On July 19, President Joe Biden issued an executive order expanding U.S. government tools to deter hostage-taking. The order “creates new ways to impose costs on terrorist organizations, criminal groups, and other malicious actors who take hostages for financial, political, or other gains,” according to a White House fact sheet. The order authorized federal agencies to use of financial sanctions and visa bans against foreign governments and non-state actors.
The State Department will also add a new indicator—the letter D—to travel advisories, which will evaluate the risk of wrongful detention. It highlighted six countries, including Iran as well as Burma, China, North Korea, Russia, and Venezuela. Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has sporadically detained dozens of Americans, beginning with 52 diplomat held for 444 days after the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. In mid-2022, Iran held four citizens with dual U.S. Iranian citizenship. The new executive order also mandated agencies to share information with the families of Americans who have been detained or taken hostage. The following is the White House fact sheet on the new order; the text of the order; a transcript of a briefing by senior officials; and profiles of current Iranian-Americans held in Tehran.
White House Fact Sheet
July 19, 2022
Today, President Biden reaffirms his commitment to bring home Americans held hostage and wrongfully detained abroad by issuing a new executive order (E.O.), Bolstering Efforts to Bring Hostages and Wrongfully Detained United States Nationals Home. This E.O. expands the tools available to deter and disrupt hostage-taking and wrongful detentions. It creates new ways to impose costs on terrorist organizations, criminal groups, and other malicious actors who take hostages for financial, political, or other gains and thus threaten the integrity of the international political system and the safety of U.S. nationals and other persons abroad. This E.O. advances the unwavering commitment of the United States to bring home Americans who are held hostage or wrongfully detained.
In addition, the Biden-Harris Administration is introducing a new risk indicator—the “D” indicator—to the State Department’s Travel Advisories to inform American travelers of the risk of wrongful detention by a foreign government. This additional risk indicator will highlight the elevated risk that Americans face in particular countries and provide Americans with comprehensive safety and security information with which to make informed travel decisions. The “D” indicator joins the existing “K” indicator that covers risk of kidnapping and hostage-taking by non-state actors, as well as a range of other existing risk indicators. State Department Travel Advisories are continuously revised and updated based on a comprehensive review of all available safety information and ongoing developments.
The executive order will generate expanded and enhanced ways to address the hostage-taking and wrongful detention of Americans abroad. This E.O. reflects the Biden-Harris Administration’s continued commitment to bringing them home. In particular, this E.O. draws on the 2020 Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act and reinforces the Administration’s tool kit in key ways. Specifically, this E.O.:
• Reinforces the U.S. Government’s efforts to support families of Americans wrongfully detained or held hostage overseas;
• Authorizes agencies to impose costs and consequences, including financial sanctions, on those who are involved, directly or indirectly, in hostage-taking or wrongful detentions to support expanded and ongoing interagency efforts;
• Directs relevant parts of the U.S. Government to bolster their engagement and sharing of relevant information, including intelligence information, consistent with the protection of sources and methods, with families regarding their loved ones’ status and U.S. Government efforts to secure their release or return, as appropriate; and
• Charges experts across the interagency to develop options and strategies to deter future hostage-taking and wrongful detentions.
• This E.O. is informed by our regular communications with the families and other stakeholders who have undertaken incredible advocacy efforts on behalf of their loved ones. The Biden-Harris Administration appreciates the continued diligence of such families and considers them essential partners in our efforts to bring Americans home. President Biden and experts across the Administration will draw on this E.O. to advance our efforts and remain committed to reuniting Americans held hostage and wrongfully detained with their families.
