"I think you have to acknowledge there's going to be some situations where if you could beat them at their game that you might temporarily allow a waiver for a case," Egli says.

In other words, engage. Maybe even make a half-baked promise, he says. Walk right up to the line without crossing it.

"Be it offering them a ransom or a ride on the space shuttle that no longer exists. In the trading, horse trading schnookery business, you would try to beat them at their game," he says.

But in Egli's estimation, the recent release of Sgt. Beau Bergdahl, held in captivity by the Taliban, in exchange for five high-ranking Taliban officials may have crossed a line into ransom-paying.

"This threw us off a little bit, those of us that were ex-military that have been in the hostage rescue business," Egli says. "It sends a message to the families or those who had hostages who were killed. 'Well, how come we didn't trade or do something for our family members?'"

Diane Foley says she was grateful for the Bergdahl's family reunion. "And since they had negotiated with the Taliban for his release I was certainly hopeful that they would do a similar thing for the four other Americans being held. So I was incredulous when that did not happen."

Egli says having a government pay a ransom, cash or otherwise, provides short-term gain at a enormous long-term loss.

"While you may enjoy having your loved one freed, the millions of dollars or hundreds of millions of dollars that were just transferred in cash to al-Qaida or ISIS ... have just underwritten their next mission," he says.

Few Options For Families

Even so, history suggests some room for ambiguity. New York Times reporter David Rohde, who was held hostage by the Taliban in 2008 and 2009, says the American government has a long-standing practice when it comes to ransom payments of saying one thing publicly and sometimes doing another.

"The real policy is the government will not pay, but companies and families have paid for a long time and the government has turned a blind eye," Rohde says.

The families are in an impossible position, Rohde says. They want to do something, but "it's actually not in your hands in the end.You're trapped in these massive international geopolitical struggles," he says.

"The cruelest thing about a kidnapping is that it gives the family the false sense that they can, if they just try hard enough, they can save their loved ones," he says. "But the kind of kidnapping we have today, the groups involved, that's just not true."

That certainly doesn't mean most families give up. In 2012, Marc and Debra Tice's son Austin was taken hostage in Syria while he was working as a freelance journalist. They have not heard from his captors but they still believe their son is alive.

Like Diane Foley, they feel the U.S. government has held them at too far a distance, denying them security clearance to learn more information about their son's situation, if there is any. They also say they feel shut out of the current review of hostage policy.

"We haven't been given a role," Debra Tice says. Her husband Marc says they have asked to participate but no one from the government has contacted them.

Debra Tice says if she was to meet with the president she'd like to tell him the following: "We would certainly ask him to think about what limits would he accept on finding his own child and bringing them safely home."

"We just would beseech him to think of our son in the very same way," she says.

A spokesperson for the White House declined NPR's request for an interview on the hostage policy review.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. And this is For The Record. First there was James Foley, then Steven Sotloff and Abdul-Rahman Kassig, also known as Peter - three American hostages brutally murdered by the so-called Islamic State. This past week the White House confirmed it is reviewing how it handles hostage situations. But in a press conference White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the U.S. will not change one critical part of its policy. America does not pay ransom to free hostages. (SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSH EARNEST: The reason for that is simple. We don't want to put other American citizens at even greater risk when they're around the globe. And that knowing that terrorist organizations can extract a ransom from the United States if they take a hostage only puts American citizens at greater risk.

MARTIN: Instead the review is about how the U.S. government manages itself in a hostage crisis, and how the many agencies communicate with the families of the victims. Some of the families tell us they've been left in the dark. For The Record today - handling the hostage crisis.

In a moment, we'll hear from Marc and Debra Tice. Their son, Austin, is currently being held hostage in Syria. But first, all hostage situations bear some similarities. Here are three people with their own perspectives on how the experience unfolds.

DAVID ROHDE: I'm David Rohde. I'm an investigative reporter with Reuters, formally was a reporter for the New York Times. And in 2008, I was kidnapped by the Taliban and held captive for seven months in Pakistan.

DIANE FOLEY: I'm Diane Foley. I'm the mother of James Foley, the conflict journalist who was recently killed by ISIS.

DR. DANE EGLI: Dr. Dane Egli - I was the senior hostage advisor for George W. Bush 2004- 2006.

MARTIN: What follows is an intimate look at hostage crises. We begin with Dane Egli. His first task as head of the hostage crisis unit at the White House was grim. A colleague put him through a gut check.

EGLI: He invited me to sit down and watch a beheading. I had not wanted to do it before then. He said you have to watch this from start to finish. And if you can, then you can do this job. So I did watch that. It's your form of commitment to the cause.

MARTIN: So that's a former White House hostage advisor. Now to the hostage himself. It was 2008. David Rohde was in Afghanistan researching a book. He says he was lured in by a Taliban commander who promised him an interview.

ROHDE: He had done interviews with two European journalists before me and not harmed them. In a way he was sort of plotting for over a year to get a good reputation among foreign journalists. And then he abducted me. It was a set up.

MARTIN: Then there's a perspective of the family. In 2012, Diane Foley's son, James, was working as a reporter in Syria. Communication was tough, so phone calls had to be scheduled.

FOLEY: We feared something was wrong because he always called us on Thanksgiving Day. And we did not hear from him.

MARTIN: For an entire year, they had no idea if he was dead or alive. Then at the end of November 2013...

FOLEY: We received an e-mail demanding money and release of prisoners from a group who described themselves as a Free Syrian Army rebel group.

MARTIN: After an abduction happens, there is the overwhelming grief and shock. And then there is waiting. Here is David Rohde.

