(July 18, 2022)
MODERATOR: Thank you. And thank you all for joining this evening’s NSC background call on President Biden’s new executive order to bolster efforts to bring home American hostages and wrongful detainees.
As a reminder of the ground rules, this call is on background attributable to “senior administration officials” and embargoed until tomorrow morning, Tuesday, July 19th at 9:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.
For your awareness but not for your reporting, today’s speakers are [senior administration official], [senior administration official], and [senior administration official].
With that, I’ll turn it over to [senior administration official], our first speaker.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you so much, [moderator], and thanks to everyone for joining this call. We are eager to share how the Biden-Harris administration is expanding the toolkit that the U.S. government uses to help bring home American hostages and wrongful detainees.
Foreign states that engage in the practice of wrongful detention, whether it’s for political leverage or to seek concessions from the United States, threaten the integrity of the international political system and, moreover, the safety of US nationals and other persons abroad. And the same can be said of terrorist organizations, criminal groups, and other malicious actors who take hostages for financial, political, or other nefarious gains.
The U.S. government maintains its unwavering commitment to bringing home Americans held hostage and wrongfully detained.
And so that is why we are proud to announce that tomorrow, President Biden will be signing a new executive order that will provide new and expanded tools to help bring our citizens home and impose costs on the culprits as well as provide greater transparency regarding the risks.
The new executive order is entitled “Bolstering Efforts to Bring Hostages and Wrongfully Detained U.S. Nationals Home.” It reaffirms the fundamental commitment of the President, of the administration to bring home those Americans held hostage and wrongfully detained abroad.
The executive order draws on the 2020 Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage Taking Accountability Act. And just as the name itself suggests, that law is a credit to the perseverance of the Levinson family and others who have turned their family’s extraordinary hardships into constructive and meaningful action.
Frankly, all of us who work on these issues are blown away by the courage and the leadership the families in these awful circumstances show in an effort to make our government and all of us better in resolving these cases.
The new EO builds on those efforts and the efforts of others who have worked diligently to bring the Levinson Act to fruition, and it expands and strengthens the government’s toolkit in key ways.
For example, this EO reinforces U.S. government efforts to support the families of Americans wrongfully detained or held hostage overseas by directing parts of the federal government to bolster their engagement with such families and their sharing of relevant information, including intelligence information, with families regarding their loved ones’ status and the government’s efforts to secure their release or their return.
The new executive order also authorizes departments and agencies to impose costs and consequences on those who are involved. That includes financial sanctions and it includes visa bans, and it can apply whether the individual subject to those costs and consequences has acted on behalf of a state or a terrorist network or some other non-state actor.
This EO reflects the administration’s commitment not just to the issues generally, but to the families in particular, and it has been informed by the government’s regular engagements with them and other stakeholders who have and continue to undertake important, constructive advocacy efforts on behalf of their loved ones.
President Biden and those across the administration will now draw on this EO to advance our efforts, and we hope to do so in active conversation with family members and outside stakeholders.
In addition to the EO, tomorrow, the Biden-Harris administration will introduce a new risk indicator, the “D” for wrongful detention indicator, to the State Department’s travel advisories, which exist for all countries around the world to warn Americans of risks they may face in traveling to particular destinations.
This new “D” indicator will, in particular, inform American travelers of the risk of wrongful detention by a foreign government, will highlight the elevated risk that Americans face in particular countries, and provide Americans with comprehensive safety and security information to use in making informed travel decisions.
Its transparency will also show to governments that engage in this sort of reprehensible practice, and indeed to the world, our commitment to calling out this sort of behavior.
The “D” indicator joins the existing “K” for kidnapping indicator that covers the risk of kidnapping and hostage taking by non-state actors as well as a range of other existing risk indicators.
State Department travel advisories are continuously revised and updated based on a comprehensive review of all available safety information and ongoing developments.