Executive Order on Bolstering Efforts to Bring Hostages and Wrongfully Detained United States Nationals Home
By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, including the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-taking Accountability Act (22 U.S.C. 1741 et seq.) (Levinson Act), the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (50 U.S.C. 1701 et seq.) (IEEPA), the National Emergencies Act (50 U.S.C. 1601 et seq.) (NEA), section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (8 U.S.C. 1182(f)), and section 301 of title 3, United States Code,
I, Joseph R. Biden JR., President of the United States of America, find that hostage-taking and the wrongful detention of United States nationals are heinous acts that undermine the rule of law. Terrorist organizations, criminal groups, and other malicious actors who take hostages for financial, political, or other gain — as well as foreign states that engage in the practice of wrongful detention, including for political leverage or to seek concessions from the United States — threaten the integrity of the international political system and the safety of United States nationals and other persons abroad. I therefore determine that hostage-taking and the wrongful detention of United States nationals abroad constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States. I hereby declare a national emergency to deal with this threat.
The United States Government must redouble its efforts at home and with partners abroad to deter these practices and to secure the release of those held as hostages or wrongfully detained. Processes established under Executive Order 13698 of June 24, 2015 (Hostage Recovery Activities) and Presidential Policy Directive 30 of June 24, 2015 (U.S. Nationals Taken Hostage Abroad and Personnel Recovery Efforts) (PPD-30) have facilitated close interagency coordination on efforts to secure the safe release of United States nationals taken hostage abroad, including engagement with the families of hostages and support of diplomatic engagement with partners abroad. This order reinforces the roles, responsibilities, and commitments contained in those directives and seeks to ensure that — as with hostage recovery activities — interagency coordination, family engagement, and diplomatic tools are enshrined in United States Government efforts to secure the safe release and return of United States nationals wrongfully detained by foreign state actors. This order also reinforces tools to deter and to impose tangible consequences on those responsible for, or complicit in, hostage-taking or the wrongful detention of a United States national abroad.
Accordingly, I hereby order:
Section 1. Executive Order 13698 and PPD-30 shall continue to apply to United States hostage recovery activities. Nothing in this order shall alter the responsibilities of the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell (HRFC), the Hostage Response Group (HRG), or the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs (SPEHA), established by Executive Order 13698, with respect to hostage recovery activities under Executive Order 13698 or PPD-30. Nor shall this order alter the scope of PPD-30, which applies to both suspected and confirmed hostage-takings in which a United States national is abducted or held outside of the United States, as well as to other hostage-takings occurring abroad in which the United States has a national interest, but does not apply if a foreign government confirms that it has detained a United States national.
Sec. 2. (a) The HRG shall, in coordination with the National Security Council’s regional directorates as appropriate, convene on a regular basis and as needed at the request of the National Security Council to work to secure the safe release of United States nationals held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad.
(b) The HRG, in support of the Deputies Committee of the National Security Council and consistent with the process outlined in National Security Memorandum 2 of February 4, 2021 (Renewing the National Security Council System), or any successor memorandum, shall:
(i) identify and recommend options and strategies to the President through the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs to secure the recovery of hostages or the return of wrongfully detained United States nationals;
(ii) coordinate the development and implementation of policies, strategies, and procedures for the recovery of hostages or the return of wrongfully detained United States nationals;
(iii) coordinate and deconflict policy guidance, strategies, and activities that potentially affect the recovery or welfare of United States nationals held hostage or the return or welfare of United States nationals wrongfully detained abroad, including reviewing proposed recovery or return options;
(iv) receive regular updates from the HRFC, the Office of the SPEHA, and other executive departments and agencies (agencies), as the HRG deems appropriate, on the status of United States nationals being held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad and measures being taken to effect safe releases;
(v) receive regular updates from the Department of State on all new wrongful detention determinations; and
(vi) where higher-level guidance is required, make recommendations to the Deputies Committee of the National Security Council.
Sec. 3. (a) The SPEHA shall report to the Secretary of State on a regular basis and as needed to advance efforts to secure the safe release of United States nationals wrongfully detained abroad.
