WASHINGTON — Just days before Christmas last year, Roger Carstens, a former Green Beret turned diplomat, was thousands of miles away from home. He had flown to Saudi Arabia in a last-ditch attempt to attend the trial of two U.S. citizens, but he also hoped to meet Dr. Walid Fitaihi, a U.S.-educated physician who moonlighted as a motivational speaker on TV.
In 2017, men working for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the heir apparent to the Gulf kingdom’s throne, took Fitaihi, a dual Saudi-American citizen, from his home in the seaside city of Jeddah in the middle of the night and detained him at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh, part of a crackdown on prominent Saudis orchestrated under the banner of anti-corruption. He was later moved from the Ritz Carlton to another prison.
Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, got the chance to meet with Fitaihi, who was still under a travel ban, as well as the two American citizens on trial, but a spike in coronavirus cases nearly stranded him overseas before he found a last-minute flight out, arriving back in Washington on Christmas Eve.
Though U.S. Embassy officials were present for the legal proceedings he had hoped to attend, he didn’t have the proper permission, and was shut out.
The late December trip to Saudi Arabia wasn’t Carstens’s first attempt to help Fitaihi, who was released from prison but remains under a travel ban, his assets frozen. Carstens had previously considered asking then-President Donald Trump to appoint Fitaihi as a medical expert to the COVID-19 task force, hoping that this might pressure Saudi Arabia to release him as a humanitarian gesture.
Fitaihi’s hospital, the International Medical Center, one of the best in Saudi Arabia, had been at the forefront of fighting the pandemic in the region. Calling on his expertise would elevate the global work to battle the coronavirus, while also securing his freedom. But due to the impending U.S. presidential election and improving relations with the Saudis, Carstens ultimately chose not to formally pursue it.
That’s just the nature of hostage recovery. Ideas may be knocked down for political reasons, and victories are few and far between.
Carstens’s work bringing home Americans wrongfully detained or held hostage overseas occupies a special place in diplomacy. He’s given wide latitude to travel and talk to people often off-limits to diplomats, including senior Syrian officials in Bashar Assad’s government, despite a lack of diplomatic relations with the regime in Damascus.
As one of the few political appointees from the Trump era that President Biden has chosen to keep in place, Carstens appears to enjoy the trust of senior officials in the current administration. Friends, colleagues and the families of hostages held overseas who spoke to Yahoo News about Carstens and his work say the former special operations officer from Spokane, Wash., has been a relentless advocate for hostages and their families.
Yet hostage recovery is also one of the most polarizing parts of American diplomacy. Angst-ridden families often want loved ones home at any cost, even if it means damaging diplomatic relations or giving in to extortionist demands. Deals to free hostages can often face political backlash, particularly if they’re seen as paying countries or groups to free Americans.
Carstens, for his part, acknowledges the tension of his job. He says he constantly has diplomats and ambassadors posted overseas calling him, worried he might throw a wrench in bilateral relations. “You have to really build trust and have a connection, and it can’t be fake,” he said during an interview with Yahoo News.
The most critical factor, however, may be whether the person in the role is speaking on behalf of the president, something that relatives of those detained know all too well. Elizabeth Whelan, a Massachusetts artist whose brother, Paul Whelan, was arrested and accused of espionage in Moscow in 2018, says that the connection to the president is what matters most.
“There’s a worry that it gets made into a window-dressing position,” she said of the envoy position. “They need to know he has that position of authority within the U.S. government.”
The U.S. approach to hostage negotiations is still shaped by the events of November 1979, when a group of Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took dozens of American hostages. The embassy takeover kicked off a 444-days-long crisis that transformed the U.S. political landscape.
But it wasn’t until ISIS-linked militants released propaganda videos of beheadings of over 50 people, including American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, that President Barack Obama in 2014 vowed to launch a governmentwide review of its handling of hostage crises, proposing solutions to improve its response in the future. Experts and advisers to the families at the time harshly criticized the White House’s handling of the tragedy.
