On June 24, 2015, President Obama stood before the families of hostages whose lives had been taken by ISIS and told them, “We must do better.” That day represented the culmination of a nearly eight-month-long review of how the U.S. government handled overseas hostage cases. And, as Obama announced to the families and the world from the White House, that day was the beginning of a new approach.
To those of us who were involved, implementing this new policy was one of the most meaningful moments in our government service. Crucially, the president’s plan broke with years of a rigidly government-centric approach to hostage-takings, finally ushering in a pragmatic approach in which hostages’ families would become true partners of the government in pursuing their loved ones’ safe return. This shift involved new policy guidance from the president, the creation of new governmental institutions (such as the interagency Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell) and the establishment of new roles (including special positions at the State Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, two officials responsible for marshaling their respective agencies to support this mission).
For the three of us — whose collective White House service spans 2013 through 2018 — the three-year anniversary of Obama’s initiative provides an opportunity not just to appreciate the reforms announced back then but also to praise the Trump administration’s continued commitment to bringing home Americans who are still held unjustly overseas — such as journalist Austin Tice, teacher Kevin King and student Xiyue Wang. At a time when it feels like virtually every issue has been politicized, the recovery of American hostages and detainees has proved a rare exception.
Indeed, the Trump administration has, to its considerable credit, demonstrated an effectiveness in bringing home Americans unjustly held overseas. From Egypt to Pakistan to North Korea to Venezuela, Americans long kept from their families by authoritarian governments and by terrorists have, over the past 17 months, returned home. Some of the efforts to secure their release preceded the current administration, such that two presidents and their teams now deserve credit for maintaining focus on this issue and, ultimately, getting the job done.
One thing we learned from the Obama-era review is that success in this terribly hard area demands more than just dogged efforts in individual cases; it also requires the right organizational design. And, in this respect as well, Trump and his team deserve credit. The institutions established by the previous administration remain in place, and the presidential guidelines that establish their responsibilities and guide their work are still in effect. And, though it took too long to name a new special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, we welcome the White House’s recent appointment of experienced diplomat and lawyer Robert O’Brien to this crucial role.
Indeed, we urge Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to use O’Brien’s expertise and that of the Fusion Cell to help with cases involving detention by governments, not just terrorists. The cell has unparalleled expertise in handling these tremendously hard cases, especially when it comes to the cell’s Family Engagement Team and its ability to help the families of Americans held abroad deal with the traumas and complexities of protracted detention. That has helped the cell earn high marks from families, and U.S. officials should put its capacity to use more often in support of the toughest detainee cases.
So, three years later, it’s worth pausing to note — and appreciate — a rare area of policy that has appeared largely immune from being politicized even in today’s climate. And yet it’s also worth repeating Obama’s words: We must do better.
As Trump said last month in welcoming to the White House Josh Holt after his two-year detention in Venezuela, “We’ve had 17 [Americans] released, and we’re very proud of that record. Very proud. And we have others coming.” The pride is justified. So is the commitment to the others, still waiting to come home.