ROHDE: When you're in captivity and sort of as the days pass and as it becomes clearer and clearer that you may not go home, you regret what you've done to get yourself in that situation. You feel horrible for what your family is going through, but you keep going.

MARTIN: Dane Egli managed hostage situations for the Bush administration during the Iraq war. At the worst point, he says, he put up a poster to keep track of all the Americans who'd gone missing. There were 50.

EGLI: The national leadership would get involved and call family members when it was appropriate - President Bush, Vice President Cheney, national security advisor, Dr. Condoleezza Rice.

MARTIN: Those people were on the phone with family members?

EGLI: There would be occasion when we might put them on the phone. They might ask to talk to parents or members of the family. Just each case was different.

MARTIN: Eight years later and under a different administration, Diane Foley felt abandoned.

FOLEY: We had no one who updated us. Let's put it that way, Rachel. No one at all.

MARTIN: So when the worst happened this past August, she heard the news this way.

FOLEY: I found out that Jim had been beheaded by a journalist who called me crying on the phone. That's how I found out. No one from state or FBI or the White House reached out to us at all. None of them confirmed the authenticity. I mean, it was just awful.

MARTIN: Foley says the U.S. government wasn't talking to her regularly. And as far as she knows, U.S. officials weren't engaging with her son's captors either.

FOLEY: There is wisdom in knowing the enemy. We didn't realize how powerful they were becoming. We had lost all these opportunities to engage with them, really get to know where they were, what they wanted. So I think we lost time.

MARTIN: Foley says even if the U.S. hadn't intended to pay a ransom to free her son, talking to the terrorists could've yielded key intelligence about her son's location. I asked the former White House official Dane Egli about this - whether there is ever a tactical advantage to opening negotiations with terrorists.

EGLI: I think you have to acknowledge there's going to be some situations where if you could beat them at their game that you might temporarily allow a waiver for a case.

MARTIN: In other words, engage - maybe even make a half-baked promise, he says. Walk right up to the line without crossing it.

EGLI: Be it offering them a ransom or a ride on the space shuttle that no longer exists. In the trading, horse trading and snookery business, you would try to beat them at their game.

MARTIN: You know, you can point to the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergahl, who was freed from Taliban captivity. In exchange, the U.S. released five high-raking Taliban officials. While it is not a cash payment, it is a concession.

EGLI: This threw us off a little bit, those of us that were ex-military that have been in the hostage rescue business. Yes. It's problematic. It sends a message to the families of those who had hostages that were killed. Well, how come we didn't trade or do something for our family members?

FOLEY: Well, I was so grateful for the Bergdahl family.

MARTIN: Again, here's Diane Foley.

FOLEY: Since they had negotiated with the Taliban and for his release, I was certainly hopeful that they would do a similar thing for the three, actually four, other Americans being held. So I was incredulous when that did not happen.

MARTIN: And that gets to the root of what can be so complicated about this kind of crisis. Families like the Foley's watch the U.S. government make a deal to release Bowe Bergdahl, then watch as several of the Europeans held with their son are released back to their home countries like France and Spain - countries with a history of paying ransom. But Dane Egli says that freedom comes at a price far higher than a ransom.

EGLI: While you may enjoy having your loved one freed, the millions of dollars, or the hundreds of millions of dollars, that were just transferred in cash to Al Qaeda or Taliban, ISIS, you have just underwritten their next mission. So it's a nasty business. We're not going to go to the dark side. We feel like both sides have gone where we cannot go.

MARTIN: Even so there is ambiguity here. Former hostage David Rohde says the American government has a long-standing policy of saying one thing publicly and sometimes doing another.

ROHDE: The real policy is the government will not pay, but companies and families have paid for a long time and the government has turned a blind eye. That needs to be cleared up.

MARTIN: That's not going to happen in this White House review. So families are left trying to figure out, legally, what they can and can't do because they want to do something. David Rohde understands that.

ROHDE: But it's actually not in your hands in the end. You know, you're trapped in this sort of these massive geopolitical struggles. That doesn't help them. You know, the cruelest thing about a kidnapping is that it gives the family the false sense that they can, if they just try hard enough, save their love ones. But the kind of kidnapping we have today, the groups involved, that's just not true.

MARTIN: That was David Rohde, who was taken hostage in 2008 by the Taliban in Afghanistan, Dane Egli, who led the White House hostage working group under the Bush administration and Diane Foley, whose son, Jim, was killed by ISIS in August of this year.

A couple days after the White House announced the review of its hostage policy, we reached out to Marc and Debra Tice. Their son Austin was taken hostage in 2012. They've never heard from his captors, but they still believe he's alive. When I spoke with them I asked whether they have a role in the White House review.

DEBRA TICE: We haven't been given a role.

MARC TICE: No, we haven't been contacted, given a role. We've certainly asked if we can participate. And, you know, not just us, but any other family, any other former captive or hostage.

MARTIN: So no one from the administration or the government has contracted you about the review?

M. TICE: No. No, we've reached out to them but...

D. TICE: No word back yet.

M. TICE: Yeah, no definitive word back yet.

MARTIN: Have you spoken to the president?

D. TICE: Not directly.

M. TICE: No. We have not spoken with the president.

MARTIN: If you did have five minutes with the president, what would you communicate?

D. TICE: We would certainly ask him when he's making decisions to think about what limits would he accept on finding his own child and bringing them safely home. Would he expect limits on that effort? And we just would beseech him to think of our son in the very same way.

MARTIN: Marc and Debra Tice, thank you so much for talking with us.

D. TICE: Thank you so much for asking us, Rachel. We really appreciate it.

MARTIN: A spokesperson for the White House declined our request for an interview on the hostage policy review. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.