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Transcript: American Hostage with Debra & Marc Tice, Parents of Austin Tice

MR. REZAIAN: Good afternoon. Welcome to Washington Post Live. My name is Jason Rezaian. I am a global opinions writer here at The Washington Post. My guests today are Debra and Marc Tice, the parents of freelance journalist Austin Tice. Austin was abducted in Syria, just south of Damascus. One month from now it will be 10 years since that happened.

I want to welcome them today, Debra and Marc. Thanks for being with us.

MS. DEBRA TICE: Thank you so much for having us.

MR. MARC TICE: Thank you, Jason.

MS. DEBRA TICE: We're really glad to be here.

MR. REZAIAN: I'm glad to have you. I want to start with a little bit about Austin. Debra, as his mom, could you tell us about him, what people should know about Austin and who he is?

MS. DEBRA TICE: Austin is a high achiever, an Eagle Scout, National Merit finalist. He is still a student at Georgetown Law. He has one more year to go. Captain in the Marine Corps, and a really loving big brother. He loves being the oldest of our seven children. He loved the babies a lot. When he was detained in Syria, he had one niece that he was so very proud of. She turned 3 right before he was detained, and she'll be 13 next month.

So he's someone that everyone wants to know. He fills the room with life, definitely, when he comes in. Great [unclear]. He's just a wonderful person to be around. Yeah.

MR. REZAIAN: You said that he was in the Marines. I know that he was an infantry officer who did tours of duty both in Afghanistan and Iraq. Marc, can you talk about how his military experience shaped his world view?

MR. MARC TICE: Well, I think it's a little bit the opposite. His world view, I think, shaped his military experience. He was very determined to ensure that there was no question about his willingness to serve his country. This came after he witnessed 9/11 in Washington, D.C., on the streets there when that happened. And, you know, what I think he took into Syria with him, from his military experience, was an appreciation for the culture there and for the people there, very much like the people or civilians he encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he was very intent on highlighting and showing the impact of the conflict on those ordinary people, people like he'd gotten to know and be friends with.

MS. DEBRA TICE: He was really hoping that his reporting from Syria could raise enough awareness to say "Not another war. Please, not another war."

MR. REZAIAN: Was there a moment, because at the time he was doing his law studies at Georgetown, that really crystallized that for him, that spurred his decision to go to Syria?

MS. DEBRA TICE: The thing that spurred him to go was a frustration and hearing the lack of reporting in Syria, because you would hear over and over again, "We can't verify," "There's no one reporting there." And he felt like it was so important to get that reporting out and to help people realize what was actually happening in that area. Yeah.

MR. REZAIAN: And I want to take you to a difficult moment, that terrible day that you learned that Austin had been abducted. We're coming up on 10 years in just a few weeks. What was your first indication of his being taken captive, and what were the initial responses and interactions you had with the U.S. government?

MR. MARC TICE: Well, it was a terrible week, really, because I had had a conversation, just an email exchange with Austin on August 13th, and we knew that he was going to be leaving Syria. He was planning on leaving the next day. And, you know, he had expressed that he might be out of contact for a little bit of time, depending on the situation of his travel. So after one day I became a little nervous. After two days I became very nervous. I contacted his editor, who had not heard from him, and immediately an all-out, all-hands-on-board search began among all the journalists and reporters and their fixers in the region, looking for him.

The first contact I had with the U.S. government--and during all of this I have to say Debra was away, out of communications, up in northern Minnesota, so I wasn't able to talk to her. But on the Friday of that week, I got a call from the State Department, and they informed me that they understood Austin was missing.

MS. DEBRA TICE: And then, you know, this is when the frustration begins, day one, because somebody came into the American Embassy, the Czech Embassy in Syria, and told Eva Filipi that Austin Tice had been arrested. And so Eva Filipi is the Czech ambassador who acts as the protecting power for Americans in Syria, and so she told the State Department, and the State Department started sending diplomatic notes. And the ambassador was very frustrated that there wasn't more of a response to the fact that Austin had been arrested.

