WASHINGTON – Paul Whelan’s parents grew more and more anxious amid the silence. That same trigger set off alarms for Fred and Cindy Warmbier. And for Marc and Deborah Tice, who have heard nothing from their son for more than six years.
Their nightmarish stories share the same heart-wrenching core: an American gone missing in a foreign country, their families left feeling helpless and filled with dread.
Xiyue Wang, a graduate student in history at Princeton University, has spent three years in an Iranian jail cell, where he recently marked his 38th birthday. His wife, Hua Qu, fears he’ll mark his 39th there, too, and that their 5-year-old son will forget his father.
Austin Tice, an Eagle Scout and former U.S. Marine from Texas, vanished in Syria in 2012. He was working as a freelance journalist ahead of his final year at Georgetown Law School. Tice, 37, has not been heard from since. A video released a month after he disappeared shows him blindfolded and trembling as he’s led up a hillside by armed men. “Oh, Jesus,” Tice says in the video. “Oh, Jesus,” he repeats.
The Warmbiers hoped there would be a secret U.S. government mission to rescue their son Otto from North Korea. In 2016, he was sentenced to 15 years hard labor. His alleged crime? Tearing down a propaganda poster in his hotel. Warmbier, 21, was due to stay in North Korea for a five-day study tour. He was returned home to his parents in Cincinnati after a year and a half, with a massive brain injury that left him blind, deaf and unable to move on his own. The University of Virginia student died a few days later.
More: Otto Warmbier: How the family could collect on a $500 million judgment
The State Department won’t say precisely how many Americans are currently being detained or imprisoned by foreign governments or other hostile forces. But a review of media reports and other information suggests there are at least 10 Americans officially missing or detained by hostile regimes – in Iran, Russia, Turkey and elsewhere.
The figure may be far higher; some data remain classified and other cases undisclosed. Often, these prisoners and hostages are viewed as bargaining chips by unfriendly governments and groups intent on frustrating, and even benefiting from, U.S. foreign policy.
Previously, relatives of missing Americans often spent months or even years quietly fuming in frustration as they tried to ply information from the State Department, the FBI or other federal agencies that might be able to help free their loved ones.
But that has started to change, even as more headline-grabbing cases emerge of Americans detained in Russia, Iran, and other global hotspots. For starters, President Donald Trump has taken a keen interest in hostage release efforts – even using his Twitter feed to demand one American’s freedom.
Behind the scenes, officials in the State Department, the FBI and American intelligence agencies have put in place a more coordinated hostage response team – called the “hostage recovery fusion cell.” The State Department says it has helped release more than 180 Americans since 2015. Current and former diplomats and administration officials believe the United States is getting better at freeing its citizens.
“In the past, U.S. hostages have not been a top priority of American administrations. And now I think it’s better. They are a higher priority,” said Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Bill Clinton who has worked on securing the release of American detainees in Cuba, North Korea and elsewhere.
Richardson pointed to Trump’s implementation of the fusion cell program, which grew out of an Obama administration initiative to revamp the way hostage cases are handled. The fusion cell effort ensures that diplomats, law enforcement and intelligence officials are all sharing information and ideas about ways to bring hostages home.
Diane Foley, whose son James was murdered by the Islamic State militant group in Syria in 2014 during President Barack Obama’s tenure, agreed with Richardson’s assessment.
“I tried to work with the U.S. government when Jim was captured. It was terrible at the time. It was nobody’s job. There was no inter-agency group working on this issue. It was just up to the administration as to whether his captivity was a priority, and with Jim, it wasn’t,” she said. “At least now we have a structure with people whose job it is to strategize about ways to bring Americans who are either unjustly detained or actually kidnapped by terrorist groups home,” she said. “That’s been a huge step forward.”
Foley applauded Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for using public channels, such as their Twitter feeds, to “put the issue of innocent Americans on their lists when they negotiate” with foreign governments.
In July, Trump used a tweet to urge Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to release North Carolina pastor Andrew Brunson. He also slapped sanctions and tariffs on Turkey to pressure the Turkish leader.
“A total disgrace that Turkey will not release a respected U.S. Pastor, Andrew Brunson, from prison,” Trump wrote on Twitter. ” … @RT_Erdogan should do something to free this wonderful Christian husband & father. He has done nothing wrong, and his family needs him!”
More: U.S. pastor released from house arrest in Turkey to visit White House
More: Andrew Brunson was a missionary in Turkey for 24 years
Brunson was released in October, and Trump reveled in the triumph – inviting the pastor to the White House almost as soon as he landed back on American soil.
Trump was similarly ebullient after his administration helped secure the release of three Americans who had been imprisoned in harsh conditions in North Korea – meeting them at 3 a.m. at Joint Base Andrews military compound outside Washington last May. Trump later said “everyone thinks” he deserved a Nobel Peace Prize for overseeing the release of the three men, Kim Dong-chul, Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song.
