Dear President Biden,

Throughout the Presidential campaign, you told us that the soul of the nation was on the ballot. As President, your most important job is to protect Americans, at home and overseas. American citizens and dual nationals are attractive targets for criminals, terrorists and rogue states seeking financial, political or propaganda gains. How you treat American hostages and their families will tell us a lot about your values as Commander in Chief. Respectfully, I urge you to make five commitments to American hostages and their families to show you are serious about protecting your citizens – and re-establishing America’s leadership in the world.

Make it your priority to bring American hostages home

President Trump’s isolationist stance and big man politics led to a decline in global opinion about the United States. His name calling of the media as ‘the enemy of the people’ has offered cover for foreign regimes to detain and attack journalists, including Americans. His big man posturing led rogue states to rightly assume that picking up Americans on bogus charges gave them leverage over the world’s largest superpower.

America has a lot of bridges to rebuild around the world and it needs its journalists, humanitarians, business people and academics to create the informal frontline in the battle for hearts and minds. They need to know that their President has their back if something goes wrong. They need to know you won’t leave your people behind.

Keep Obama’s policy changes   

One thing Trump did right was to leave intact the policy and structures put in place by President Obama after his 2015 soul searching review of American hostage policy after he was heavily criticized by the families of American hostages murdered by ISIS.  

The Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, the interagency unit housed by the FBI, has brought much-needed coordination across the vast US government and has delivered a consistent service to families. The position of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs demonstrates the US is serious about diplomacy to bring Americans home. And the Hostage Response Group within the National Security Council elevates each and every American hostage case to the White House to ensure the government eye is never off the ball. Research by the Foley Foundation and New American Foundation shows favorable ratings for all and consistent improvement over time.  

The word on the street during Trump’s presidency is that the Hostage Response Group floundered because of the President’s lack of patience with committees and structures. As President, you should immediately reinstate this all-important function and nominate a Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs on day one of your administration.

Ditch the photo ops

One ‘thumbs up’ photo on the tarmac with a newly released hostage is one too many. Hostages need privacy and space after they return from captivity, not profile and stress. Bring them home, but don’t use them as political capital.

Call a spade a spade – detainees are hostages

When Al Qaeda or ISIS kidnaps Americans we call them hostages, but when Iran seizes an American and locks them up in Evin on bogus charges of espionage they are detainees. Let’s be clear, Iran takes Americans for leverage and propaganda value: they are hostages. Let the lawyers continue to argue definitions, but as President you need to speak truth to illegitimate power. This isn’t just semantics, as important as they are. So-called ‘detainees’ and their families are not deemed to be ‘victims’ (legally speaking) so are unable to access FBI and State victims’ funds. Detainees are hostages and should not be treated as second class citizens.  

Increase support funds for hostages and their families

The price paid by the families of American hostages is not just emotional; flights to DC and hotel stays in the nation’s capital to meet with their elected representatives; missed workdays due to the stress; media advisors to assist with publicity campaigns; and counseling to help them cope. Similarly, for returning hostages; medical bills to bring them back to full health; dental works due to poor dental hygiene or abuse in captivity; counseling to heal their minds; time off work to cope with their situation; and unpaid salaries during their captivity that leave their families in hardship.

The funds available are currently just a few thousand dollars per family and former hostage, a fraction of what is needed. And detainees are not entitled to these funds. Increase these funds and make them available to ‘detainees’ as well as hostages.

Mr President, you were right that the soul of the nation was on the ballot in 2020. In hostage policy – as in all areas – we will be watching to see how your values are translated from words into actions.