And she went to Prague. She was on the news, and she had the newscaster ask her, "Tell us what's happened with Austin Tice." And so she was trying to raise more interest and more action for Austin in those most critical early days. She was on the news August 27th, so just 13 days after he was detained.

MR. REZAIAN: And then several weeks later a video appeared showing Austin being taken captive by unidentified armed men. What did you learn from that video, and what were you able to piece together in the weeks and months that followed?

MR. MARC TICE: Well, the most important thing we learned from that video was actually the title of the video when he was posted to YouTube, which is "Austin Tice is Alive." And that was the message that was being sent. Unfortunately, you know, we didn't, out of ignorance, and no one in the position of power in our government responded to it as a proof-of-life video. So instead, what we learned from way too many hours of people investigating the video was a lot about the clothes they were wearing and where they might be, none of which was really relevant to Austin. What was relevant to him was that he was alive and we needed to literally settle down and get to the business of finding him and getting him back home.

MS. DEBRA TICE: Yes. Nine years, almost 10 years later, we realize there was only one appropriate response--thank you for letting us know he's alive. What do we need to do to get him out? And that question, as far as I know, has yet not been asked.

MR. REZAIAN: And I want to make it very clear that there is every indication that Austin is still alive. I work on press freedom cases all the time, and everybody within this community is crystal clear on the fact that we are working to bring Austin home as safely and quickly as possible. You know, it's deeply unfortunate that we haven't succeeded yet, but we are working on it.

It's been nearly 10 years since Austin was taken. As a family, you guys have been through so many twists and turns that are unfathomable to most Americans. When Austin was first abducted, I had been working for The Post for a couple of months. I was in Tehran as a correspondent. I did that job for two years before I myself was taken hostage and held for nearly a year and a half. I was released. I had two years of a leave from work. I returned to work. I wrote a book. I had a child.

Can you talk about the many milestones Austin's missed and how you think he would have used this last decade of his life in freedom?

MS. DEBRA TICE: You know, he had great plans for himself. I mean, that was part of why he was in law school. You know, sometimes it's hard to remember that Austin was 31 three days before he was detained. So all of the things that he had accomplished, he had accomplished in his 20s. So when you think about usually the 20s are sort of going to school, getting started, partying a lot, that wasn't Austin. He served in the Marines. He went to school. He worked for a major law firm. He went to law school. You know, just a whole different trajectory for him.

So when I think about the plans he had and the dreams he had for himself that would have been solidified in his 30s, you know, to miss that transition from youth to middle age, just to miss it, you know, what is that going to mean for him?

MR. MARC TICE: Yeah, and for us, every day is a milestone really, but there are so many, so many, many things, so many family events. You know, at the beginning we were confident that Austin would be coming back in a matter of days or weeks, and we thought, okay, when he gets back, we can catch him up with the things he's missed. Ten years is an entirely different animal. That's a struggle for me, certainly, to comprehend, and I think for all of us.

MS. DEBRA TICE: Yeah. All of his siblings have come through their 20s, and, you know, the youngest one is going to be 29 next month. They've graduated from college. They've gone and gotten advanced degrees. They've gotten married. They've had families. And, you know, Austin loved--loved--to be a big brother of this family, and he would have been all up in all of that, celebrating every moment, carrying those babies around, carrying those babies around, carrying those babies around. He's just very much of a guy who anchors in his family.

MR. MARC TICE: Yeah, and, you know, we believe it's not just our loss but, you know, who's to say what kind of amazing contributions he would have made during his 30s, and he will make once he gets home. But, you know, it's a huge hole in his life and our family life and for all of us.

MS. DEBRA TICE: Yeah.

MR. REZAIAN: I want to bring it back to right now and ongoing efforts. Just over two months ago you had the opportunity to meet with President Biden at the White House. You walked away from that meeting with a great sense of hope. What can you share with us about that meeting and what the president said to you that inspired hope and what you expected to happen next?

