White House Unveils New Executive Order Concerning American Hostages and Unlawful Detainees

In the executive order, Biden declared a national emergency to deal with hostage-taking and unlawful detention of Americans abroad, saying that such “heinous acts” posed “an extraordinary and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.”

“The US government must redouble its efforts at home and with its partners abroad to deter these practices and secure the release of those held hostage or unjustly held,” he said.

Some families have warmly welcomed the executive order, which families were informed of during a call with administration officials on Monday, as a key tool for bringing their loved ones home. However, others have expressed great frustration with his introduction, telling CNN that even as the White House is promoting the new system, it still has not addressed their biggest concerns and requests, namely a meeting with Biden.

“I can’t talk about the president’s specific schedule, but I can talk about his commitment to these issues, and the priority he places on repatriating Americans who are being held hostage abroad, and unjustly held abroad,” a senior administration official said when asked by CNN. On a call with reporters, whether Biden will meet with families who will be in the nation’s capital this week.

The executive order directs the administration to “identify and recommend options and strategies to the President … to secure the return of hostages or the return of unjustly detained United States nationals” and “to coordinate the development and implementation of policies, strategies, and procedures for the recovery of hostages or the return of unjustly detained United States nationals.” Allows the department to impose sanctions and visa bans on those involved in hostage taking and unlawful detention. It aims to increase transparency between the administration and family members of hostages and unlawful detainees by promoting the sharing of information, including intelligence.

In addition to the executive order, the administration announced that it will use a new indicator on the State Department’s travel advisory for individual countries to highlight that a US citizen is at risk of being taken hostage or wrongly held if they travel there. A second high-ranking administration official said Myanmar (also known as Burma), China, Iran, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela will receive the new “D” danger index.

“Our goal is to bring people home”

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken described Tuesday’s actions as evidence of the US government’s commitment to the safety of American citizens abroad, saying in a statement that “we will continue our determined efforts to reunite Americans held hostage or unjustly held with the United States and their loved ones.”

The first senior administration official said that no new sanctions would be applied immediately under the sanctions authority established in the executive order.

“Our goal is to bring people home, so we use the power of sanctions with a primary focus on helping secure the release of their loved ones,” a third senior administration said. “Now the use of sanctions may not always help secure someone’s release, so we will be prudent and strategic in our use of this power.”

Tuesday’s executive order builds on the operations to handle the hostage cases identified during the Obama administration. It also builds heavily on an existing law—the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage Accountability Act—that set standards for who is considered unjustly held, expanded tools to assist in the release of these American detainees and hostages, and authorized sanctions and was intended to promote increased engagement with families. This act is named in honor of Robert Levinson, an American who has been held in Iran for decades and believed to have died there.

The third official in senior management said there had been ongoing meetings to draft the executive order since the law was passed in December 2020 “and the idea was that we had to get this right, that’s not something we want to put back in any way, or models.”

“We wanted to have a useful tool and it took a lot of time to try to make sure that all stakeholders had a chance to take stock so we could find something that would be useful, powerful and would achieve the end states that we were hoping to achieve. So it took a while, but if you want to Doing it right, sometimes you have to invest time, and I think that’s the case here,” said that official.

“Very welcome”

Elizabeth Whelan, whose brother Paul Whelan has been detained in Russia since 2018, called the executive order a “very important and welcome step” and one she has been waiting for since the passage of the Robert Levinson Act.

“This order gives the United States leverage we would not otherwise have against unlawful detention in all areas, and sets an example for other countries to do the same,” she said.

“Ultimately, it will take a multilateral response to stamp out the sinister practice of using ordinary citizens as political pawns, and I hope our government will take full advantage of this to help bring Americans home in the meantime,” Whelan told CNN. Appreciated to get a preview of the news during the call with families on Monday.

Other family members of Americans illegally detained abroad told CNN they saw the executive order as a positive step forward, but said it was unclear what impact it would have on their loved ones’ cases. Veronica Fadel Wijeman, whose father Tomio Fadel has been imprisoned in Venezuela since 2017, said she’d also appreciate getting a heads up on the executive order, rather than being surprised.

“No way in response to what we need”

However, other family members who spoke to CNN said they were very unhappy with Monday’s call and that they felt misled about the contents of the call. They were informed of this on Sunday in an email that did not provide any details about the contents, leading them to believe there would be substantive updates or that Biden might join.

They said they were unable to raise questions or concerns during the call, which a family member described as “isolation.” Others said that if they had known in advance that the call would discuss the executive order, they would not have called, because this call “was in no way in response to what we needed and asked again and again.”

A family member, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the informal call, said it was a “poor delivery of the wrong message.”

According to family members briefed Monday, officials did not explain why the White House would enforce the order Tuesday. Some family members told CNN they felt the administration’s timing of the order was intended to distract from negative attention and upcoming events being held by families of detainees in Washington, D.C., including the unveiling of a new mural commissioned by Bring Our Families. home campaign.

In a statement, campaign spokesman Jonathan Franks described the call as “an attempt to pre-control press attention from the many hostage families who are in Washington this week to unveil their mural.”

CNN’s Kylie Atwood and Donald Judd contributed to this report.

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