(b) The SPEHA shall, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law:
(i) coordinate diplomatic engagements and strategy regarding hostage and wrongful detention cases, in coordination with the HRFC and relevant agencies, as appropriate and consistent with policy guidance communicated through the HRG;
(ii) share information, including information acquired during consular interactions and engagements, regarding wrongful detention cases with relevant agencies to facilitate close interagency coordination;
(iii) draw on the experience and expertise of the HRFC to support efforts to return wrongfully detained United States nationals, including by providing support and assistance to the families of those wrongfully detained;
(iv) develop and regularly update, in coordination with relevant agencies, strategies for wrongful detention cases for review by the HRG;
(v) ensure, in coordination with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, that relevant agencies have access to necessary information, including intelligence information, on wrongful detention cases to inform strategies and options; and
(vi) share, in coordination with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, relevant information, including intelligence information, on developments in wrongful detention cases with the families of wrongfully detained United States nationals, in a timely manner, as appropriate and consistent with the protection of sources and methods.
(c) To ensure that the United States Government provides a coordinated, effective, and supportive response to wrongful detentions, the Secretary of State shall identify adequate resources to enable the SPEHA to:
(i) ensure that all interactions by executive branch officials with the family of a wrongfully detained United States national occur in a coordinated fashion and that the family receives consistent and accurate information from the United States Government, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law;
(ii) provide support and assistance to wrongfully detained United States nationals and their families throughout their detention, including through coordination with the HRFC, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law; and
(iii) provide support and assistance to United States nationals upon their return to the United States from wrongful detention, including through coordination with the HRFC and the Department of Health and Human Services, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law.
Sec. 4. The SPEHA, in coordination with the HRG, the HRFC, and relevant agencies, as appropriate, shall identify and recommend options and strategies to the President through the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs to reduce the likelihood of United States nationals being held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad. The options shall seek to counter and deter hostage-takings and wrongful detentions by terrorist organizations, foreign governments, and other actors by imposing costs on those who participate in, support, or facilitate such conduct. The strategies shall seek to deter any effort to engage in hostage-taking or the wrongful detention of United States nationals abroad through cooperation with like-minded foreign governments and organizations.
Sec. 5. The Secretary of State shall publicly or privately designate or identify officials of foreign governments who are involved, directly or indirectly, in wrongful detentions, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, including section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2022 (Division K of Public Law 117-103).
Sec. 6. (a) All property and interests in property of the following persons that are in the United States, that hereafter come within the United States, or that are or hereafter come within the possession or control of any United States person, are blocked and may not be transferred, paid, exported, withdrawn, or otherwise dealt in:
(i) any foreign person determined by the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Secretary of the Treasury and the Attorney General:
(A) to be responsible for or complicit in, to have directly or indirectly engaged in, or to be responsible for ordering, controlling, or otherwise directing, the hostage-taking of a United States national or the wrongful detention of a United States national abroad;
(B) to have attempted to engage in any activity described in subsection (a)(i)(A) of this section; or
(C) to be or have been a leader or official of an entity that has engaged in, or whose members have engaged in, any of the activities described in subsections (a)(i)(A) or (a)(i)(B) of this section relating to the leader’s or official’s tenure;
(ii) any foreign person determined by the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State and the Attorney General:
(A) to have materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, or technological support for, or goods or services to or in support of:
(1) any activity described in subsection (a)(i)(A) of this section; or
(2) any person whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to this order;
(B) to be owned, controlled, or directed by, or to have acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, any person whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to this order; or
(C) to have attempted to engage in any activity described in subsection (a)(ii)(A) of this section.
(b) The prohibitions in subsection (a) of this section apply except to the extent provided by statutes, or in regulations, orders, directives, or licenses that may be issued pursuant to this order, and notwithstanding any contract entered into or any license or permit granted prior to the date of this order.
Sec. 7. (a) The unrestricted immigrant and nonimmigrant entry into the United States of noncitizens determined to meet one or more of the criteria set forth in section 6(a) of this order would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, and the entry of such persons into the United States, as immigrants or nonimmigrants, is hereby suspended, except when the Secretary of State or the Secretary of Homeland Security, as appropriate, determines that the person’s entry would not be contrary to the interests of the United States, including when the Secretary of State or the Secretary of Homeland Security, as appropriate, so determines, based on a recommendation of the Attorney General, that the person’s entry would further important United States law enforcement objectives.