More: New CSIS report reveals another of 20 undisclosed North Korean missile sites
We want to negotiate
The creation of the fusion cell did not envision such high-level White House involvement.
But it did clarify some rules for negotiating, at least in the case of hostages taken by nonstate terrorist groups: “no prisoner exchanges, no ransoms, no policy concessions,” said Rob Saale, who ran the interagency group until November 2018.
In a significant break from past policy, the new directive permitted “negotiators to talk to different terrorist organizations if they had American hostages,” Saale said. The rationale, he said, was that “negotiation does not equal concession.”
Yet security experts, rights advocates and former prisoners say the U.S. government’s process for trying to secure the release of an American national held abroad is still frustratingly opaque. And family members of those who continue to languish in foreign prisons or detention camps, often in hard-to-access conflict zones, say they often feel let down by U.S. government efforts to bring their loved ones home.
Plus, the fusion cell’s purview does not officially extend to state-acknowledged cases like Wang and Warmbier. The cell instead focuses on cases in which the U.S. government doesn’t know who is holding a missing American, or a citizen has been kidnapped for ransom or snatched by a terrorist group.
When a foreign government officially acknowledges arresting an American, that’s handled by the State Department’s special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, Robert O’Brien. His office coordinates the U.S. government’s diplomatic engagements on detainee-related matters, including meeting with foreign leaders.
“The U.S. policy is clear,” said Qu, referring to government guidance that permits negotiations with captors. “The problem is there is still no strategy for how they are actually going to get my husband home,” she added.
“My husband is a nobody. He didn’t do anything wrong,” Qu said. The Iranians allege he is a spy sent at the behest of American universities to “infiltrate” their country. Qu insists he is just an academic interested in the historical empires of Central Asia.
“If they really want to bring my husband home, they need to be a lot more engaged,” Qu added, noting that it was difficult to see how this could happen at a time of elevated tensions between Iran and the United States. Qu said she has had only sporadic contact with the special envoy’s office and has not received any guidance about what efforts are underway to secure Wang’s release or about what she can do to help.
“This is really, really difficult work: to bring people who have been detained by other governments home,” said Wendy Sherman, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State under Obama. “We talked for months about Americans detained or missing in Iran. We put pressure on them to at least, in the first instance, improve the conditions that Americans were living under,” she said.
“These issues ultimately get resolved because some leverage presents itself to do so.”
O’Brien, Trump’s hostage envoy, was not available for an interview for this story. But State Department deputy spokesperson Robert Palladino said the Trump administration is “working aggressively to bring all Americans home to their families.”
The U.S. government remains “in regular contact with the families of Americans who are detained abroad, and we work actively with them as partners to recover their loved ones,” Palladino said.
Meanwhile, several new stories have emerged in recent weeks of Americans detained abroad, as families go public with their pleas for help.
Iran’s government acknowledged earlier this month that it arrested a 46-year-old American named Michael R. White, a Navy veteran who reportedly traveled to the country to visit an Iranian girlfriend. White is the first American to be detained in Iran during the Trump presidency. His imprisonment could turn out to be another flashpoint in a longstanding diplomatic standoff between Iran and the U.S. over detainees and hostages that stretches back to Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 when 52 American diplomats and citizens were held hostage inside the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
More: America’s contentious history in Iran leads to anger, wonderment, weariness
Inside Iran: USA TODAY reporter gets a rare glimpse of life in Iran
“He is not in a good physical and mental condition,” said Ivar Farhadi, an Iranian who says he was held in the same prison as White before his own release in November. Farhadi fled to Turkey, from where he relayed his encounter with the American. “If the U.S. government does not push for his freedom, the possibility of him surviving is very poor,” he told USA TODAY in a private exchange via Twitter.
Farhadi said White is being held inside the Vakilabad Prison in the eastern city of Mashhad. He described conditions there as akin to torture. “It is filled with dangerous criminals, always cold, and cameras everywhere. The lights were always on,” he said.
White has been in Iranian custody since July, according to Iran’s foreign ministry. He has not been charged with a crime. Gholamali Sadeghi, an Iranian prosecutor, said Friday that White is being held in connection to a “private complaint,” according to the semi-official Mehr news agency.
Iranian officials in New York and Tehran did not respond to a request for comment on Farhadi’s allegations over White’s health or prison conditions, but the account he provided resembles descriptions of detention published this week by Jason Rezaian in “Prisoners,” a book about the 544 days the former Tehran bureau chief for The Washington Post spent in Iran’s Evin prison.