I should emphasize here that this work to punish those responsible for this sort of behavior, to increase transparency, to share risks about hostage taking and wrongful detention, all of this is in addition to the very hard, very important work that we do with the NSC, with State Department, the FBI, and other colleagues across the government every day to resolve particular hostage and wrongful detainee matters. This isn’t a substitute; it’s in addition. And it is a way to increase transparency through the indicator, impose costs through the executive order, and overall, try to prevent the next set of families going through this horrible ordeal.
I’ll now turn things over to our next speaker, [senior administration official], for additional context on the new EO and its implementation. And then you’ll hear from our final speaker, [senior administration official], for additional information on the update to our travel advisories.
Over to you, [senior administration official.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hey, [senior administration official], thanks a lot for that introduction, and thanks for bringing up this topic and also for convening this call. I know you’ve been at this since 2015 trying to work this problem set. So, grateful that you’re able to bring us all together to talk about this.
Folks, the President is once again demonstrating his commitment to bring home U.S. nationals held hostage and wrongfully detained abroad. And we continue to work closely across the administration to realize this prioritized commitment.
The EO is critical and gives the U.S. government expanded tools to help get Americans home, including specific authority to impose sanctions on those responsible for or complicit in wrongful detentions or hostage taking of U.S. persons overseas, regardless of whether the perpetrator is a terrorist or a state actor.
On the new sanctions authority for which the State Department will have the lead for developing targets, our goal is to bring folks home. So we use the sanctions authority with a primary focus on helping to secure a loved one’s release.
Now, using sanctions may not always help secure someone’s release, so we will therefore be judicious and strategic in our use of this authority. But the families of those held know their loved one’s case best and we intend to hear from them, hear their good ideas, and listen to their recommendations.
At this point, I’d like to turn it over to [senior administration official].
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you, [senior administration official]. And thanks, everybody, for dialing in today.
I want to take this opportunity to tell you about the parallel efforts to demonstrate our focus on this issue that [senior administration official] mentioned. And that is that tomorrow we’re introducing a new risk indicator, the “D” indicator, to the State Department’s travel advisories to inform U.S. travelers of the risk of wrongful detention by a foreign government. We’re making this change to highlight the elevated risk of wrongful detention in particular countries whose governments have engaged in that practice.
We’re committed to providing U.S. citizens with comprehensive safety and security information about foreign countries so they can make informed travel decisions before they head overseas.
The United States opposes wrongful detention and the practice of using individuals as political bargaining chips everywhere. These practices we know represent a threat to the safety of all U.S. citizens traveling and living abroad.
I’m sure you’ve all heard us say many times that we as a department have no higher priority than the safety and the security of U.S. citizens overseas. We definitely take extremely seriously our commitment to inform U.S. citizens living and traveling abroad of potential risks. And our travel advice is apolitical, fact-based, and transparent.
As [senior administration official] noted, we issue travel advisories for every country around the world offering standardized levels of advice based on established risk factors. Our advisories are based on the risk factors that include things like crime, for which we use a “C” indicator; health, for which we use an “H”; and [senior administration official] also mentioned the “K” indicator for kidnapping or hostage taking.
We’re also constantly reviewing our travel advisory system in an effort to provide the most accurate and transparent information for U.S. citizens traveling overseas.
We consider a lot of factors in determining which indicators to incorporate into the travel advisory for each country. The “D” indicator may be assigned to a given country following a department determination that the detention of a U.S. national is wrongful. The indicator will consider the number of cases of wrongful detentions of U.S. nationals in any given country to help determine the appropriate travel advisory level.
We routinely update our travel advisories for all countries based on that ongoing comprehensive review of all available safety information and ongoing developments.
So tomorrow, the following countries will receive the “D”-risk indicator: Burma, the People’s Republic of China, Iran, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Russia, and Venezuela.
So on behalf of the State Department, I want to reiterate our commitment to bringing wrongfully held U.S. nationals home and to working closely with their families to do so.
My colleagues and I in Consular Affairs have a really strong partnership with our colleagues in SPEHA, with [senior administration official]’s team, and we remain in regular contact with the families of those held hostage or wrongfully detained.
