WASHINGTON — By the time President Biden appeared in the Oval Office this month to announce that Brittney Griner had been freed after nearly 10 months of captivity in Russia, the news had already reached Diane Foley by text in her small-town home in New Hampshire. A wave of relief washed through her. Another one finally out. Another one coming home.
She did not know the released woman, but Ms. Foley in her own way had been working to liberate Ms. Griner before the Russian authorities seized her. In the eight years since her son James Foley was killed by terrorists in the Middle East, Ms. Foley has made it her mission to force the White House under three presidents to put the fate of Americans held overseas at the top of the national priority list.
Indeed, not since the days of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan have American hostages and wrongfully detained prisoners absorbed the White House the way they do today. Mr. Biden and his team, including Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, spend far more time than they had ever imagined on them. An infrastructure inspired by Ms. Foley and others has been built up inside government to address the cases, and Mr. Biden has gone so far as to declare the seizure of Americans a national emergency.
“I had not fully anticipated the prominence that this responsibility would play in my job, but it has been very significant,” said Mr. Sullivan, who along with other officials regularly meets or talks by phone with the relatives of those held. And that prominence he attributed to Ms. Foley. “Diane Foley has turned tragedy into purpose and relentless advocacy,” Mr. Sullivan said, “and that has made a real difference.”
Even with the release of Ms. Griner, a celebrated W.N.B.A. player who was perhaps the most famous American held overseas, there are still about 65 others wrongfully in captivity outside the United States, according to research by the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, the advocacy organization Ms. Foley started. That is dozens of Americans whose families will not see them this holiday season, including Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine whom the Russians refused to release as part of the swap that brought home Ms. Griner in exchange for the notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
More than ever, the hostage-takers are no longer terrorist groups like the one that killed Mr. Foley but foreign governments intent on making a point or a trade. While only four countries held Americans wrongfully from 2001 to 2005, 19 countries currently do, according to the foundation’s research, including not just Russia but China, Iran, Venezuela and Syria.
“It’s dramatically changed. It’s a huge change,” Ms. Foley said. “The primary captors are state actors. They are deliberately targeting our citizens who go out into the world for travel as businessmen, journalists, aid workers or as family, and then are used as political pawns to directly interfere with our foreign policy and economy. It’s becoming harder to resolve.”
With each of these cases comes the heartache of the families, some of whom still say that they cannot get the meetings at the White House that they want and that their loved ones have not been made a high priority. And then there are the Faustian bargains forcing Mr. Biden and his team to decide when to make a trade — and if so, for whom.
For years, administrations of both parties worried that agreeing to swaps rewarded the captors and put more Americans in danger. Presidents endure political blowback for the deals that are made and the ones that are not. Republicans criticized Mr. Biden for giving away a criminal as serious as Mr. Bout and for not securing Mr. Whelan’s return at the same time.
The Biden Presidency
Here’s where the president stands after the midterm elections.
- A New Primary Calendar: President Biden’s push to reorder the early presidential nominating states is likely to reward candidates who connect with the party’s most loyal voters.
- A Defining Issue: The shape of Russia’s war in Ukraine, and its effects on global markets, in the months and years to come could determine Mr. Biden’s political fate.
- Beating the Odds: Mr. Biden had the best midterms of any president in 20 years, but he still faces the sobering reality of a Republican-controlled House for the next two years.
- 2024 Questions: Mr. Biden feels buoyant after the better-than-expected midterms, but as he turns 80, he confronts a decision on whether to run again that has some Democrats uncomfortable.
“His release makes every American less safe,” Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said of Mr. Bout in a statement. “So does the manner of his release, which will encourage terrorists and rogue regimes to seize more Americans as hostages.”
Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House Republican leader, said on “This Week” on ABC that the trade “made Putin stronger and it’s made Americans more vulnerable.” Leaving Mr. Whelan behind, he added in a tweet, was “unconscionable.”
But Biden administration officials have privately concluded that the downsides are not as great as feared, and that if anything, they should have been more aggressive about making trades earlier in their tenure. In recent months, the pace of such swaps has picked up.
In April, the administration secured the release of Trevor R. Reed, a former Marine held by Russia for two years on what his family called bogus assault charges, in exchange for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot imprisoned in the United States on charges of cocaine trafficking.
In September, the administration released Haji Bashir Noorzai, an Afghan tribal leader convicted of drug trafficking, in exchange for Mark R. Frerichs, an American engineer held in Afghanistan by the Taliban. A few weeks later, the administration brought home seven Americans who had been held captive in Venezuela for years after Mr. Biden granted clemency to two nephews of the country’s first lady. At the same time, Iran released Siamak Namazi, a dual-national Iranian American businessman held since 2015, and lifted the travel ban on his father, Baquer Namazi.