MS. DEBRA TICE: Well, I think the most important thing that happened in that meeting is that the president tasked the national security advisor and the National Security Council to meet with the Syrian government, to listen, and to work with them to figure out what they want and to work with them. And you're right, we left that meeting filled with hope because that was such a straight directive. And, you know, because I am a very forward-speaking person I made it clear to the president that placating us and giving us hope was not the most important thing to Austin. The most important thing for Austin is to take action on the president's directive. That was May 2nd. So we are now two and a half months from that meeting and I do not believe--we have not been briefed on any meeting occurring with the Syrian government.

MR. REZAIAN: Do you have a sense of if anything has happened within the U.S. government or outreach around freeing Austin?

MS. DEBRA TICE: Nothing is going to matter besides meeting with the Syrian government. Every other effort is an effort that is supportive of that. But, you know, you can keep building the boat but eventually you have to put it in the water. And so the most important thing, and it's the thing that the Syrians told me they had to have, when I was living in Damascus in 2014, they wanted to meet with the United States government. We had a meeting in September of 2020, one meeting. No follow-up. There needs to be follow-up on that meeting from September of 2020.

MR. MARC TICE: Yeah. It's crazy to think that you can sit in a meeting and then expect to have all your issues and problems resolved, and when that doesn't happen, you leave and you don't go back. I mean, that's not diplomacy. That's not negotiating. You know, it's absurd. And yes, there have been lots of meetings internally. We've been in meetings since May 2nd. There have been meetings with other countries, that we are aware of, but not the meetings, not the discussions, not the sitting down with that is necessary.

MR. REZAIAN: And just to be clear, diplomatic relations between the United States and Syria were suspended in 2012, at the outset of the war there, but that doesn't mean that conversations and interactions are not taking place, clandestinely and through other intermediaries.

Austin was abducted during President Obama's administration and has continued to be imprisoned during the Trump administration and so far during President Biden's. Marc, have you seen any change in how the U.S. has approached your son's freedom during these different administrations?

MR. MARC TICE: You know, below the level of the president we have not really seen a lot of change. There's been change in the organization. There's been change that President Obama put in place with creating some entities to work on these hostage issues. But in terms of Austin's situation, Austin's case specifically, no. The government is still playing with the same playbook they were playing with in 2012, and as you and everyone watching in the region knows, the situation has changed dramatically since then. The old playbook isn't the playbook that's going to get things done.

So, you know, the one thing I appreciate in the video that was played just before we started talking was the video of President Trump, the only president to date, so far, to have publicly mentioned Austin and publicly stated that he wanted to work with the Syrian government to bring Austin home. We are hoping that something like that can come from the current administration, but, you know, as far as the nuts and bolts and the machine beneath the White House, everything seems to be pretty much the same approach.

MR. REZAIAN: And look, I want to take it back to the Trump presidency just for a moment. You were understandably very disappointed when you read, in former national security advisor John Bolton's book that he advised President Trump against direct dialogue with the Syrians over Austin's freedom and over other humanitarian issues. Can Austin's release be one without direct negotiations with the Syrian government?

MS. DEBRA TICE: As far as we know, no, that can't happen, and it's disgusting to think that that was a bragging point in John Bolton's book. That's just gut-wrenching.

MR. MARC TICE: Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, Jason, we just have to look at what has been accomplished so far in the absence of sustained, continued, direct discussions with the Syrians, not counting the one-off discussion that was held. Nothing has happened. Austin is still held where he's held. He is--I hate to say this--he is counting the days like we're counting the days, and we don't want to think about him counting 10 years' worth of days. That's overwhelming. But clearly not engaging has not produced the results that we're looking for.

MR. REZAIAN: We have a question from a viewer that I want to pose to you both. I've spoken with you both in the past about this world of press freedom and issues facing journalists. This issue comes from Peta Colebatch from Australia, who asks, "What recommendations do you have for other journalists in dangerous places?"

MS. DEBRA TICE: Well, I think there is a lot of advice now available to journalists that are going to dangerous places. There's a lot more protections for freelancers. There's a lot of information out there about how to keep yourself. I think one of the things that Austin could have done differently, I think he stayed in Syria too long. I think he should have left earlier.