We’re really proud of our partnership with SPEHA and with the White House, and we continue to work together to ensure we’re communicating and sharing information in a way that’s useful to the families and to the American public.
So I’ll stop there, and I look forward to answering your questions. Over.
MODERATOR: Thank you. With that, I’ll turn it back over to the moderator for question-and-answer.
Q Hi, thanks for taking the call. A couple questions. Can we expect any sanctions announcements tomorrow along with the rollout of the executive order? And if so, on whom? How long has this executive order been in process, given the Levinson Act has been passed for quite a bit of time now?
And then, tangentially, there’s a number of families of detainees and hostages who are coming to D.C. this week. Will the President meet with any or all of them? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m happy to take a first stab. My colleagues may have thoughts as well. But thank you, Jennifer, for the good questions.
So I’ll take them in order. There won’t be particular sanctions targets announced tomorrow with the EO, but this is a process that we want and need to be sustainable for weeks and months to come.
In other contexts — and I’m thinking of the human rights context in particular — the development of those sorts of packages has really generated constructive, productive collaboration, not just across the federal government — and, of course, this is, by definition, a new authority and we’ll work to build the backing to utilize it — but also between government and those outside it, with a robust dialogue on the potential targets of sanctions and the information that the government at least should consider in assessing those targets.
So we hope that this is a project that not only gets attention and focus within the government, as it will with the President’s direction coming tomorrow, but also with so many who work so hard on these issues outside government as well.
The executive order has been in development for a while now. Bringing something to the President’s desk obviously takes care and consideration by experts across the government. We also have had a number of steps that have been critical to implementing the Levinson Act, which was an important step forward through legislation. And that has included the use of the statutorily-defined elements for wrongful detention cases, which [senior administration official] may want to say a word about, but which have been used now in an important process that runs within the State Department.
Finally, I can’t speak to the President’s particular schedule, but I can speak to his commitment to these issues and to the priority he places on bringing home Americans held hostage abroad and wrongfully detained abroad.
This executive order is, of course, one significant piece of that but it comes in the wake of efforts to — and successful efforts — to bring home Americans from countries really across the globe: Haiti, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Burma, and elsewhere, during the course of this administration. And he’ll continue to track these matters at the highest levels, including with the direct engagement of National Security Council staff leadership, State Department leadership, and others.
But let me see if my colleagues want to chime in on any of those three questions, as well, please.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: This is [senior administration official]. And, Jen, I guess the only thing I would say is that, you know, [senior administration official] indicated that a lot of work goes into this to make sure that it’s pretty much perfect when it gets to the President’s desk. I can tell you that we’ve been working pretty hard on this. The meetings have been continuous since the Levinson Act was passed pretty much.
And the idea was that we had to get this right. This is not something we want to rewind in any way, shape, or form. So we wanted to have a tool that was useful. And that took a long time to try to make sure that all the stakeholders got a chance to weigh in so we could find something that was going to be useful, powerful, and going to achieve the end states that we were hoping to achieve.
So it took a while, but if you want to get it right, sometimes you have to invest the time, and I think that’s the case here.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Shall we go to the next question?
Q Hello, thanks for doing this. Recently, a lot of families have criticized the administration over what they see as a lack of strategies broadly. I mean, looking at your executive order, it talks about bolstering engagement, information sharing. A lot of them have been also complaining about lack of communication at times.
But, I mean, can you talk a little bit — are you able to talk a little bit about broader strategy in terms of what exactly the U.S. government is doing to bring these people home? Do you have a blanket strategy? And by that, I mean, you guys have also been criticized by the families for refusing to make some swaps on certain occasions, and so has there been any change, for example, in that approach? I understand this has to do with DOJ as well. But basically, what is your response to all of those criticisms? Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, thanks for the question, and I’m sure [senior administration official] will have some thoughts on this as well. But let me say a couple things.
One, anyone who’s worked on these issues for any period of time knows that strategies need to be case specific. They have to be informed by the intelligence and information about a particular case. They need to take into account country-specific facts, regional facts, and really anything we can bring to bear to leverage to get what we all ultimately want, which is an American home with his or her loved ones.