“This began with the government realizing that it had to do better,” said Josh Geltzer, who helped craft policy guidance that came out of the Obama-era review, during a phone interview with Yahoo News.
The guidance, Presidential Policy Directive 30, called for better engaging families in recovery efforts, creating an interagency Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell to bring intelligence and resources into one place, and establishing the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs. That envoy is “our nation’s diplomat on these issues, to talk with whoever might advance the goal of recovery,” said Geltzer, currently a special assistant to Biden on countering domestic violent extremism.
Obama appointed a former peace negotiator, Jim O’Brien, as the first special presidential envoy for hostage affairs. O’Brien looked to examples like famed diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who pressured the Bosnian Serbs to release a U.S. journalist in the run-up to the Dayton Accords, which ended the war in Bosnia in 1995. O’Brien explained that every negotiation includes the need for a “test” to determine whether the other side is willing to act, and releasing hostages “is the best way of testing the other side’s capabilities and intentions,” he told Yahoo News.
Chris Costa, who served as the special adviser on counterterrorism under Trump, credited the Obama administration with “understanding that there were significant gaps in hostage policy,” and taking action to address them. “That was inherited by my office,” said Costa, who during his time focused on hostage cases like that of Austin Tice and Robert Levinson. “I am absolutely confident that President Biden will similarly make hostage recovery a priority.”
O’Brien ended his term in 2017, and it wasn’t until May 2018 that Trump installed Robert O’Brien (no relation) as the new envoy. Trump during his presidency regularly trumpeted his success in bringing Americans home from North Korea, Venezuela and Iran, among other countries. Geltzer says Trump deserves a lot of credit for those successes, though others were frustrated by Trump’s “photo-ops,” and argue that the evidence doesn’t support Trump’s claims he was the “greatest hostage negotiator.”
Robert O’Brien was elevated to national security adviser in September 2019, and Carstens was quietly installed in the envoy role on March 2, 2020.
Now just a little over a year into the job, Carstens spoke with Yahoo News in his Washington office in the Harry S. Truman building on C Street, which is decorated with a large National Geographic map that serves as a backdrop for video calls, a green Army backpack, rows of neatly organized sticky notes and a small wooden sign that reads “Wasta,” a widely used Arabic idiom that he defines as “credibility, or the power of being able to walk in and have people take you seriously.”
The office’s bookshelf is stacked with narrative accounts of former hostages, including that of Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post journalist who was held captive in Iran. Carstens said his predecessors told him those books would be instructive, but that no two cases would be alike.
“There’s no book for what we do here,” he said.
Since Carstens started in March of last year, amid the coronavirus pandemic, he says he’s already made more than 10 trips, ranging from Qatar to Ukraine. He traveled to Syria at the tail end of Trump’s tenure to try and negotiate the release of Tice, an American journalist, and Syrian-American psychotherapist Majd Kamalmaz, neither of whom the Syrian government has acknowledged are detained. He’a also traveled across the U.S. to see family members, and has a road trip in Texas planned soon.
Carstens has the rare privilege of being single-minded about his mission to get Americans home.
“There’s got to be one person in the room whose sole mission is to advocate on behalf of the vulnerable or those being held,” he said. Carstens acknowledges there’s always a tension, “but what I’ve found, deep down, is everybody wants the same thing.”
According to a tally kept by the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, there are currently 48 known Americans being held captive overseas, in Afghanistan, China, Egypt, Iran, Mali, Russia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Venezuela and Cuba. Some are relatively well-known, like Whelan, a former Marine who was arrested in Moscow, but there’s been less public advocacy surrounding others, like U.S. missionary Jeffery Woodke, who was kidnapped in October 2016 in Niger and brought to Mali.
