Debra and Marc Tice live in Houston.
As the parents of an international hostage, our hearts are broken again by the tragic news of the death of Luke Somers in Yemen. This month’s failed rescue attempt once more brought into intense focus the need for the U.S. government to involve families in its policies and procedures for responding when Americans are taken hostage .
On Aug. 14, 2012, when our son Austin Tice was taken captive in Syria while reporting on the conflict there, our lives were turned inside out. The oft-repeated cliche is “there is no handbook” for what we are going through. That hardly begins to express the challenges we face. In reality, no government policy and no established support network exist to help families navigate the many questions suddenly requiring an answer: questions regarding interaction with the government; questions about protecting Austin’s identity and assets; questions of managing a relationship with the media; questions about preserving some semblance of normal life for our family. All of these pale in significance to the biggest question of all: What can and should we do to get Austin safely home as soon as possible?
Last month, the White House ordered a review of the U.S. government’s hostage policy. Many issues need to be addressed as part of this review. Former captives and families of hostages, along with the government entities responsible for bringing captive Americans safely home, must be involved in this discussion.
As part of this process, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence should be ordered to coordinate efforts among all the agencies involved — both to improve inter-agency information-sharing and to avoid redundancy.
Currently, according to the Web site Intelligence.gov, “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 hostages, the work of these agencies must be aligned with a single primary objective: the safe return of American citizens held overseas.
Before leaving for Syria, Austin was living as an independent adult, with all the usual responsibilities and obligations. Over the more than 850 days that he has been held captive, we have learned that no policy safeguards 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 debts and in other ways try to ensure that he has a life to come home to. A comprehensive hostage policy should include a method for suspending a hostage’s obligations, such as rent, loans and insurance, as well as for preserving a phone number.
In this digital age, it should also be possible for elements of a hostage’s online identity, including social media and e-mail, to be appropriately accessed and managed. There should be an immediate, comprehensive evaluation of any vulnerable assets, such as bank and credit card accounts. If these assets are not frozen, they must be appropriately monitored for any malicious activity. A clear and efficient mechanism needs to be in place to ensure that any stolen assets are returned or reimbursed to the hostage.
Austin did not provide us with access to his online accounts. However, government agencies using subpoenas have been able to mine them for clues. Officials often refuse to share what they find with us; moreover, we cannot even be certain it is shared among relevant agencies. The information may just be stored away in a file somewhere.
When the family of a U.S. citizen becomes 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.” However, there can and should be frequently updated guidelines covering things to consider, as well as an informed government liaison to provide support and advice. If ransom becomes an issue, families should be included in an honest discussion of the options. There is no simple answer that can be applied to every hostage scenario.
Each family should be free to choose the level of involvement with which it is comfortable. When security clearances are required to be able to clearly communicate timely and accurate information with the family, our government should stand ready to facilitate the necessary vetting.
Appropriately vetted family members can be an essential and critical part of the team, especially since they are likely to be the ones contacted by those with information about the captive. Additionally, they may be the only team members whose clear and singular objective is the safe return of their loved one.
These issues are likely to affect every international captive and need to be discussed and addressed in any serious policy review. To be fully credible and complete, the current policy review must include former captives and families of hostages together with the government entities charged with bringing hostages safely home.
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