After Peter Theo Curtis, an American journalist, was kidnapped in Syria in October 2012 and later turned over to al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the country, his family traveled to Washington. During a meeting with officials from the State Department, they asked what would happen if they paid off the kidnappers.
The answer was that they could be prosecuted under U.S. law for providing a ransom to a terrorist group.
Nancy Curtis, the journalist’s mother, later told the FBI negotiator working closely with her family what had happened. “They’d have a hard time prosecuting if I was in the room with you,” she recalled him saying.
The episode underlined the sometimes-bewildering situation faced by families of Americans held hostage overseas. Now, as the White House nears the midpoint of a review of its hostage policies, families who have endured the crises hope the government will become more open in its dealings with them and settle on one federal agency to be in charge of the process to eliminate interagency confusion that has generated rancor.
Launched in December, the review is the culmination of months of complaints from the families of hostages kidnapped and killed in Syria by the Islamic State. Although the review may compel federal agencies to be more compassionate in their dealings with victims’ families, it won’t change fundamental U.S. policy on not paying ransom to terrorist organizations.
In a Dec. 17 letter sent to the families, Lisa Monaco, President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, made the administration’s intent clear. “The scope of this review will not include a reconsidering of our no-concessions policy,” Monaco wrote.
So far, 18 of 82 families invited to participate have been interviewed. Officials are interviewing others with relevant expertise, including Reporters Without Borders and a well-respected former FBI hostage negotiator. The review is expected to be completed this spring.
“We want to be as comprehensive as we can in the time frame,” said a U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to discuss the review publicly. “We are letting the families respond to us on their own time. We want them to participate, but some still might not be ready to talk to us.”
The FBI, State Department, Pentagon and U.S. intelligence community are all taking part in the review under the supervision of the National Counterterrorism Center. The effort is being led by Army Lt. Gen. Bennet S. Sacolick, director of strategic operational planning at the NCTC.
Diane Foley, whose son James was the first American hostage to be killed by the Islamic State last year, said she met with Sacolick and walked away impressed. “He seemed to really listen,” she said. “I left hopeful.”
At a news conference this month in Washington, Debra and Marc Tice, whose son Austin has been missing for more than 900 days in Syria, said they recently met with NCTC officials. Debra Tice called for a policy that is “flexible and pragmatic.” Austin Tice has contributed articles to The Washington Post.
“The aim of those engaged on hostage cases, and of the hostage policy review, should be to improve effectiveness in safely returning American hostages,” Marc Tice said.
A key issue for the families is an accessible and informed point of contact in the government. Many say they have been bounced between different agencies, sometimes dealing with officials who are deeply sympathetic and other times with officials who treated them as a burden.
“No family should have to endure this nightmare,” said Christine Levinson, whose husband disappeared nearly eight years ago on Iran’s Kish Island and remains missing. Levinson said she intends to participate in the policy review in the “hope that this effort will make a difference in resolving these cases as quickly as possible.”
Both the State Department and the FBI have important roles when an American is kidnapped abroad. Overseas Citizens Services, a directorate within the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the State Department, is responsible for working with families. The State Department leads diplomatic efforts to free Americans held hostage or detained in a foreign country.
“Senior State Department officials of course also engage with families to underscore how seriously we take every case and how hard we’re working to bring their loved one home,” said Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman. She added, “Secretary Kerry has personally reached out to dozens of other countries to raise the cases of American citizens missing overseas.”
Because the FBI investigates crimes against Americans, it often has the greatest interaction with immediate relatives and access to sensitive intelligence collected by the CIA or National Security Agency.
A case agent is assigned, as is a hostage negotiator if there are demands or messages from the kidnappers. The FBI will advise on negotiations but will not facilitate them, officials said.
The FBI’s Office for Victim Assistance also plays a major role in the lives of the families — assigning them a specialist, typically with a background in social work or psychology.
“We don’t do everything perfectly,” said Kathryn Turman, an assistant FBI director who runs the office. “But we try to learn from each experience. We try to reduce confusion for families. All of these cases are gut-wrenching. What families go through is extreme. There are so many ups and downs.”
John Patarini, a retired FBI agent who investigated overseas abductions, said agents need to be empathetic. “Just the facts, ma’am,” doesn’t cut it, he said.
“Some of it is personality,” said Patarini, now an independent security consultant. “Some of the agents don’t have a good bedside manner.”
He cautioned that it is important for the government to keep families informed because they “can be the greatest ally or worst enemy. It all depends how you deal with them.”
Despite some vocal criticism of the way the government has handled the abductions, some families are appreciative.
Curtis, whose son was freed in August after nearly two years of captivity, praised the Boston-based hostage negotiator in the case as well as a case agent at the FBI Washington Field Office. Those involved in his release insist that no ransom was paid. Curtis said the case agent’s conduct should be seen as a model for policymakers.
“She was smart, compassionate and very professional,” Curtis said. “From the moment I met her, I had confidence in her. She shared information that she was allowed. She protected me from things that were too horrible.”
Still, Curtis wished the government had provided her with contact information for other American families whose relatives had been kidnapped in Syria. She said someone at the International Committee of the Red Cross let her know that Diane Foley also lived in the Northeast.
“Diane and I were really helpful for one another,” she said.
In a long letter Curtis recently wrote to Sacolick, she took issue with the “siloing of the families.”
“It’s terrible that the other mothers didn’t have the benefit of being able to talk with people in the same situation,” she wrote.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.