(b) The Secretary of State shall implement this authority as it applies to visas pursuant to such procedures as the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, may establish.
(c) The Secretary of Homeland Security shall implement this order as it applies to the entry of noncitizens pursuant to such procedures as the Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Secretary of State, may establish.
(d) Such persons shall be treated by this section in the same manner as persons covered by section 1 of Proclamation 8693 of July 24, 2011 (Suspension of Entry of Aliens Subject to United Nations Security Council Travel Bans and International Emergency Economic Powers Act Sanctions).
Sec. 8. I hereby determine that the making of donations of the types of articles specified in section 203(b)(2) of IEEPA (50 U.S.C. 1702(b)(2)) by, to, or for the benefit of any person whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to this order would seriously impair my ability to deal with the national emergency declared in this order, and I hereby prohibit such donations as provided by section 6 of this order.
Sec. 9. (a) Any transaction that evades or avoids, has the purpose of evading or avoiding, causes a violation of, or attempts to violate any of the prohibitions set forth in this order is prohibited.
(b) Any conspiracy formed to violate any of the prohibitions set forth in this order is prohibited.
Sec. 10. For those persons whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to this order who might have a constitutional presence in the United States, I find that because of the ability to transfer funds or other assets instantaneously, prior notice to such persons of measures to be taken pursuant to this order would render those measures ineffectual. I therefore determine that for these measures to be effective in addressing the national emergency declared in this order, there need be no prior notice of a listing or determination made pursuant to section 6 of this order.
Sec. 11. The Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State, is authorized to take such actions, including the promulgation of rules and regulations, and to employ all powers granted to the President by IEEPA as may be necessary to carry out the purposes of this order. The Secretary of the Treasury may, consistent with applicable law, redelegate any of these functions within the Department of the Treasury. All agencies of the United States Government shall take all appropriate measures within their authority to carry out the provisions of this order.
Sec. 12. Nothing in this order shall prohibit transactions for the conduct of the official business of the United States Government by employees, grantees, or contractors thereof.
Sec. 13. The Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State, is hereby authorized to submit recurring and final reports to the Congress on the national emergency declared in this order, consistent with section 401(c) of the NEA (50 U.S.C. 1642(c)) and section 204(c) of IEEPA (50 U.S.C. 1703(c)).
Sec. 14. For purposes of this order:
(a) the term “entity” means a partnership, association, trust, joint venture, corporation, group, subgroup, or other organization;
(b) the term “foreign person” means any citizen or national of a foreign state (including any such individual who is also a citizen or national of the United States, provided such individual does not reside in the United States) or any entity not organized solely under the laws of the United States or existing solely in the United States;
(c) the term “hostage-taking” has the same meaning as provided in PPD-30, which is the unlawful abduction or holding of a person or persons against their will in order to compel a third person or governmental organization to do or to abstain from doing any act as a condition for the release of the person detained;
(d) the term “noncitizen” means any person who is not a citizen or noncitizen national of the United States;
(e) the term “person” means an individual or entity;
(f) the term “United States national” means:
(i) a “national of the United States” as defined in 8 U.S.C. 1101(a)(22) or 8 U.S.C. 1408; or
(ii) a lawful permanent resident with significant ties to the United States;
(g) the term “United States person” means any United States citizen, lawful permanent resident, entity organized under the laws of the United States or any jurisdiction within the United States (including foreign branches), or any person in the United States; and
(h) the term “wrongful detention” means a detention that the Secretary of State has determined to be wrongful consistent with section 302(a) of the Levinson Act.
Sec. 15. (a) Nothing in this order shall be construed to impair or otherwise affect:
(i) the authority granted by law to an executive department or agency, or the head thereof; or
(ii) the functions of the Director of the Office of Management and Budget relating to budgetary, administrative, or legislative proposals.
(b) This order shall be implemented consistent with applicable law and subject to the availability of appropriations.
(c) This order is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.
