Administration

Biden moves to boost info sharing with families of Americans detained abroad

President Biden on Tuesday signed an executive order that directs his administration to share more information with families of Americans that the U.S. government says are wrongfully detained abroad, according to senior administration officials.

The order also authorizes government agencies to impose financial sanctions and visa restrictions on those “directly or indirectly” involved in American hostage-taking or wrongful detention, according to a White House fact sheet, though the administration is not announcing any immediate penalties.  

In addition, the State Department is rolling out a new “D” risk indicator for travel advisories to single out countries where the risk of wrongful detention by a foreign government is high.  

The Biden administration is immediately labeling six countries with the “D” indicator: Burma, China, Iran, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela, a senior administration official told reporters on a call about the forthcoming announcement.   

The order comes as the Biden administration faces pressure from families of Americans detained overseas to do more to help their situations. The high-profile case of WNBA star Brittney Griner has brought more scrutiny to the administration’s strategy.  

Officials said the actions Biden announced Tuesday would build on the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, a 2020 law named after Bob Levinson, the longest-held American hostage who is believed to have died in Iranian custody.  

The executive order “is critical and gives the U.S. government expansive tools to help get Americans home,” another senior administration official said, adding that the order grants the government authority to impose sanctions on those responsible for or complicit in wrongful detention or hostage-taking.  

The official said that the administration would be “judicious and strategic” in its use of sanctions, noting the ultimate goal is to bring Americans home. Later, the official suggested that the administration would invite input from families of detained Americans on potential penalties.  

The 2020 law already authorizes the president to impose visa restrictions and property-blocking sanctions against a foreign person responsible for or complicit in the wrongful or unlawful detention of an American citizen abroad.

The State Department said that the order would allow the U.S. to impose financial and travel restrictions on those responsible for unjust detentions of Americans abroad, whether state actors or terrorist organizations.

Another senior administration official said that the administration’s hope is that the sanctions will help deter such behavior in the long term.  

Biden’s new executive order “directs relevant parts of the U.S. Government to bolster their engagement and sharing of relevant information, including intelligence information, consistent with the protection of sources and methods, with families regarding their loved ones’ status and U.S. Government efforts to secure their release or return, as appropriate,” the White House fact sheet says. 

Additionally, the executive order charges officials across federal agencies to “develop options and strategies” for deterring foreign countries from wrongfully detaining Americans or holding them hostage, according to the fact sheet.  

Biden signed the executive order a day before a group of families of Americans being held hostage or detained abroad will visit Washington, D.C., to unveil a mural depicting 18 of those Americans. The event is being organized by the Bring Our Families Home Campaign, an effort launched earlier this year to help secure the release of American detainees.  

Officials would not say whether Biden planned to meet with the families but said the new actions showed his commitment to securing the release of Americans held overseas.  

Jonathan Franks, a spokesman for the Bring Our Families Home Campaign, criticized the White House in a statement Monday evening, saying officials held a call with families that day ahead of the mural unveiling but disabled the talk and chat functions so that the families could not speak.  

“As we always try to, we provided the White House with a simple plan for engaging with families more than a week ago. Instead, the White House is taking executive action to direct itself to follow existing law,” Franks said, presumably referring to the forthcoming executive order. 

Biden freed former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed from a Russian prison in April through a prisoner swap. Reed, whom the U.S. government classified as wrongfully detained, had been jailed for almost three years on charges he assaulted a police officer. 

Biden received praise for bringing Reed home, but the action simultaneously triggered questions about other cases, most notably those of Griner and Paul Whelan, who have been held in Russia since February 2022 and December 2018, respectively.  

Earlier this month, Biden phoned Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, and later called Elizabeth Whelan, Paul Whelan’s sister, after facing criticism from both for a lack of outreach.

“When Americans are taken captive abroad, we must do everything in our power to secure their release,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement, adding that the Biden administration would be “relentless in our efforts to reunite Americans who are held hostage or wrongfully detained with their loved ones.”

Elizabeth Whelan commended Biden’s executive order on Tuesday, calling it a “significant move” and “extremely welcome.”

Updated at 1:30 p.m.

Tags Brittney Griner Brittney Griner China Joe Biden Russia

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