Carstens hasn’t always worked in diplomacy, but he has some experience studying about hostage crises. Carsten says it was reading about the genocide in Cambodia and other injustices going on in the world that sparked his interest in joining the military. As a special operations officer in the 1990s, he trained for three years to conduct rescue operations.
At one point after retiring from the military, he joined up with a short-lived television show on NBC “The Wanted,” which involved confronting war criminals and terrorists with their crimes. The show lasted only a few episodes, criticized for its flashy treatment of serious issues for TV ratings, but Carstens has said he wasn’t in it for entertainment. Carstens at the time said he initially wasn’t interested but jumped at the chance to confront “those who committed genocide in Rwanda” after his superiors canceled his deployment there in 1994 at the last minute.
Figuring out how to get an American citizen free from an adversary like the Taliban or even an ally like Saudi Arabia is like a multidimensional puzzle. The negotiations need to fit into the White House’s foreign policy plan, rather than be stapled on at the end, like it sometimes has been in the past. But there’s hesitancy at every level from bureaucrats who don’t want to risk a relationship or create dangerous precedent and encourage future kidnapping.
Advocates are constantly brushing up against this challenge, becoming frustrated by the barriers of bureaucracy. “It’s all well and good to say we don’t want to set a precedent, but is the alternative to let an American rot in prison or be at the mercy of a jihadist that might decapitate them? Because that’s what happened,” said Margaux Ewen, the executive director of the Foley Foundation, which was formed after the murder of Foley at the hands of ISIS.
Sometimes it’s an outside party that helps tip the scales in a hostage’s favor. When former Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a prominent hostage recovery interlocutor, was trying to secure the release of three American hostages held by the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, in 2008, it was the signed baseball Richardson gave to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez that helped it move forward.
“What I think needs to happen is cooperative efforts between the government, the State Department and private groups like mine,” said Richardson, who heads the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, a nonprofit that works through private channels to free hostages around the world.“There are always linkages to explore,” he said during an interview with Yahoo News.
“The fact that we are contemplating renewing the Open Skies Treaty, talking about a chemical weapons treaty ... you look at the betterment of relations as a possible vehicle for prisoners,” he said, even if the government can’t necessarily “link them directly.”
Then again, a seemingly unrelated move from the White House can derail hard-earned progress. After Trump met with Venezuelan interim-President Juan Guaidó after the State of the Union address in 2020, several Americans who were part of the group of oil executives detained in Caracas on a work trip were moved from house arrest back to a crowded, dirty prison cell. (Plus, the Trump administration’s flashy efforts to secure the release of rapper A$AP Rocky, who was being held in Sweden for his alleged role in a street brawl, angered families of hostages.)
While Carstens is the public diplomatic negotiator for hostages and wrongful detainees, he works closely with members of the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, an interagency juggernaut packed with experts from social services to intelligence gathering who focus entirely on the Americans held hostage overseas, as well as the hostage recovery experts on the National Security Council. He regularly engages with lawmakers who are invested in the issue, both those who have constituents held overseas and those who have taken a personal interest in the plight of detained Americans.
Occasionally, the military gets involved. In October 2020, U.S. Special Forces rescued an American citizen, Philip Walton, who was kidnapped from his home in southern Niger and brought to Nigeria.
But perhaps most importantly, Carstens is on the phone nearly every day with both family members and experts who are seeking information or updates, or who want to brainstorm about possible options to move various cases forward.
Joey and Paula Reed, who live in a small town in Texas called Granbury, are vocal about the release of their son, Trevor, a former Marine who was arrested in Moscow after attending a party with his girlfriend. “When they realized he was military, they called the FSB,” said Joey, Trevor’s father, referring to the Russian security service. Trevor, who decided in grade school to join the military after the 9/11 attacks, was accused by the Russian government of drunkenly grabbing a police officer while they drove to the station, forcing the car to swerve — an accusation video evidence contradicts. “He had a bright shiny future and it was just grasped away from him,” his mother, Paula, said.