But families of others held remain frustrated that the White House has not done more in their cases. Relatives of Emad Shargi, an American who has not been allowed to leave Iran for more than four years, said after Ms. Griner’s release that their request for a meeting with Mr. Biden had not been granted.
“I just don’t understand why he isn’t meeting with us,” Hannah Shargi, Mr. Shargi’s daughter, said on “Face the Nation” on CBS last week. “I think it would make a big difference to sit down with him. I want to tell him about my dad. I want to tell him how scared we are, how pressing this matter is and how time-sensitive it really is.”
Americans have been subjected to unfair detention while abroad since the beginning of the Republic, but hostages consumed the Carter and Reagan presidencies in ways they never had before — and in deeply damaging ways. The hostage crisis in Iran, in which 52 Americans were held for 444 days and threatened with death, crippled Mr. Carter’s re-election bid. Mr. Reagan’s surreptitious scheme to trade arms with Iran to free a handful of Americans held by Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorists exploded into the biggest scandal of his administration.
Learning from those episodes, later presidents never made the issue as high-profile, unwilling to tether their administrations to individual cases, wrenching as they may have been. But after Ms. Foley’s son was killed in 2014, she resolved to force them to anyway.
Mr. Foley had been a journalist working in Syria when he and three others were kidnapped by the Islamic State. Devastated, his mother had no idea whom to call or what to do. She quit her job as a nurse practitioner and began haunting the corridors of Washington, desperate to find anyone who could help. But the terrorists released a grisly video showing her son clad in an orange jumpsuit being murdered, and Ms. Foley faulted her government.
“I was furious,” Ms. Foley recalled in an interview last week. “I was patronized, and I was lied to, and I was sent in circles. It was really — and I trusted our government. I was very naïve. I trusted all the people. But I was always talking to midlevel people and never the people at the top. When I did, they sent me back to the midlevel people. I was furious at how I was misled and what a low priority these Americans had been. I was just so angry.”
Anger became purpose, and in part because of her instigation, President Barack Obama created the position of a hostage coordinator to work with families and new hostage response groups at the National Security Council and the F.B.I. His successor, President Donald J. Trump, kept the structure and built on it.
Absorbed by some of the cases, Mr. Trump regularly pushed for action to release Americans and made a point of personally highlighting many of them when they were released. He often boasted of his record of freeing hostages and elevated his special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, Robert C. O’Brien, to become his fourth and last national security adviser, bringing the priority directly into the corner suite in the West Wing where American foreign policy is coordinated.
In the waning days of the Trump administration, Congress took it further by passing legislation named for Robert A. Levinson, a retired F.B.I. agent who disappeared in Iran while on an unauthorized mission for the C.I.A. and reportedly died in custody. The law, signed by Mr. Trump in December 2020, assigned the State Department to determine whether Americans detained overseas were being held wrongfully and formally placed responsibility for such cases with the special envoy for hostage affairs. Roger D. Carstens, a retired special forces officer and former diplomat, currently holds the post.
“I’m amazed by what Diane and the families of hostages have achieved,” said David Rohde, a journalist who has been taken captive twice during his career as a foreign correspondent, first by Bosnian Serbs for 10 days during the Balkan wars in 1995 and then for seven months by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan until he escaped in 2009. “They’ve transformed hostage cases from nuisances that can be ignored to political challenges that presidents and national security advisers must address.”
Like others, though, Mr. Rohde, who previously worked for The New York Times and is now a senior editor at The New Yorker and a member of the Foley Foundation board, said managing one-off cases is not enough. There needs to be a comprehensive, long-term strategy, he said, “that inflicts severe costs on hostage takers, particularly authoritarian regimes, and deters them from engaging in this cruel and cowardly crime in the first place.”
Ms. Foley said she agreed that it is time to re-examine the structure in place as captors increasingly are foreign governments rather than militant groups. She has set four goals for 2023: to push for a comprehensive review, to fully fund services for hostage families and post-captivity services for freed hostages, to bolster consular sections in embassies that evaluate cases, and to get Congress to fly a special American hostage flag to raise awareness, much as the P.O.W./M.I.A. flag brought attention to Vietnam War prisoners.
“Yes, I’ve been determined,” Ms. Foley said. “This is Jim’s legacy. It’s essential. I can’t tell you how strongly I feel.”