The fam­i­lies of hostages are told to keep quiet. They shouldn’t.

The Post’s Adam Gold­man says of­fi­cial pleas for se­crecy are wrong

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK -­man@wash­ Adam Gold­man cov­ers ter­ror­ism and na­tional se­cu­rity for The Wash­ing­ton Post.

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 tome and other jour­nal­ists cov­er­ing the hostages.)

In the first few­days 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.


Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.) speaks last week about ef­forts to free Amir Hek­mati, an Amer­i­can held by Iran. Sarah Hek­mati is by his side.


Sarah Hek­mati of­fers emo­tional tes­ti­mony about her brother at a House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee hear­ing this month with other rel­a­tives of U.S. cit­i­zens de­tained in Iran.

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