Families are in regular contact with [senior administration official] and his team at the State Department, as well as for hostage cases, the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, which is an interagency body that sits at FBI, and are part of conversations not just in developing strategies but also in refining those strategies and considering when it’s time to pivot to a plan B — and there always needs to be a plan B.
I would just emphasize in particular that in this administration, the President has been willing to make what he himself has said publicly are tough but important calls when it means bringing home Americans.
And I’ll call attention, in particular, to his willingness to do what was necessary to bring home Trevor Reed from wrongful detention in Russia. It is, of course, public that that involved the release of Mr. Yaroshenko, who had served a great deal of but not all of his sentence in the United States.
And the President, as he said in his public statement that day, was willing to take that very rare, very extraordinary, very hard step when it meant bringing home someone for whom there was a great urgency to see home and to see healthy as well.
[Senior administration official], do you have more you want to add?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, [senior administration official]. Yeah, I wouldn’t mind adding just a little bit.
You know, this reminds me of that saying that “the other side always gets a vote.” And I’m always mindful in these cases that as we work on these different strategies — and as [senior administration official] said, they’re case specific — but as we’re executing them, at the end of the day, the other side, whether it’s Russia, China, Venezuela, et cetera, they get a vote. In a way, they have a very strong vote in that they hold the keys to the jail cell. And what we often find ourselves doing is trying to strategize and organize and, frankly, work with the families to find ways that might get those keys to open up and we can bring an American home. At times, it can be challenging.
I can tell you I probably spend one to four hours a day on the phone talking to family members. I’m currently away from Washington, D.C. I’m visiting a family tonight; will spend three hours in their home talking about their case.
But the bottom line is that we’re trying to partner with families to find these solutions. We definitely work strongly within the interagency on what we call the Hostage Recovery Enterprise. And frankly, we also work with members of Congress; the members and their staffers; NGOs; I would say, third-party intermediaries, but also even with the media, to come up with, I guess you would say, an overarching way of getting people back. And I think the media has been very powerful in really just calling awareness to this topic and, at times, even holding us accountable.
So, grateful for the chance to talk about this. But, really, to get to the meat of your question, we have ongoing strategies in all this. We review them pretty much on a daily basis, and we’ll partner with everyone we possibly can to see if we can bring this to a successful conclusion.
But I can tell you one thing: that the President of the United States, and my direct report, Secretary Blinken, they are committed to getting all these cases resolved and getting this done, and at the same time, start to bring up a deterrence strategy that can raise the cost of hostage taking and wrongful detention taking to the point that it’s no longer a feasible diplomatic strategy for those who would use it.
Q Forgive me if I didn’t hear, but I didn’t hear a response to, especially, to Jennifer’s question about whether the President would be meeting with any of the families who were in town while they were here.
And if you could explain: If you are going to redefine when the administration can get involved, if they could get involved sooner with people wrongfully held — if you’re moving that bar. And if you can explain why Mark Fogel is not considered wrongfully detained, because his former colleagues and friends at the Embassy Moscow tell us that his conviction is for medical marijuana, and it seems very similar to the Griner case.
Thank you so much.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, thank you for the questions. I’ll take a first stab and, again, invite colleagues to comment.
On the third one, I won’t comment — I don’t think any of us will — on a particular case, but refer you to the State Department which handles by law, by the Levinson Act, designations of those unlawfully or wrongfully detained.
I’ll reiterate that I can’t speak for the President’s schedule but can speak for his commitment to these issues and his willingness to authorize and indeed direct, as this executive order does, the parts of his government that can do really the two things [senior administration official] has emphasized that we need to do at the same time.
One is resolve the current cases and bring people home and, at the same time, add to the costs for those who engage in this behavior through the executive order; add to the transparency for American travelers and for the world by the new indicator; and overall, reduce the next generation, so to speak, of cases from arising in the first place.