JOSEPH R. BIDEN JR.
THE WHITE HOUSE,
July 19, 2022
Background Press Call on President Biden's New Executive Order
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We are eager to share how the Biden-Harris administration is expanding the toolkit that the U.S. government uses to help bring home American hostages and wrongful detainees.
Foreign states that engage in the practice of wrongful detention, whether it’s for political leverage or to seek concessions from the United States, threaten the integrity of the international political system and, moreover, the safety of US nationals and other persons abroad. And the same can be said of terrorist organizations, criminal groups, and other malicious actors who take hostages for financial, political, or other nefarious gains.
The U.S. government maintains its unwavering commitment to bringing home Americans held hostage and wrongfully detained.
And so that is why we are proud to announce that tomorrow, President Biden will be signing a new executive order that will provide new and expanded tools to help bring our citizens home and impose costs on the culprits as well as provide greater transparency regarding the risks.
The new executive order is entitled “Bolstering Efforts to Bring Hostages and Wrongfully Detained U.S. Nationals Home.” It reaffirms the fundamental commitment of the President, of the administration to bring home those Americans held hostage and wrongfully detained abroad.
The executive order draws on the 2020 Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage Taking Accountability Act. And just as the name itself suggests, that law is a credit to the perseverance of the Levinson family and others who have turned their family’s extraordinary hardships into constructive and meaningful action.
Frankly, all of us who work on these issues are blown away by the courage and the leadership the families in these awful circumstances show in an effort to make our government and all of us better in resolving these cases.
The new EO builds on those efforts and the efforts of others who have worked diligently to bring the Levinson Act to fruition, and it expands and strengthens the government’s toolkit in key ways.
For example, this EO reinforces U.S. government efforts to support the families of Americans wrongfully detained or held hostage overseas by directing parts of the federal government to bolster their engagement with such families and their sharing of relevant information, including intelligence information, with families regarding their loved ones’ status and the government’s efforts to secure their release or their return.
The new executive order also authorizes departments and agencies to impose costs and consequences on those who are involved. That includes financial sanctions and it includes visa bans, and it can apply whether the individual subject to those costs and consequences has acted on behalf of a state or a terrorist network or some other non-state actor.
This EO reflects the administration’s commitment not just to the issues generally, but to the families in particular, and it has been informed by the government’s regular engagements with them and other stakeholders who have and continue to undertake important, constructive advocacy efforts on behalf of their loved ones.
President Biden and those across the administration will now draw on this EO to advance our efforts, and we hope to do so in active conversation with family members and outside stakeholders.
In addition to the EO, tomorrow, the Biden-Harris administration will introduce a new risk indicator, the “D” for wrongful detention indicator, to the State Department’s travel advisories, which exist for all countries around the world to warn Americans of risks they may face in traveling to particular destinations.
This new “D” indicator will, in particular, inform American travelers of the risk of wrongful detention by a foreign government, will highlight the elevated risk that Americans face in particular countries, and provide Americans with comprehensive safety and security information to use in making informed travel decisions.
Its transparency will also show to governments that engage in this sort of reprehensible practice, and indeed to the world, our commitment to calling out this sort of behavior.
The “D” indicator joins the existing “K” for kidnapping indicator that covers the risk of kidnapping and hostage taking by non-state actors as well as a range of other existing risk indicators.
State Department travel advisories are continuously revised and updated based on a comprehensive review of all available safety information and ongoing developments.
I should emphasize here that this work to punish those responsible for this sort of behavior, to increase transparency, to share risks about hostage taking and wrongful detention, all of this is in addition to the very hard, very important work that we do with the NSC, with State Department, the FBI, and other colleagues across the government every day to resolve particular hostage and wrongful detainee matters. This isn’t a substitute; it’s in addition. And it is a way to increase transparency through the indicator, impose costs through the executive order, and overall, try to prevent the next set of families going through this horrible ordeal.