The Reed family had their own painful experiences dealing with the U.S. government to get their son home. At first, they contacted the office of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. The office wasn’t helpful, the Reeds said. When asked for comment on their assistance with the Reeds’ case, Jessica Skaggs, a spokesperson for Cruz, told Yahoo News that “for privacy reasons, we don’t comment on casework.” Joey Reed, who moved to Moscow for over a year to advocate for his son’s release, got “crickets” from then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, he said.
“We felt like we were almost fighting more against our own government than we were against the Russian government,” said Joey Reed. “We don’t want to let countries just take Americans hostage willy-nilly and trade them for hardened criminals, but at the same time, do you want to let them rot in a foreign prison?”
People like Trevor Reed are who Carstens thinks about every night, he says. “If you’re not emotionally drained, you’re not doing it right,” says Carstens, who often hands out his cellphone number and personal email address to families.
Carstens puts families at ease because he’s not your typical government bureaucrat, says Elizabeth Whelan, the sister of Paul Whelan, the detained retired Marine. His “core attitude is not one of a guy in a suit,” she said.
Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of Carstens’s tenure is that he’s still on the job. Carstens’s ability to bridge the Trump and Biden administrations was helped by his long-standing ties to key officials from both parties. Carstens was the class president of the now famous West Point Class of 1986, alongside classmates and fellow former senior Trump administration officials Mark Esper and Pompeo; he says they meet up every five years for a reunion. (“One thing about West Pointers is that we create lifelong relationships,” said former classmate and Maui-based luxury real estate broker Mark Waite.)
He also has ties with senior Biden confidants, including Derek Chollet, recently named a Biden State Department counselor, with whom he worked with at the Center for a New American Security, a left-leaning think tank, in the mid-2000s. While they hadn’t previously known each other, Carstens also enjoys a good relationship with Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, who sang the envoy’s praises during his Senate confirmation hearing. Less than a week into the job, Blinken asked Carstens to help organize a call with all the families of Americans held overseas.
But perhaps most importantly, the families and nongovernmental organizations in the hostage recovery world mounted an aggressive lobbying campaign during the transition to keep Carstens on, hand-delivering a memo to national security adviser Jake Sullivan urging him to preserve “continuity” for the families and giving recommendations for reform. And Rezaian, the Washington Post journalist and former prisoner in Iran, published an op-ed supporting Carstens, urging the Biden team to keep him on.
“His position is not a position to mess with,” says Maryam Kamalmaz, whose father was detained while visiting Syria in 2017 to see elderly relatives and perform charitable mental health work. Maryam Kamalmaz, who lives in Grand Prairie, Texas, has been waiting for several years for mere proof that her father is alive. Like several other families, she was pleased Carstens was kept on in the new administration. “He’s holding people’s lives in his hands,” she says. “We didn’t want to start new with somebody else.”
James O’Brien, the first special envoy for hostage affairs, recalled telling Carstens that it’s important to take advantage of a new administration’s blank slate. “The transition period is interesting,” O’Brien told Yahoo News. “Captors want to know if there’s a deal to be had with the team that’s leaving, and they want to set a good relationship with the team that’s arriving.”
There’s already been some success. As Biden took office, the Saudi appeals court reduced Fitaihi’s sentence, meaning he will not have to serve any more jail time. He’s still under a travel ban, a political tool the Saudis have used that U.S. lawmakers have urged Biden to confront, but the sentence reduction is seen as progress. The Saudis also temporarily freed Salah al-Haidar and Dr. Bader al-Ibrahim, U.S. citizens who were detained in April 2019 for their activism, and whose trial Carstens had hoped to attend last Christmas. They still face trial, however.
Fitaihi’s son in the U.S., Ahmad Fitaihi, remains frustrated and hopes to push the White House to do more. “My whole family’s life is still paralyzed,” he wrote in a statement to Yahoo News. “My dad has been trying to pay $10 million of accumulated IRS taxes, and he’s unable to because of the asset freeze.”