And then, in terms of the definition of a “wrongful detainee,” that is something that is set out in the Levinson Act by federal law with a number of factors that the State Department is to consider in any particular case in reaching a conclusion as to whether a given American held abroad and acknowledged as such by a foreign government should be deemed wrongfully detained.
So we wouldn’t be able to redefine that via executive order, but [senior administration official] and others across the State Department are day-to-day, week-to-week implementing that in some very effective and informative ways that I think take that law, and the powerful advocacy that helped to get it passed by the Levinson family and so many other families, and showing the value of having that designation and entrenched in the U.S. code, the factors that inform it.
But let me turn to others for anything they’d like to add as well.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hi, it’s [senior administration official]. I’ll jump in. The wrongful termination process, I guess you can say we will pull up a case, and then it becomes ongoing research to determine whether it starts to, using the Levinson criteria, look like a wrongful detention.
We’ve had some cases go very fast in that we get information, and it seems like the information is self-evident, and that leads to a rather quick determination. We have other cases where we’re constantly bringing in information and it finally, to an extent, kind of crosses the bar and it becomes a wrongful detention but only after more information was gathered.
And I can tell you that we never take a case and put it away. Once we take a look at a case, we’re constantly trying to, like, as I say, vacuum in information, whether it’s from family members, newspaper reports, the intelligence community, to see if we can get that little extra piece of evidence that might raise it to the bar of being a wrongful detention.
Some cases never really rise to that level because, for some reason or not, they’re not wrongful. You know, we keep getting information that doesn’t quite reach the level of being recommended for determination.
On the Fogel case, I probably shouldn’t talk about any cases that are ongoing. We’ve been looking at that for a while now. I spent a few hours on the Fogel case just last week trying to get more information on it. So it’s ongoing and active; we’re looking at it. But I’d rather not go into any more details on specific cases.
Q Hey, thanks so much for addressing this call. And based on those comments, I’m hoping you can provide some kind of comment. But I mean, is there anything that you could say in regards to how these efforts would impact Brittney Griner’s case or cases like hers, or anything you can say on efforts to secure her release? Any positive progress, discussion of a prisoner swap, for example? I would appreciate anything that you can share, even in general.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. Again, I’m happy to start, and then we’ll let colleagues jump in.
First of all, with respect to the executive order, there are a number of ways in which it would affect cases like that, cases in the wrongful detainee category. The executive order directs those across the executive branch to share consistent and accurate information with the families of those who are deemed wrongfully detained to ensure that they receive support and assistance throughout the ordeal and to work with parts of our government to try to impose costs on those responsible.
And as I indicated, those responsible can be government officials, and it’s really quite expansive language: “foreign persons determined…to be responsible for or complicit in, to have directly or indirectly engaged in…to be responsible for ordering, controlling or otherwise directing the hostage taking of a U.S. national or the wrongful detention of a U.S. national abroad,” or to have “attempted” to do so or indeed to have been the “leader…of an entity that has engaged” in that sort of activity.
And so as this authority gets implemented, it will, we hope, have a couple of effects. One is to impose consequences on those who’ve been part of this just abominable, inhumane practice; and in so doing, to generate over time a deterrent from others becoming part of that practice, as well, whether that’s at a broad leadership level or whether that’s particular individuals who realize there can be very personalized repercussions for engaging in this sort of activity.
And then, with respect to the travel indicator, of course this will help increase the transparency to Americans as they think about destinations, so they can factor in the State Department’s indication that, at least as of tomorrow — and this will be reviewed, as you heard — there are six countries where the risk of being wrongfully detained, held by a foreign government in order to be exploited or used as a bargaining chip, is very real for Americans in particular.
Let me invite colleagues to add to that as well.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think you covered it perfectly. Nothing to add.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, thanks. I agree entirely. The one thing I would flag is that the “D” indicator is a way of increasing transparency for the U.S. public traveling. We have for a long time highlighted the risk of wrongful detention in certain countries, but by flagging it in this very clear way, we are hopeful that there will be fewer cases of U.S. travelers choosing to go to certain countries where this risk is greater than in others. Thanks.
