BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. In almost every one of the ISIS videos in which John Cantlie appears, he identifies himself like this.
[ISIS PROPAGANDA CLIP]:
JOHN CANTLIE: Hello there, I’m John Cantlie, the British citizen abandoned by my government.
BOB GARFIELD: And in one of those videos, in between explaining the triumphs of the Islamic State and the warped Western media, he speaks for a moment with eerie conviction.
JOHN CANTLIE: We were left to die. It’s the worst feeling in the world, being left behind like that. We’d been in the longest, paid our dues, watched everyone else go home, never stopped believing and then wham, have some of that, you’re not worth negotiating for. To be left behind so cynically by the country you thought you knew was some kind of ultimate betrayal.
BOB GARFIELD: Those words, whether his true belief or not, can't but electrify the longstanding debate about how to get hostages home, a debate that's escalated in the last few years, with the rise of ISIS and the spate of kidnappings, back channel releases and brutal public murders.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: American journalist Steven Sotloff of Time Magazine, held by ISIS, reportedly has been beheaded in Syria by ISIS…
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: This third video that was posted Saturday night showed the killing of David Haines and showed a threat to kill another British hostage.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The terror group has released this video, showing the apparent beheading of Alan Henning. He’s the fourth Western captive killed by ISIS since August.
BOB GARFIELD: The core question: Should governments pay or assist in paying ransom in exchange for our citizens or should they refuse, as our government does, lest rewarding kidnapping begets more kidnappings? Other countries embrace a third way. France, Spain, Italy and other European governments publicly deny paying ransoms, but they do. Others, like Denmark, facilitate payments from families of hostages. Not so the US or the UK.
GARY NOESNER: The theory being that with such a rigid and flexible stance, the terrorists will realize there's nothing to be gained by holding an American hostage and, therefore, they will either avoid taking a hostage or will let them go because they’re not going to gain anything from it.
BOB GARFIELD: Gary Noesner is a former hostage negotiator for the FBI.
GARY NOESNER: It may sound reasonable and logical but it simply doesn't work that way. I think it's clear that Americans still remain very desirable targets for many terrorist groups.
BOB GARFIELD: While leading the FBI's Crisis Negotiation Unit from 1990 to 2003, Noesner handled more than 120 overseas kidnapping cases.
GARY NOESNER: The word “negotiate,” Bob, has come to mean capitulation and acquiescence, and negotiation’s just simply a dialogue. It’s simply a channel of communication, and there are innumerable reasons why that works to our benefit.
BOB GARFIELD: Among them, intelligence gathered during the process, another, forestalling a violent conclusion. A dialogue, Noesner says, at least suggests to hostage takers that there might be some eventual benefit, so they keep the hostage alive. He reflects on a case in which missionaries were kidnapped by the Colombian FARC group.
GARY NOESNER: And the missionary organization said, we’re going to tell these people, in no uncertain terms, that we will never negotiate with them, and the terrorists killed three hostages. You never want to slam the door shut like that.
BOB GARFIELD: Open communication also helps clarify the captors’ ultimate goals, whether publicity, money or something else.
GARY NOESNER: I worked a case in Africa many years ago where they wanted money but we ended up giving ‘em office supplies and camping equipment, and that sufficed.
BOB GARFIELD: ISIS isn't in it for the paperclips and propane stoves, but point taken. Hostages are a commodity in a marketplace, a bizarre bazaar.
GARY NOESNER: And one of the common mistakes that anyone makes, including people in government, is they hear an initial demand, we want $100 million, and they say, we’re not gonna pay $100 million. Well, in [LAUGHS] most of the developing world where these kidnappings occur, even terrorist ones, kidnap payouts range about 10 percent of what the initial demand was.
BOB GARFIELD: Like buying a pashmina in a bazaar, there’s the starting price and then there's the transaction price.
GARY NOESNER: Well, that’s right, and you’ve got to haggle it down. It’s expected, it’s cultural. We’re not very good at that in the United States.
BOB GARFIELD: Noesner says that when he worked at the FBI in the ‘90s and early 2000s, the ransom question was met with greater flexibility. The government never paid but the State Department did not stop families from paying.
