More US government support sought for Americans held abroad

FILE - In this June 19, 2019, file photo, Diane Foley, mother of journalist James Foley, who was killed by the Islamic State terrorist group in a graphic video released online, speaks to the Associated Press during an interview in Washington. Family members of Americans who are imprisoned abroad or held hostage by militant groups say in a new report that the U.S. government must do better in communicating with them. The report from the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation is based on interviews with 25 former hostages and detainees as well as their relatives and advocates. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File) (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

WASHINGTON – Relatives of Americans who are wrongfully imprisoned abroad or held hostage by militant groups say in a report that the U.S. government must do better in communicating with them, though they cite improvements over the past five years.

Several of those interviewed for the report issued Thursday say they do not believe that the cases of their loved ones have the attention of the highest levels of government. In particular, family members of Americans detained by foreign governments on trumped-up charges are less satisfied with the attention and information they receive than are relatives of hostages held by militant or criminal groups.

The report from the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation is based on interviews with 25 former hostages and detainees as well as their relatives and advocates. It cites improvements in the government's response since U.S. officials overhauled the hostage policy five years ago, but says relatives still want more complete and accurate information and clarity about which agency is supposed to help them. Some, for instance, want the government to declassify more information so that it can be more easily shared, or to provide limited security clearances.

The report is the latest outside effort to scrutinize how the government interacts with hostages and detainees and their families back home. It examines the changes to hostage policy that were instituted by the Obama administration in 2015 and that largely remain intact under President Donald Trump. Those include the creation of an FBI-led hostage recovery fusion cell and the appointment of a State Department envoy for hostage affairs.

The policy revamp followed the beheadings of Westerners, including Foley, a freelance journalist, at the hands of the Islamic State group in Syria. Relatives of hostages demanded changes after they said U.S. officials threatened prosecution if they tried to raise a ransom, kept them out of the loop on rescue attempts and didn't clearly communicate government policy.

Foley's mother, Diane, established the foundation to raise attention for hostage issues and to advocate for Americans held overseas.

The report says the policy improvements have been effective and durable, resulting in better government access for hostage families and more resources. But it also says families of other detainees don't feel like their cases are prioritized in the same way.

The U.S. government distinguishes hostages who are captured by overseas criminal organizations or by militant groups designated as terrorists from detainees who are held by foreign governments, often arbitrarily or on exaggerated or fabricated charges. The distinction matters in terms of which government agency is responsible for the case.