Q Hi, guys, thank you so much for doing this. [Senior administration official], my first question is for you. You mentioned that sanctions might not work or be applicable for every single case. So I’m wondering if there are particular cases or clusters of cases in which you think sanctions might be most appropriate or most relevant, or if there’s a particular impetus for this part of the EO.
And then, [senior administration official], this notion of sharing additional information, being transparent with families, was, of course, a signature element of Presidential Policy Directive 30, which you were obviously an instrumental player in seven years ago. So I’m wondering why this element is being introduced again. Is there a sense that that action from 2015 didn’t go far enough in sharing information?
I’m just kind of curious whether there’s particular aspects or element or fact that wound up leading to this new action. Thank you so much.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hey, Eric. It’s [senior administration official]. I’ll jump on and then they’ll turn over to [senior administration official], if that’s okay — although I may be asking — answering part of the question that you might have directed to him.
I mean, the Levinson Act, essentially, in public law, asks us to look into creating a sanctioning authority and sanctioning ability. And in wrestling with that over almost the last year and a half, this is the road that we’ve taken, and that seems to be a pretty good one.
So if there’s a reason why it’s coming out now, it’s really because it’s finally done. And it’s something that we’ve been working on based on what we were directed to by public law.
In terms of whether it can be used, I mean, obviously, I might have a country or two or three that I might be thinking about, but to be honest, I want to talk to the families. The families follow this case, as we do. We follow the cases, as you can imagine. But the families have a particular amount of depth to each one of their cases, for obvious reasons, and we would like to, in our engagements with them, kind of see who they think might be up for the targeting process. And we’d like to work with them a little bit.
So even though I might have a country or two where I think this might be a tool that could be put into action, I think I’m going to, kind of, withhold my fire for now until we can talk to the families and build up a strategy, because I don’t want to do that — what is it called? — like, “ready, fire, aim.” I want to do “ready, aim, fire.”
I want to make sure that this is integrated into our ongoing strategy and that it has impact. What I don’t want to do is do something where we use a pretty powerful tool but do not get the result that we want to achieve, and that’s bringing people home and then creating that deterrent effect.
[Senior administration official], can I turn it over to you to see if you can hit some of this and his other question?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great answers. And I’ll just flesh out a little bit on one of them, totally consistent with what [senior administration official] has said, which is: The focus of Presidential Policy Directive 30, in many ways, not in all ways, was in hostage cases rather than detainee cases. Now, it accounted for the latter. It specifically assigned the role of Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs to include working diplomatic engagements for cases in which a foreign government confirms, acknowledges that it’s detained a U.S. national but our government regards such detention as unlawful or wrongful. That is language that, as [senior administration official] said, was then picked up by Congress in the Levinson Act.
And indeed, PPD 30 did take account of the fact there would need to be family engagement for those cases as well. It explicitly made available to the State Department the family engagement coordinator that was being built at the time at the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell.
But over time, the cases that are in the detainee category — the “foreign government held,” “foreign government acknowledge” category — have risen in both number and degree of difficulty. And that is something that Americans see every day with some of the cases that are in the headlines.
And so the Levinson Act took an important step forward in entrenching some of the reforms set out in PPD 30, not just for hostage cases, but also for detainee cases. This implements that; it takes it forward.
And indeed, in some ways, one key theme of both the executive order that will be announced tomorrow, as well as the “D” indicator, is that they continue to elevate the priority being placed on the “government held,” “government acknowledged” wrongful detainee cases and enhance the toolbox available to us across the government in addressing those cases, which ultimately means resolving the current ones and trying to warn about and deter future ones.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And that is all the questions that we have time for. [Moderator], we’ll turn it back over to you.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much. And thank you, everyone, for joining this call this evening. As a reminder of the ground rules, the call was held on background with the speakers attributable to “senior administration officials,” and it is under embargo until tomorrow morning at 9:00 a.m. Eastern.
Thank you very much. I hope everyone has a wonderful evening.