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Examining the executive order trying to help Americans unlawfully detained abroad


President Biden signed a new executive order this week to try and help Americans who've been unlawfully detained in other countries. The move gives the federal government the authority to impose sanctions or other measures against state or nonstate actors over these detentions. But what happens when Americans are held by countries that are already under strict U.S. sanctions for other issues? I talked with Ambassador Roger Carstens. He is special presidential envoy for hostage affairs. And I asked him how the new executive order helps U.S. citizens like Brittney Griner, who's been jailed in Russia since February, and other detained Americans.

ROGER CARSTENS: I think the best answer is that we're going to have to explore that. Every case is specific. A lot depends on the information that we're receiving. It depends on partnering with the families. And in some cases, you'll find a sanctioning tool probably very effective to put pressure on the other side. In other cases - not so much. I think overall the sanction tool is going to offer a chance to deter people in the long term when they see it being used. But whether it's going to specifically be the spring that gets Brittney Griner, Paul Whelan free - that is yet to be seen. We'll have to explore that with the families and also with the rest of the interagency.

MARTIN: Let me ask about a situation in Iran or in Russia. I mean, when Americans are held in these countries that are U.S. adversaries, how do they not become political pawns? I mean, when you think about Iran, the U.S. right now is trying to negotiate over Iran's nuclear program. The two have to be intertwined, right? The issue of hostages becomes a leverage point.

CARSTENS: You know, it might. I can tell you that I think throughout history you'll find where the subject of hostages or even prisoners of war can be detached from the broader issues of policy. A good example is Russia. Even though we seem to be at loggerheads in the Ukraine with - against Russia, we were still able to negotiate a return of Trevor Reed. So it's never quite clear until you get into the specifics of each case and each country about what can and cannot be used as leverage and who can use it. But the bottom line is that we are able and have, since I've been in this job for 2 1/2 years, been able to negotiate and distance ourselves from other policy objectives.

MARTIN: Trevor Reed, as you noted, was released from Russia in April of this year. It was part of an arranged prisoner swap. When do these agreements work, and when do they not work?

CARSTENS: Again, it's really country-specific. I happened to be part of the Trevor Reed swap. I think you might have seen some photography of the tarmac switch, and I was there as part of that and so intimately, I guess, familiar with that swap. And I can tell you that every case is still different. At times a prisoner swap can be considered, such as in the case of Trevor Reed. Other times it's just absolutely the wrong tool to be - and wrong negotiating point to be bringing to bear.

MARTIN: Can you walk us through the difficulties that arise when a country that is supposed to be our ally, like Saudi Arabia, detains U.S. citizens unlawfully?

CARSTENS: I think whether a country is someone that we're, I guess, at loggerheads against or whether we happen to have better relationships with them - really the bottom line is meeting with that country, finding common points that we can discuss and really just sitting down and asking them, what can we do to solve this? And that's really the way to get things done. It's no different than probably any other negotiation. But I would say that to most this seems like it's a little harder because in many cases the countries are actually picking up a human being and using them as a bargaining chip.

MARTIN: President Biden was just in Saudi Arabia. He met with the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. There were a whole range of contentious issues on the table. But did he raise the issue of Americans being detained?

CARSTENS: The president did raise the issue of Americans being detained. In fact, I can tell you, we raised the issue at every juncture. But I will make one correction. Right now, there are no Americans that are wrongfully detained. There are Americans that were wrongfully detained. Currently, we have Americans that we're concerned about because they're on a - what we consider an exit ban. They're not allowed to leave the country. And yet, at every juncture that we can, at every meeting at the senior level, we bring that topic up.

MARTIN: Diane Foley's son James was killed by ISIS in 2014. Ms. Foley said that her family received little to no information from the State Department about the status of her son when he was in ISIS detention. Other families, as you know, have also complained about lack of transparency, lack of communication with the federal government. I understand this executive order now promises to do better, but why have these families been left in the dark for so long?

CARSTENS: I have to gently push back on that, Rachel, and this is what I would say. I spend one to four hours every day talking to families, and that's seven days a week. That's Saturday and Sunday. I'd say the people on my staff do the same. In these calls, we're very forthright about what we're doing and what we're trying to achieve. Every time we take a case, I will physically fly to wherever that family is and spend three or four hours in their living room, describing what we're trying to do, what our organization looks like, and I will tell them everything up to the level of secret and top-secret information.

MARTIN: Then why did it need to be articulated in the executive order?

CARSTENS: I think it's a - it's the institutionalization of everything we're doing. There was a time, not long ago, shortly after my office was created, that there were only a few people in the office. We did not necessarily have the institutionalized structure that we currently have, that we've been building on. And so to get it in public law, to get it into an executive order, keeps strengthening the institution so that one day, should people change, personnel change, should the situation change, you still have a government that is being directed by public law, that's being directed by the president to do better at sharing information. And I think the one thing that the executive order does to my mind is it gives us a little more, I guess you could say, support in trying to declassify information that we want to share with the families.

MARTIN: You worked under the Trump administration on this issue and now the Biden administration. How do the two administrations differ in their approach to this important issue?

CARSTENS: I think that's the beauty of what we're trying to do in building the institutions, is that there shouldn't really be a difference between administrations as they change. We treat this as an American problem. It's bipartisan, or you could call it nonpartisan. And I think you'll find that not only are we trying to, as I say, come up with ways that we are going to do business, institutionalizing what we do, but I can share that there are members on Capitol Hill that are both Republicans and Democrats that offer their support to our efforts. And our job is to make sure that we do the president's will, and the president of the United States, President Biden, has been very firm about making this a top priority and ensuring that we're doing everything we can to bring these Americans home.

MARTIN: Ambassador Roger Carstens, special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, thank you so much for taking the time.

CARSTENS: My pleasure, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.