“I want to make my private request to meet with President Biden public,” Fitaihi told Yahoo News. “I want to tell him my family’s story and the four year nightmare we have been facing.”
Mickey Bergman, the vice president for the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, says his organization, focused intently on getting Americans home, has been “extremely busy since November” explaining to captors how “before something bad happens, before unfortunate reality intervenes, this is your chance to make a gesture.”
“Some are considering it,” Bergman said. “The proof is when you actually get someone out and bring them home.”
Additionally, the recent passage of the Levinson Act, sponsored by Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and named for Levinson, the former FBI agent who disappeared in 2007 and is presumed to have died in Iranian custody, formalizes and expands the authorities of Carstens’s office in law, elevating him to the rank of an ambassador.
Importantly, it expands the purview of the office to include not just Americans held hostage or detained without acknowledgement, but also Americans who the U.S. government has deemed have been wrongfully detained. The legislation quietly passed in the omnibus last December. (One of Levinson’s sons works in Menendez’s office, making the issue that much more personal to the team.)
The legislation “underscores the bipartisan commitment in Congress to stand by Americans unlawfully detained and to do everything in our power to bring them home,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, one of its co-sponsors.
Ewen, head of the Foley Foundation, which played a key role in advising on the bill, touted it as a step forward in an area that has many frustrations. “It was this kind of rare moment when you see a piece of legislation that is so critical to the core of your advocacy, to make sure the U.S. government is prioritizing the work of getting Americans home,” she said.
For Elizabeth Whelan, who lives on Chappaquiddick Island off of Cape Cod in Massachusetts, the Levinson Act was exactly what she’d been looking for. Since her brother, Paul, was accused of espionage and imprisoned in Moscow while attending a friend’s wedding, Elizabeth took on an entirely new job. Before the pandemic, she traveled frequently to Washington, D.C., to lobby for her brother. She says her “mind is in Mordovia,” the Russian province where Paul was sent after being charged. Coronavirus runs rampant in the facility where he’s held, and he’s working in a barely heated garment factory. She describes his detention conditions like “sitting in a gulag.”
She had found that because the U.S. government had not strongly come out and defined Paul’s case as a wrongful imprisonment, not everyone knew how to help or meet with her. For a long time, she said, it was hard to meet with any Trump officials, though she finally sat down with then-national security adviser John Bolton. But since the passage of the Levinson Act and Carstens’s appointment, Elizabeth has been feeling more optimistic. Carstens came to visit her last summer on Chappaquiddick, which she described as the “the kind of outreach we hadn’t really had.”
How successful Carstens is will continue to depend on how the White House makes use of him, however. Elizabeth Whelan says she hopes the position can transcend politics, a goal Carstens says he shares. “This is a bipartisan issue. There’s no place for ideologues here,” he said.
While his portfolio no longer involves international hostage negotiations, Geltzer says “the leadership of this White House and this National Security Council really prioritize this mission set. They believe in the human as well as the national security mission set of bringing people home.”
The question, however, is whether prioritizing the return of American hostages will survive the type of political realities of the administration’s diplomatic agenda.
One of the initial tests will be in Afghanistan, where civil engineer Mark Frerichs was taken by the Haqqani network with ties to the Taliban in January 2020. The Biden White House is facing a deadline to withdraw troops by May, based on a deal brokered with the Taliban in February 2020. They’re under pressure not to leave Frerichs behind.
Carstens, after working with Biden’s team for just over a month, says the administration has expressed a clear commitment to getting Americans home, regardless of the political relationship with the captor — and his team has a primary seat at the table.
That includes in Iran, where the U.S. has reached out via a third party, reportedly the Swiss Embassy, to reengage on nuclear issues, as well as the return of American hostages — an invitation the Iranians have so far declined. The return of Michael White, a U.S. Navy veteran who contracted COVID-19 in Iran, was one of the few successes Carstens’s team had at the end of the Trump era, when they were hoping the virus might push captors to act. However, Iran is still holding on to hostages, including Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American businessman, who was detained in 2015.