GARY NOESNER: If they determined to do it, we would help them do it safely and smartly. What happened, I think, is post-9/11 there began the slow tightening of the interpretation of what the FBI could do.
DIANE FOLEY: It got kind of complicated and confusing for us as families because we were hearing different things from different branches of the government.
BOB GARFIELD: Diane Foley is the mother of late journalist and ISIS hostage James Foley. While the family was fighting for his release, the FBI urged them to be in touch with James’ captors but the State Department warned of prosecution if they paid a ransom. The right hand didn't know what the left hand was threatening, creating anxiety and confusion, now addressed by an interagency hostage task force called a “fusion cell.”
DIANE FOLEY: Since Jim's death, the hostage review that was done and the new formation of the hostage recovery fusion cell now has State Department co-located with FBI and intelligence. That, in itself, is a huge improvement.
BOB GARFIELD: The fusion cell is a sort of war room staffed by members of the Departments of Justice, Defense, State, Treasury, Intelligence and the FBI. It’s a fix for the turf wars and poor communication that have often muddled the government's response. The no-US-concessions-to-terrorists rule hasn't changed but families will not be prosecuted for paying ransoms.
Diane Foley herself was deeply involved in the government's review and has become a hostage family champion, advocating passionately for a hard look at the policy the US stands so firmly by, mainly the assumption that refusing to make concessions depresses the market for American hostages.
DIANE FOLEY: There was recently a report put out by West Point that actually [LAUGHS] showed that Americans are being captured at the same rate as other citizens around the world. So we need to make sure that our current policy does protect us, right?
BOB GARFIELD: Gary Noesner echoes that sentiment.
GARY NOESNER: There is no data that I can find that would suggest, for example, that a gang of terrorists grabs an American and then all of a sudden has an epiphany and says, oh, we’ve grabbed an American by mistake [LAUGHS], so we’re not gonna get any money so let’s let him go.
DIANE FOLEY: I really think we need to come together as Western allies. Jim was with 17 other Westerners, three of whom were Americans, but we had Italy, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and yet, each country handled it themselves. And if we had come together, you know, who knows, there might have been possibility of everyone being freed.
BOB GARFIELD: Perhaps, but the fundamental tension still remains between a family's wishes and the government's philosophy, between what we think is sound policy and what we’d do if it were us. Indeed, the fates of nearly two dozen ISIS hostages held in the same prison seem to reflect the different policies in the starkest way possible. The European hostages were released. Those from the UK and the US were killed. Gary Noesner.
GARY NOESNER: I don't agree with European countries having paid large sums and I don't think the US government should ever pay a penny. However, there is a much lower expectation of what a family could play versus a government, so we’re starting out in a whole different bargaining position. Envision it being that daughter of yours and somebody says, if you don’t pay $100,000, she’s dead. Well, you’re gonna come up with some money. It may not be 100,000 but you're gonna negotiate and come up with some money. It’s your family member. And that’s the dilemma people get in and I think often some government officials don't understand.
BOB GARFIELD: Diane Foley, grieving mother turned activist, has helped inject human emotion and perhaps common sense into the process. Like many victims of family tragedy, she’s still trying to fill the unfill-able void with meaning and purpose.
DIANE FOLEY: Jim would have wanted all American hostages to come home. He would have wanted families supported. And he definitely would have wanted conflict journalists, particularly the independent ones, to be safer so that they could do their work. So that is our work. I feel as long as we’re still on earth, it's my role and our challenge to continue to do our best to make it a better world. That's the only way, as far as I'm concerned. We got to try, Bob, we got to keep trying.
BOB GARFIELD: Among Diane's efforts has been to help fund Hostage US, a new organization dedicated to assisting hostage families through their ordeals.
Rachel Briggs, who runs hostage US and helped found its parent organization, Hostage UK more than a decade ago, was also dragged into her vocation by grim circumstance.
RACHEL BRIGGS: As a very young 19-year-old at university 20 years ago, my uncle was kidnapped in Colombia. We spent seven and a half months not knowing whether he was alive or dead, there never being enough information, the information being confusing, a sense that you have no agency over what was going on. It was really that formative experience that determined me that something needed to be done.