But there are organizations now that will train freelancers to go into dangerous places, and if you're going to be a freelancer in a dangerous place you get that training.

MR. MARC TICE: Yeah. Austin prepared himself as best he could with the resources that were available to him them. Now the resource base has greatly expanded. Groups like Reporters Without Borders provide not only training but also protective equipment. So yeah, any journalist going to a dangerous place, and lord knows there's too many of them right now, should take advantage of those resources and make sure that they've done everything they can to stay safe before they start their journey.

MS. DEBRA TICE: Yeah.

MR. REZAIAN: Thank you for that. Look, those of us in the press freedom community have been following developments in Austin's captivity and looking for breakthroughs for years. I want to know why this is so critical right now and what you would like people who are watching today to do to support the ongoing efforts to raise awareness, keep Austin's name in the news, but also get the government to act.

MS. DEBRA TICE: Well, right now for people that are interested in Middle East news and Middle East politics and especially things that are happening on the ground in Syria, the Middle East is reforming itself and there needs to be a keen awareness of that. You know, Bashar al-Assad had a visit in the UAE. Things are changing in the Middle East. So for us to stick with a 2013 protocol is unwise. We need to be updated. We need to be in the present with what is really happening. So now things are happening. Now things are changing, and the United States needs to participate in that, with a forward-thinking protocol.

The other thing is, you know, my heart is breaking into tiny pieces. You know, it was broken and then pieces and pieces and pieces to think of Austin marking the day of 10 years of detention, you know, this person that is recognized for his leadership and his service. And sometimes people are more motivated by a deadline. Austin's birthday is August 11th. He should be blowing out the candles at home--at home--and, you know, look at that deadline and get him home.

MR. REZAIAN: I'd like to take this moment to mention that The Washington Post Press Freedom Partnership has just begun a campaign to raise more awareness of Austin's captivity, and hopefully that leads to his release. I want to share a quote from Washington Post CEO and publisher, Fred Ryan. "Multiple U.S. administrations have attempted to negotiate for Austin's return without success, a result that is totally unacceptable and has strengthened our resolve to keep his case top of mind until he is free."

Go ahead, Marc.

MR. MARC TICE: I'm sorry. We are incredibly grateful for the work of the Washington press and its partners, so that's a beautiful quote.

MS. DEBRA TICE: That's been a huge support. And we didn't answer your second question, what can people do. I think the most important thing that people can do--journalists can ask. Journalists can ask the president. Journalists can ask the State Department. Journalists can ask the national security advisor, what are you doing for Austin today? What did you do for Austin yesterday? What are you doing for Austin? And the thing that people who are not journalists can do is to contact their Senators, especially Senator Menendez, who is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, contacting Secretary Blinken, contacting the president, and saying, "Are you serious about getting Austin Tice home? Don't tell me--show me."

MR. MARC TICE: Yeah. I happened to catch a radio clip of President Biden speaking to a group yesterday who was protesting another issue. But his words were that they needed to keep up the pressure because it makes a difference, that it really does move things in Washington. And so we would ask that of everyone that's listening to this and everyone that they know to do that, because it does make things move.

MR. REZAIAN: And along those lines I want to share that The Washington Post has started a multimedia #bringAustinhome that people can share across social media to keep the awareness up, to keep that pressure up.

Look, unfortunately we're out of time so we're going to have leave it there for today. But I want to thank you both, Marc and Debra, so much for joining us, for sharing with us, and for taking the time to talk to us about Austin and your efforts to bring him home.

MS. DEBRA TICE: Thank you so much, Jason, and thank you very much to The Washington Post and the Press Freedom Institute. We really appreciate all the support and the determination that we are going to get Austin home.

MR. MARC TICE: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you, Jason, so much.

MR. REZAIAN: It’s always a pleasure to talk to you guys. And I want to thank all of you who are watching today. To check out what interviews we have coming up please go to WashingtonPostLive.com and register for updates for more information about our upcoming programs.

Again, I'm Jason Rezaian. Thank you so much, and have a wonderful afternoon.

[End recorded session]

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