‘100 percent not a spy’
Paul Whelan, an ex-Marine from Michigan, was arrested in Moscow late last year and accused of spying for the U.S. government. His brother, David Whelan, said his family has “a lot of confidence in what governments have been doing” to make sure that his sibling, who is a citizen of the U.S., Canada, Britain and Ireland, is being treated well.
Whelan said that Paul, 48, a frequent traveler who is a security director for an automotive-parts company, was in Russia for a wedding.
“I am 100 percent sure he is not a spy,” he said.
David Whelan said he and his sister have been meeting lawmakers in Washington to “make contact” and provide them with whatever information they might need.
“It would nice to know what happened and why Paul was detained,” he said.
On Tuesday, a Russian court denied bail, leaving Whelan in jail at least through the end of February. At the hearing in Moscow, Whelan was confined to a metal enclosure. Whelan could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of espionage.
There has been speculation that Whelan’s detention may be retribution for Maria Butina, a Russian national who confessed to serving in the U.S. as an unregistered agent of the Kremlin.
David Whelan’s lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, told reporters in Moscow on Tuesday that his client was charged with handling classified Russian government material allegedly given to him on a USB flash drive. Zherebenkov has suggested a Butina-Whelan prisoner exchange, but that move has been mostly dismissed by Russian authorities.
“The American people should know we’re very focused on this at the most senior level of the United States government,” Pompeo said earlier this month.
Trump has been largely silent on Whelan’s case so far.
More: ‘I absolutely don’t think he is a spy’: Paul Whelan’s twin talks about Russia
More: Ex-CIA agents: Paul Whelan doesn’t fit spy profile, was likely set up by Russians
The longest-held hostage in American history – if he is still alive – is Bob Levinson, a retired FBI agent who vanished 12 years ago this March on the island of Kish, off Iran’s southern coast. Exactly what Levinson was doing in Kish remains a matter of dispute.
The Associated Press reported in 2013 that he was on a mission for the CIA to recruit a potential Iranian mole. The FBI still claims he was working as a private investigator, likely probing a cigarette-smuggling ring. Christine Levinson, his wife, said that she did not know why her husband traveled to Iran. He never spoke to her about the work he did for the government, she told USA TODAY.
A proof-of-life video emerged in 2011. Then, images appeared of Levinson wearing an orange jumpsuit of the kind typically associated with prisons or hostages. Iran says it is not holding him, does not know why he was captured and has no information about his current whereabouts.
“We’ve been involved with the past three U.S. administrations and each one is different,” Levinson said. “We have watched what Trump has done with other hostages, and we think that ultimately he has the power to get Bob out,” she said.
“The hard part is seeing one of our grandchildren doing something that’s he’s missing,” Levinson said. “I know how much he loves children and doted on our own.”
The Levinsons have seven children, the youngest 4-months-old when he disappeared.
“Bob’s missed it all,” she added. “High school years, college years. He’s missed walking two daughters down the aisle. Our last daughter will get married in May on our 45th wedding anniversary. It’s going to be a happy day, but also a sad day because Bob won’t be there, although we still have hope that he will somehow make it.”
The Levinson family issued a statement this week reacting to a claim in “Prisoners,” Rezaian’s book, which alleges that Bob Levinson’s case was initially part of the negotiations between Tehran and Washington that led to the release of the Washington Post reporter and 4 other hostages in 2016, but subsequently dropped.
“Our father was left behind,” the statement said.
“To think that the Obama administration let Iran get away with this, and did not demand this information and the return of our father, is absolutely abhorrent.”
The experience of Sarah Shourd represents the limits of U.S. power.
Shourd was detained and accused of espionage along with two other Americans after they mistakenly crossed into Iran while hiking near the border with Iraqi Kurdistan in 2009. She was released earlier than her fellow captives, both male, she now believes, because she is a woman and feigned an illness that the Iranians then cited as a reason to release her on humanitarian grounds. Shourd immediately traveled to Washington to try to help secure the release of her companions.
She met with Obama. The White House said it was doing everything it could.
But she felt it was going nowhere.
“Eventually, I broke with that strategy because I could see the U.S. was not going to do anything and I got other countries involved, which led to their release,” Shourd said.
One of those countries was Venezuela, then led by Hugo Chavez, an anti-American dictator with a penchant for self-publicity. Shourd said that after Chavez personally called Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he agreed to let them go.
The governments of Oman and Iraq also lobbied Iran’s leadership on their behalf.
When Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal were released, Obama commended their families’ “tireless advocacy.” He also thanked the Swiss government, the leaders of Oman and Iraq and others who “worked steadfastly” for Bauer and Fattal.
There was no mention of Venezuela.
“I’ll do it for you, not for the Americans,” Ahmadinejad told Chavez, according to Shourd.
Hjelmgaard reported from London