BOB GARFIELD: Briggs’ uncle returned safely.
Hostage US has a, quote, “policy of no policy” when it comes to ransoms. Instead, it aims to fill a compassion gap, helping families with the nitty-gritty, from conveying traumatic information to children, to providing financial advice if a breadwinner is held captive.
RACHEL BRIGGS: For many of our families, the most contact they've had with government is getting a parking ticket and suddenly they find themselves in the middle of this awful drama, dealing with FBI, State Department, DOJ, private security companies. We’re able to help them to make sense of what's going on, give them pointers about what questions to ask, how to hold those agencies to account, really how to do their jobs as families as well as they possibly can.
BOB GARFIELD: Is there a, I don’t know, top 10 list of the things that hostage families face that they simply don't anticipate as they’re dragged into this process?
RACHEL BRIGGS: They might be, for example, asked for a DNA sample within the first few weeks. Well, a family's automatic reaction to that is, is he dead, are, are you asking for this because he's dead and you're not telling me? We’re able to give them reassurance that it’s actually just a very routine thing to ask for early in the case so that it’s on file and it’s ready, should it be needed. One of, I guess, the most common sources of anxiety for families is media interest. Some of them suddenly find the media camped on their doorstep, journalists threatening to break the story against their wishes.
I guess the other thing is having to engage with very large bureaucracies. Picture the scene, you’re the wife of a, a hostage and you have a minor car accident. You phone the car insurance company and their first question is, can I speak to the policyholder? Well, you can't because he's a hostage but I can't tell you why you can't because I've been told by the government that I need to keep this secret, Families kind of find themselves paralyzed in those situations.
BOB GARFIELD: You are constantly immersed in other people's worst nightmares. I wonder what most appalls you about what those people go through.
RACHEL BRIGGS: I would say the thing that grinds down any family going through this situation is this constant sense of uncertainty. Day in, day out you are hearing nothing, you are learning nothing. You have pretty much no control over the situation. I remember speaking to the elderly mother of a hostage who was going in to work every day in her local hospital and was having to keep the secret that her son was being held overseas and answering questions, how is he, yeah, he’s doing great, he's still on his travels. The pressure that that puts on somebody is unimaginable. And, of course, her colleagues only found out when they read in the newspapers about his brutal murder. I guess what we’re able to do is be one of the few people in their lives that they can speak openly about what's going on.
BOB GARFIELD: Rachel Briggs is the director of Hostage US and Hostage UK.
Debra and Marc Tice are the parents of Austin Tice, a freelance American journalist who disappeared in Syria nearly four years ago. At age 30, Austin went abroad with the purest of intentions, to report firsthand what befell the people there. He had little experience but a lot of verve and nerve, venturing deeper into Syria than nearly any other Western journalist. Within a month, he was filing stories for McClatchy and the Washington Post, appearing on CBS and giving interviews to NPR.
AUSTIN TICE: From what I’ve seen, when the rebels fight the civilians come out in the streets and, and leave them, you know, platters of food and, and pitchers of water to, to support them when they’re fighting.
BOB GARFIELD: Then in August, 2012 he vanished. Six nightmarish weeks later, his family saw evidence of life, a video showing him being led blindfolded up a hillside by armed masked men.
CAPTORS/CHANTING: Allahu al-Akbar, Allahu al-Akbar…
AUSTIN TICE: [RECITING ARABIC PRAYER] Oh Jesus, oh Jesus…
BOB GARFIELD: Since that video, the Tices have had no
communication with Austin or his captors but they have had what they call “credible recent reports that Austin is still alive” and that he isn’t held either by ISIS or Syrian rebel groups. The Syrian regime denies any responsibility but its network of militias have the means and the histories to be suspect. For its part, the US government has told the Tices to be patient. Debra Tice says that staying silent never made sense to them.
DEBRA TICE: If your child goes missing in the mall, you don't go and whisper in a security guard’s ear. The natural response is to start hollering your child's name, asking everyone in the mall have they seen them, raising a ruckus.
