How Diane Foley Made It Her Mission to Prioritize US Hostages Overseas

Absorbed by some of the cases, Mr. Trump regularly pushed for action to release Americans and made a point of personally highlighting many of them when they were released. He often boasted of his record of freeing hostages and elevated his special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, Robert C. O’Brien, to become his fourth and last national security adviser, bringing the priority directly into the corner suite in the West Wing where American foreign policy is coordinated.

In the waning days of the Trump administration, Congress took it further by passing legislation named for Robert A. Levinson, a retired F.B.I. agent who disappeared in Iran while on an unauthorized mission for the C.I.A. and reportedly died in custody. The law, signed by Mr. Trump in December 2020, assigned the State Department to determine whether Americans detained overseas were being held wrongfully and formally placed responsibility for such cases with the special envoy for hostage affairs. Roger D. Carstens, a retired special forces officer and former diplomat, currently holds the post.

“I’m amazed by what Diane and the families of hostages have achieved,” said David Rohde, a journalist who has been taken captive twice during his career as a foreign correspondent, first by Bosnian Serbs for 10 days during the Balkan wars in 1995 and then for seven months by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan until he escaped in 2009. “They’ve transformed hostage cases from nuisances that can be ignored to political challenges that presidents and national security advisers must address.”

Like others, though, Mr. Rohde, who previously worked for The New York Times and is now a senior editor at The New Yorker and a member of the Foley Foundation board, said managing one-off cases is not enough. There needs to be a comprehensive, long-term strategy, he said, “that inflicts severe costs on hostage takers, particularly authoritarian regimes, and deters them from engaging in this cruel and cowardly crime in the first place.”

Ms. Foley said she agreed that it is time to re-examine the structure in place as captors increasingly are foreign governments rather than militant groups. She has set four goals for 2023: to push for a comprehensive review, to fully fund services for hostage families and post-captivity services for freed hostages, to bolster consular sections in embassies that evaluate cases, and to get Congress to fly a special American hostage flag to raise awareness, much as the P.O.W./M.I.A. flag brought attention to Vietnam War prisoners.

“Yes, I’ve been determined,” Ms. Foley said. “This is Jim’s legacy. It’s essential. I can’t tell you how strongly I feel.”

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