I’ll now turn things over to our next speaker, [senior administration official], for additional context on the new EO and its implementation. And then you’ll hear from our final speaker, [senior administration official], for additional information on the update to our travel advisories.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Folks, the President is once again demonstrating his commitment to bring home U.S. nationals held hostage and wrongfully detained abroad. And we continue to work closely across the administration to realize this prioritized commitment.
The EO is critical and gives the U.S. government expanded tools to help get Americans home, including specific authority to impose sanctions on those responsible for or complicit in wrongful detentions or hostage taking of U.S. persons overseas, regardless of whether the perpetrator is a terrorist or a state actor.
On the new sanctions authority for which the State Department will have the lead for developing targets, our goal is to bring folks home. So we use the sanctions authority with a primary focus on helping to secure a loved one’s release.
Now, using sanctions may not always help secure someone’s release, so we will therefore be judicious and strategic in our use of this authority. But the families of those held know their loved one’s case best and we intend to hear from them, hear their good ideas, and listen to their recommendations.
At this point, I’d like to turn it over to [senior administration official].
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I want to take this opportunity to tell you about the parallel efforts to demonstrate our focus on this issue that [senior administration official] mentioned. And that is that tomorrow we’re introducing a new risk indicator, the “D” indicator, to the State Department’s travel advisories to inform U.S. travelers of the risk of wrongful detention by a foreign government. We’re making this change to highlight the elevated risk of wrongful detention in particular countries whose governments have engaged in that practice.
We’re committed to providing U.S. citizens with comprehensive safety and security information about foreign countries so they can make informed travel decisions before they head overseas.
The United States opposes wrongful detention and the practice of using individuals as political bargaining chips everywhere. These practices we know represent a threat to the safety of all U.S. citizens traveling and living abroad.
I’m sure you’ve all heard us say many times that we as a department have no higher priority than the safety and the security of U.S. citizens overseas. We definitely take extremely seriously our commitment to inform U.S. citizens living and traveling abroad of potential risks. And our travel advice is apolitical, fact-based, and transparent.
As [senior administration official] noted, we issue travel advisories for every country around the world offering standardized levels of advice based on established risk factors. Our advisories are based on the risk factors that include things like crime, for which we use a “C” indicator; health, for which we use an “H”; and [senior administration official] also mentioned the “K” indicator for kidnapping or hostage taking.
We’re also constantly reviewing our travel advisory system in an effort to provide the most accurate and transparent information for U.S. citizens traveling overseas.We consider a lot of factors in determining which indicators to incorporate into the travel advisory for each country. The “D” indicator may be assigned to a given country following a department determination that the detention of a U.S. national is wrongful. The indicator will consider the number of cases of wrongful detentions of U.S. nationals in any given country to help determine the appropriate travel advisory level.
We routinely update our travel advisories for all countries based on that ongoing comprehensive review of all available safety information and ongoing developments.
So tomorrow, the following countries will receive the “D”-risk indicator: Burma, the People’s Republic of China, Iran, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Russia, and Venezuela.
So on behalf of the State Department, I want to reiterate our commitment to bringing wrongfully held U.S. nationals home and to working closely with their families to do so.
My colleagues and I in Consular Affairs have a really strong partnership with our colleagues in SPEHA, with [senior administration official]’s team, and we remain in regular contact with the families of those held hostage or wrongfully detained.
We’re really proud of our partnership with SPEHA and with the White House, and we continue to work together to ensure we’re communicating and sharing information in a way that’s useful to the families and to the American public.
Q: Can we expect any sanctions announcements tomorrow along with the rollout of the executive order? And if so, on whom? How long has this executive order been in process, given the Levinson Act has been passed for quite a bit of time now?
And then, tangentially, there’s a number of families of detainees and hostages who are coming to D.C. this week. Will the President meet with any or all of them?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There won’t be particular sanctions targets announced tomorrow with the EO, but this is a process that we want and need to be sustainable for weeks and months to come.