BOB GARFIELD: With the help of Reporters Without Borders, the Tices have run full-page ads in major newspapers, rented billboards in their hometown of Houston, launched social media campaigns, given dozens of interviews. But, despite their best efforts, they’ve found it next to impossible to reach the American public, even their own neighbors.
DEBRA TICE: It always just floors us. You know, even now we’ll get the question, well, are you guys gonna go public? Well - ah! [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: That frustration was epitomized most recently at a rally at the White House organized by journalism students at Austin's alma mater, Georgetown University. It was well-publicized, there was a lot of interest, it was a beautiful day but -
DEBRA TICE: The attendance was small, it was small. It was great to see it, but compared to what we see in some other countries, I mean, in Lebanon when someone goes missing, they burn tires on the highway. In 2015, I was in Paris for World Press Freedom Day and there were thousands of people there. When one of their citizens is taken missing, they throw banners on their tallest buildings and say, we will not stand for our people being taken and we will bring them home. I'm not really sure, Bob, why we can't get that kind of groundswell in America.
BOB GARFIELD: Is it hostage fatigue?
MARC TICE: I think it's really about what are people invested in, what are they passionate about and how the modern news cycle, you know, is constantly changing; you can’t keep your, your message on top for long.
BOB GARFIELD: There was a very sympathetic piece about Austin and you in Texas Monthly but at the end of it there was this description of you as having become - I think it said “a full-time hostage family.” And I wonder what percentage of that is the realistic notion that you can help secure Austin's release and what percentage of it is just a coping mechanism?
MARC TICE: There’s no doubt that Debra and I both feel [SIGHS] strongest when we’re taking action. On the other hand, we found out very early, you know, and this is a, an old cliché, you know, don’t worry, the government’s here, they’re gonna help you, that just wasn't the case. So we not only felt like we had to figure out what we could do but that it was actually necessary.
BOB GARFIELD: And what happens every time the phone rings?
MARC TICE: We don't jump anymore but we do answer it every time it rings in the middle of the night. And the last thing that both of us do before we hit the pillow is check all of our Google Alerts or Twitter feeds, search the Internet for anything new. Debra does way too much of that in the middle of the night.
DEBRA TICE: It’s not the middle of the night on the other side of the world.
MARC TICE: There you go.
DEBRA TICE: We are a hostage family. Austin has six siblings. And even though his youngest brother is 22, they have sorely missed their parents these last three years and nine months. And to fill the gap that Marc, and especially me - the only job that I've ever had is to be the mom - they have really held it together for each other through college graduations and weddings, big life events where it would have been so different if I had been fully present. And I, I do think they’re quite tired of it.
BOB GARFIELD: Early on in his expedition, to people who asked him, what in the world are you up to, Austin wrote a Facebook post. I’m just going to read a portion of it. “Our granddads stormed Normandy and Iwo Jima and defeated global fascism. Neil Armstrong flew to the moon in a glorified trashcan, doing math on a clipboard as he went. Sometime between when our granddads licked the Nazis and when we started putting warnings on our coffee cups about the temperature of our beverage, America lost that pioneering spirit. We became a fat, weak, complacent, coddled, unambitious and cowardly nation. So that's why I came here to Syria and it's why I like being here now, right now, right in the middle of a brutal and still uncertain civil war.” This is a manifesto about a life with purpose.
DEBRA TICE: You know, it’s that fearless sense of calling that fills our history books with heroes.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Debra and Marc Tice are the parents of Austin Tice, the freelance American journalist who disappeared in Syria in August, 2012.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All the kidnapped reporters, living or dead, shared that fearless sense of calling, to break the silence and to tell the truth. In the end, they’re either ransomed or vanished or beheaded after condemning the West. Only John Cantlie must break the silence again and again, with words that have no relevance to truth.
A mythical torture, right? When Prometheus stole fire for mankind, Zeus chained him to a rock where daily an eagle ate his liver, which was nightly regenerated. He was kept alive, like Cantlie. Of course, Prometheus eventually was freed by Hercules. We haven’t yet gotten to the end of Cantlie’s story.
BOB GARFIELD: This week’s show was produced almost entirely by Meara Sharma.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield.