Nearly four years ago, Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine, flew to Iran to visit his grandmother. Days before he was scheduled to return home, he vanished. Frightened family members searched frantically for him. It took months before they found out that Iranian authorities had secretly detained him.
U.S. and Iranian officials urged his relatives to remain quiet, family members said recently, arguing that public attention would complicate his release. They complied. Nevertheless, in December 2011, Iran abruptly charged Hekmati with spying and sentenced him to 10 years in prison for cooperating with a hostile government.
The advice routinely given by American and European officials (as well as private outfits) involved in hostage and prisoner negotiations is this: If you want to help, keep the abduction a secret. In cases involving hostages taken by Islamist militiamen or by governments — from the dozens of kidnappings in Syria to the four Americans detained by Houthi fighters in Yemen last month — the prescription appears to be the same. And family members, terrified by uncertainty, defer to the experts.
But some families are beginning to question whether following this course is the right move when secrecy has failed them repeatedly. “Our family learned later that our silence allowed Amir to suffer the worst torture imaginable,” Hekmati’s sister told a congressional hearing this month. This advice can also put others unwittingly in harm’s way, by keeping the public in the dark about the risks. That’s what happened in Syria, where the Islamic State repeatedly targeted journalists and aid workers in the hopes of ransoming them, as still others trickled into the country. In the end, worldwide attention may be better than none at all.
According to families of hostages held by the Islamic State, U.S. officials argued that revealing their identities or other details would put them in grave danger — as if they weren’t already in the gravest possible danger. (Officials also sent this message to me and other journalists covering the hostages.)
In the first few days or weeks, they might be right. During that time, hostage negotiators and governments are working for a quick resolution, believing that silence buys them time to pay a ransom or launch a raid or reply through diplomatic channels. There is also a risk in raising a hostage’s profile so much that impostor hostage-takers claim responsibility, forcing investigators to waste time on a goose chase: Is this a ransom or a swap or merely a stunt to garner attention for someone’s cause? Those questions take time to answer.
But after sorting out the basics, there is no guarantee that a reticent approach will work — and remaining silent indefinitely seems pointless. “Going public is appropriate when negotiations break down,” says Jack Cloonan, a former FBI agent and head of special risks for Red 24, a London-based risk-management company. “When demands are totally unrealistic, financial or otherwise, then external pressure points need to be applied.”
Last year, the Islamic State beheaded James Foley and Steven Sotloff, two journalists who had been working in Syria. Foley was kidnapped in late November 2012, but the FBI urged his family to keep quiet until January 2013. The world didn’t know about Sotloff until he appeared in an Islamic State video. Foley was killed in August 2014, and Sotloff the following month. “We don’t think that was particularly helpful, but we trusted their recommendation at the time,” Foley’s mother tells me. “That’s why we went public six weeks later.”
Some journalists knew about the hostages in Syria yet decided that the best approach was not to publicize the spate of kidnappings. After these deaths, many rethought that course, including the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Joel Simon. “Initially, I supported the use of media blackouts in selective cases,” he wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review last September. “. . . The rationale behind blackouts is that they can save lives by facilitating hostage negotiations. But I have seen scant evidence to support this. Meanwhile, because the news is suppressed and sometimes never released, blackouts themselves stifle the public debate and undermine the media’s own credibility.”
Simon added that media outlets can sometimes do more harm than good, as in Syria. Their deference “obscured the scope of the problem and reduced media coverage of the troubling shift in the security environment: The Islamic State was actively hunting for journalists to abduct,” he wrote.
Like Hekmati’s sister, other families have begun to question whether they should go public and not wait. Austin Tice, a journalist and former Marine officer, was abducted in Syria in 2012. Tice is believed to be held in Syria by the regime or its proxies, according to U.S. intelligence officials. “When Austin first went missing, there is a question you face: Should there be a blackout or press?” Debra Tice, his mother, said this year at a news conference. His father added that “governments, like people, respond to encouragement.”
Speaking out does not guarantee that a loved one will be returned; Foley’s parents went public before he was executed on camera. Sotloff and another American, Abdul-Rahman Kassig, were both killed after their families pleaded for their return. It is even conceivable that public exhortation could make things worse. But for now that is just a theory — one U.S. officials propound with the confidence of fact. On the other hand, there are many examples of muteness that failed to save people’s lives.
In March 2007, Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent, went missing in Iran. He had been working for the CIA as a contractor, a secret the government at first did not tell his family. After discovering his link to the agency in e-mails, the family kept his secret for years, hoping journalists wouldn’t disclose it. I was a correspondent for the Associated Press at the time, and when I received a tip about Levinson’s spy connection, the CIA and the FBI implored me and a colleague not to report it. The family argued to us that we would put Levinson in harm’s way. Both parties told me the Iranians would kill him.
At first, we heeded their requests, but after more than three years of deliberating, the AP decided to go public because there was no evidence that Levinson was still alive and because the Iranians probably knew about his CIA ties. There was also a strong public accountability reason to cover his case, because he had been part of a rogue operation inside the CIA — clearly an important subject for journalists.
Eventually, after private efforts failed to liberate Levinson, some of his family and close friends came around, too. “It is scary as hell when the government tells you it could get him killed,” says David McGee, a family lawyer and a friend. Levinson’s fate remains unknown. But “keeping everything secret proved to be an impediment over the long run.” If they had gone public sooner with the information about the CIA, one of Levinson’s children told me, they might have forced the U.S. government to move with more urgency.
Last month, freelance journalist Casey L. Coombs was detained in Yemen after Houthi militiamen seized him in Sanaa, the nation’s capital. While reporting, I contacted his sister, who declined to comment. The FBI, she said, had advised relatives to be quiet. A family representative also called and said my paper would never publish this information if one of our own reporters had been kidnapped. And news organizations do sometimes ask competing reporters not to disclose information about their captive employees. That was the case with David Rohde, a New York Times correspondent captured by a militant group in Afghanistan; his ordeal remained a secret until his escape in 2009 after months of captivity.
The Washington Post took a different approach. Almost immediately after its Iran correspondent, Jason Rezaian, was arrested in July 2014, the newspaper went public about his detention. This was a government detention, not a hostage-taking; it would have been much harder to keep the secret. Nevertheless, the paper has aggressively covered Rezaian’s case instead of treading gently.
“Each of these cases is different, and there’s probably no one right course,” says Martin Baron, The Post’s executive editor. “Families, news organizations and governments can only try to make a reasoned judgment based on what they know, which is often very little. Neither silence nor speaking out guarantees that a prisoner or hostage will be freed. Speaking out, however, lets the world know of these outrageous acts.”
The Post covered Coombs and the three other Americans in Houthi custody. It did not name them, but the report would have made clear to the captors that Coombs was one of the story subjects. Days later, he was freed.
Personally, I regret not naming Kayla Mueller, 26, who died in February in Syria after the Islamic State imprisoned her for more than a year, demanded a ransom of millions of dollars and threatened to kill her if any of this leaked to the media. Some news outlets had reported that the Islamic State was holding a female American aid worker, but until her death the public never knew her name. What, then, would have been the harm in telling her story?
The Islamic State said she died after Jordan dropped a bomb on the building where she was being held. It’s not certain that worldwide attention would have saved her. But we know that silence didn’t work.