In other contexts -- and I’m thinking of the human rights context in particular -- the development of those sorts of packages has really generated constructive, productive collaboration, not just across the federal government -- and, of course, this is, by definition, a new authority and we’ll work to build the backing to utilize it -- but also between government and those outside it, with a robust dialogue on the potential targets of sanctions and the information that the government at least should consider in assessing those targets.
So we hope that this is a project that not only gets attention and focus within the government, as it will with the President’s direction coming tomorrow, but also with so many who work so hard on these issues outside government as well.
The executive order has been in development for a while now. Bringing something to the President’s desk obviously takes care and consideration by experts across the government. We also have had a number of steps that have been critical to implementing the Levinson Act, which was an important step forward through legislation. And that has included the use of the statutorily-defined elements for wrongful detention cases, which [senior administration official] may want to say a word about, but which have been used now in an important process that runs within the State Department.
Finally, I can’t speak to the President’s particular schedule, but I can speak to his commitment to these issues and to the priority he places on bringing home Americans held hostage abroad and wrongfully detained abroad.
This executive order is, of course, one significant piece of that but it comes in the wake of efforts to -- and successful efforts -- to bring home Americans from countries really across the globe: Haiti, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Burma, and elsewhere, during the course of this administration. And he’ll continue to track these matters at the highest levels, including with the direct engagement of National Security Council staff leadership, State Department leadership, and others.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I guess the only thing I would say is that, you know, [senior administration official] indicated that a lot of work goes into this to make sure that it’s pretty much perfect when it gets to the President’s desk. I can tell you that we’ve been working pretty hard on this. The meetings have been continuous since the Levinson Act was passed pretty much.
And the idea was that we had to get this right. This is not something we want to rewind in any way, shape, or form. So we wanted to have a tool that was useful. And that took a long time to try to make sure that all the stakeholders got a chance to weigh in so we could find something that was going to be useful, powerful, and going to achieve the end states that we were hoping to achieve.
So it took a while, but if you want to get it right, sometimes you have to invest the time, and I think that’s the case here.
Q: Are you able to talk a little bit about broader strategy in terms of what exactly the U.S. government is doing to bring these people home? Do you have a blanket strategy? And by that, I mean, you guys have also been criticized by the families for refusing to make some swaps on certain occasions, and so has there been any change, for example, in that approach? I understand this has to do with DOJ as well. But basically, what is your response to all of those criticisms?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: One, anyone who’s worked on these issues for any period of time knows that strategies need to be case specific. They have to be informed by the intelligence and information about a particular case. They need to take into account country-specific facts, regional facts, and really anything we can bring to bear to leverage to get what we all ultimately want, which is an American home with his or her loved ones.
Families are in regular contact with [senior administration official] and his team at the State Department, as well as for hostage cases, the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, which is an interagency body that sits at FBI, and are part of conversations not just in developing strategies but also in refining those strategies and considering when it’s time to pivot to a plan B -- and there always needs to be a plan B.
I would just emphasize in particular that in this administration, the President has been willing to make what he himself has said publicly are tough but important calls when it means bringing home Americans.
And I’ll call attention, in particular, to his willingness to do what was necessary to bring home Trevor Reed from wrongful detention in Russia. It is, of course, public that that involved the release of Mr. Yaroshenko, who had served a great deal of but not all of his sentence in the United States.
And the President, as he said in his public statement that day, was willing to take that very rare, very extraordinary, very hard step when it meant bringing home someone for whom there was a great urgency to see home and to see healthy as well.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You know, this reminds me of that saying that “the other side always gets a vote.” And I’m always mindful in these cases that as we work on these different strategies -- and as [senior administration official] said, they’re case specific -- but as we’re executing them, at the end of the day, the other side, whether it’s Russia, China, Venezuela, et cetera, they get a vote. In a way, they have a very strong vote in that they hold the keys to the jail cell. And what we often find ourselves doing is trying to strategize and organize and, frankly, work with the families to find ways that might get those keys to open up and we can bring an American home. At times, it can be challenging.
I can tell you I probably spend one to four hours a day on the phone talking to family members. I’m currently away from Washington, D.C. I’m visiting a family tonight; will spend three hours in their home talking about their case.