The Biden team is already dealing with pressure from former hostages held in Iran, who were critical of the Obama administration for leaving them behind once the Iran nuclear deal was signed. Several, including Xiyue Wang, a Princeton graduate student who was detained in August 2016, were released during Trump’s term in office. When the Obama administration engaged in a negotiation with Iran to bring Rezaian and others home, transferring $1.7 million, some of it in cash, to Tehran, the administration “did not consider it ransom,” but “the Iranian authorities certainly did,” Wang said during a panel at the National Press Club in February.
However, behind the scenes, it was Biden’s new Iran envoy, Rob Malley, who arranged for meetings in Iran that helped ultimately free Wang during Trump’s time in office, first reported by the Intercept and confirmed by Yahoo News.
The Vadells, a Venezuelan-American family in New Orleans and Lake Charles, La., are still waiting to see how the Biden team will handle the Maduro regime in Caracas, after the setback under Trump. The Biden White House on Monday announced it was granting temporary protected status to hundreds of thousands of eligible Venezuelans in the United States, while a senior administration official told journalists Biden’s approach to Venezuela would center around “humanitarian assistance.” The Vadells hope unjustly detained Americans will factor in.
Tomeu Vadell, a 35-year career engineer who had risen through the ranks to a management role for Citgo, was one of five American citizens and one legal permanent resident detained in Venezuela on a work trip. When the “Citgo six” were detained in 2017, there was no special presidential envoy for hostage affairs in place, recalled Tomeu’s daughter Cristina Vadell, during a call with Yahoo News. Like the Whelans, the Vadells had trouble finding U.S. government officials who could help or tell them what was being done, because Tomeu wasn’t defined as a “hostage.”
Cristina Vadell says the family views Carstens, who holds regular calls with them, as an apolitical advocate who has done good work. The Biden-Harris administration is “coming in at the perfect opportunity to resolve these cases,” Cristina Vadell said.
When it comes to friends and allies, the Biden team will face the same pressures as prior administrations. “I think rhetoric matters with authoritarian regimes, especially allies,” said Mohamed Soltan, an Egyptian-American who was shot, beaten and held as a political prisoner in Egypt between 2013 and 2015. “They derive their credibility from it. If you’re screaming ‘human rights’ but you’re turning around and giving them weapons, they will understand that as a wink-wink, nudge-nudge, to do whatever they want.”
Soltan, the president of human rights organization the Freedom Initiative, filed a lawsuit last year using the Torture Victim Protection Act against Egypt’s former prime minister Hazem el-Beblawi, who recently moved to the U.S. He also regularly works with nongovernmental organizations and families to try and help hostages, particularly those held in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
He says he’s “cautiously optimistic” that the Biden team will approach hostage issues seriously, but he’s also glad he has Carstens on his side. Carstens has been personally helpful to Soltan in both his lawsuit and when Egyptian authorities recently detained several of Soltan’s family members. “He goes out of his way to help,” said Soltan.
“Whether they’re going to make it a precondition to engagement with any countries or actors holding Americans, I don’t know,” said the Foley Foundation’s Ewen. “It’s quite early and also they’re quite tight-lipped. But I’m encouraged to see it constantly come up as a talking point.”
Carstens, for his part, has his own wish list for improving the office. He’d like to expand his work to include increased assistance for Americans, particularly wrongfully held detainees, who are successfully brought home. While there’s so much emphasis put on recovering people, there’s less thought, outside the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, put into helping them resolve problems with, for example, the IRS, which continued to tax them while they were in a foreign prison.
“I’ve reached out to people just to ask them, how are you doing with the IRS?” Carstens says.
“We’re focused on the meat and potatoes,” he said, “but eventually, you have to professionalize it, take care of people after the fact.”
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