AMAC Exclusive – By Shane Harris
After four years in which Donald Trump famously made the retrieval of American hostages abroad a point of personal pride, his successor is coming under fierce criticism from the constituency that cares the most—the hostages’ families. Family members are speaking out about Joe Biden’s indifference to their loved ones being wrongfully detained—and many are also pointing fingers at his embattled National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan.
In August, with Joe Biden’s disastrous evacuation of Afghanistan fully underway, Sullivan promised “safe passage” for Americans trying to escape the chaos, assuring the country that everyone who wanted to leave would be able to. Nearly five months later, dozens of Americans are still trapped there, even as the Biden administration has grown more reluctant to provide updates on recovery efforts. In recent weeks, reports have emerged that these people’s family members, as well as others with loved ones trapped in more than a dozen countries around the world, have grown increasingly frustrated with the Biden administration’s lack of action.
The White House’s, and specifically Mr. Sullivan’s handling of wrongful foreign detainment cases has been a constant subject of public criticism throughout Biden’s first year in office. In February, early in the administration, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken held a call with families of loved ones held abroad, promising “transparency in our communications with families” and that their cases would be a “top priority in our diplomatic engagements with both allies and adversaries.”
However, some families are complaining about not being able to speak with President Biden or Mr. Sullivan directly, in contrast to the treatment they had received under the last administration. Sullivan in particular is a key player in all negotiations with foreign countries, including over hostages and Americans detained abroad.
According to reporting from Axios, multiple hostage advocates believe that Mr. Sullivan is deliberately preventing the details of hostage cases from reaching President Biden in order to prevent “emotional decision-making” – the latest in a series of accusations that Biden’s staff are trying to “protect” Biden by keeping key information from him. If true, such action would amount to a serious breach of trust and dereliction of duty from the president’s top national security aide.
Families of hostages are finding other ways of breaking through, though, and forcing Sullivan and Biden to pay attention to their fight to get their loved ones back. In late October, the families of 26 Americans trapped abroad penned an open letter to Biden urging immediate action. “We need to be shown that the promises of your administration to prioritize the return of our family members are not empty,” the letter reads. “Now is the time for action. Now we need you to bring our fellow Americans home.”
The letter also referenced the February call with Secretary Blinken, but added that “as of this letter, so many of us remain in the same situation, or worse, more than 8 months later… we have not been able to meet with you or even with your National Security Advisor to discuss our loved ones’ captivity.”
Earlier this month, Sullivan did finally agree to hear out their concerns by hosting a video call with family members. But participants left saying they still felt as if many of their questions weren’t answered. One family member said that Sullivan and other Biden administration officials on the call “made a concerted effort to not focus on any specifics” – hardly the sort of treatment that would make someone with a loved one trapped in China or Venezuela feel heard. Elizabeth Whelan, whose brother Paul Whelan has been detained in Russia since 2018, pointed out that families often know more about the cases than the government officials who are supposed to be handling them.
In short, it doesn’t appear as if Sullivan’s phone call is likely to placate those family members who participated, and the issue will continue to be a problem for President Biden and his national security team moving forward – particularly as growing aggression from American adversaries like Russia and China make more hostage situations increasingly likely.
The Biden administration’s struggles to bring back Americans detained abroad is also quickly becoming a significant point of divergence from four years of successes under the last administration.
Soon after taking office, Trump publicly declared his commitment to bringing Americans home, and over the next four years strung together an impressive series of high-profile recoveries. In a captivating video from the RNC convention in 2020, several of those former hostages sat alongside President Trump and told their stories about their captivity and rescue thanks to Trump’s efforts. In total, the Trump administration succeeded in bringing back more than 50 hostages from 22 countries, sending a strong signal to the world about the importance of every American life.
Key to this effort was Robert O’Brien who, prior to becoming Trump’s National Security Advisor, was the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Negotiations. Trump cited O’Brien’s qualifications as a negotiator upon tapping him for the job, further indicating the importance of the issue to Trump. While in the position, O’Brien took the opposite approach from Sullivan’s thus far, keeping in close personal contact with families and providing frequent updates to the President.
In fact, Trump and his team were so successful that even the liberal media reluctantly lauded their efforts. Vox called the release of three American hostages from North Korea a “big win” for Trump. The New Yorker said Trump’s hostage negotiation successes were “exaggerated” but nonetheless an “achievement worthy of applause.” Even the Washington Post begrudgingly admitted that Trump “deserves some credit” – before, of course, saying that he wasn’t doing enough.
Trump realized – as Joe Biden, Jake Sullivan, and the rest of Biden’s national security team apparently do not – that securing the release of an American held abroad is about far more than just bringing home one U.S. citizen. Such action makes a much broader statement about American strength, that our government will go to any lengths to protect every one of our people, and that our country is not to be messed with. Trump articulated the principle as “No American Left Behind.”
Sullivan may think that prioritizing hostages undermines other national security interests, but the truth is that not prioritizing hostages sends a message to the world that the United States is weak and can be bullied into submission. Americans saw the disastrous consequences of weakness in Afghanistan and are continuing to see the same in Ukraine and, to a lesser extent, Taiwan. If the Biden administration truly wants to restore an image of American strength on the world stage, a good place to start would be rescuing trapped U.S. citizens and lawful residents longing to return home.
Shane Harris is a writer and political consultant from Southwest Ohio.