But the bottom line is that we’re trying to partner with families to find these solutions. We definitely work strongly within the interagency on what we call the Hostage Recovery Enterprise. And frankly, we also work with members of Congress; the members and their staffers; NGOs; I would say, third-party intermediaries, but also even with the media, to come up with, I guess you would say, an overarching way of getting people back. And I think the media has been very powerful in really just calling awareness to this topic and, at times, even holding us accountable.
So, grateful for the chance to talk about this. But, really, to get to the meat of your question, we have ongoing strategies in all this. We review them pretty much on a daily basis, and we’ll partner with everyone we possibly can to see if we can bring this to a successful conclusion.
But I can tell you one thing: that the President of the United States, and my direct report, Secretary Blinken, they are committed to getting all these cases resolved and getting this done, and at the same time, start to bring up a deterrence strategy that can raise the cost of hostage taking and wrongful detention taking to the point that it’s no longer a feasible diplomatic strategy for those who would use it.
Q: And if you could explain: If you are going to redefine when the administration can get involved, if they could get involved sooner with people wrongfully held -- if you’re moving that bar. And if you can explain why Mark Fogel is not considered wrongfully detained, because his former colleagues and friends at the Embassy Moscow tell us that his conviction is for medical marijuana, and it seems very similar to the Griner case.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On the third one, I won’t comment -- I don’t think any of us will -- on a particular case, but refer you to the State Department which handles by law, by the Levinson Act, designations of those unlawfully or wrongfully detained.
I’ll reiterate that I can’t speak for the President’s schedule but can speak for his commitment to these issues and his willingness to authorize and indeed direct, as this executive order does, the parts of his government that can do really the two things [senior administration official] has emphasized that we need to do at the same time.
One is resolve the current cases and bring people home and, at the same time, add to the costs for those who engage in this behavior through the executive order; add to the transparency for American travelers and for the world by the new indicator; and overall, reduce the next generation, so to speak, of cases from arising in the first place.
And then, in terms of the definition of a “wrongful detainee,” that is something that is set out in the Levinson Act by federal law with a number of factors that the State Department is to consider in any particular case in reaching a conclusion as to whether a given American held abroad and acknowledged as such by a foreign government should be deemed wrongfully detained.
So we wouldn’t be able to redefine that via executive order, but [senior administration official] and others across the State Department are day-to-day, week-to-week implementing that in some very effective and informative ways that I think take that law, and the powerful advocacy that helped to get it passed by the Levinson family and so many other families, and showing the value of having that designation and entrenched in the U.S. code, the factors that inform it.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The wrongful termination process, I guess you can say we will pull up a case, and then it becomes ongoing research to determine whether it starts to, using the Levinson criteria, look like a wrongful detention.
We’ve had some cases go very fast in that we get information, and it seems like the information is self-evident, and that leads to a rather quick determination. We have other cases where we’re constantly bringing in information and it finally, to an extent, kind of crosses the bar and it becomes a wrongful detention but only after more information was gathered.
And I can tell you that we never take a case and put it away. Once we take a look at a case, we’re constantly trying to, like, as I say, vacuum in information, whether it’s from family members, newspaper reports, the intelligence community, to see if we can get that little extra piece of evidence that might raise it to the bar of being a wrongful detention.
Some cases never really rise to that level because, for some reason or not, they’re not wrongful. You know, we keep getting information that doesn’t quite reach the level of being recommended for determination.
On the Fogel case, I probably shouldn’t talk about any cases that are ongoing. We’ve been looking at that for a while now. I spent a few hours on the Fogel case just last week trying to get more information on it. So it’s ongoing and active; we’re looking at it. But I’d rather not go into any more details on specific cases.
Q: Is there anything that you could say in regards to how these efforts would impact Brittney Griner’s case or cases like hers, or anything you can say on efforts to secure her release? Any positive progress, discussion of a prisoner swap, for example?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: First of all, with respect to the executive order, there are a number of ways in which it would affect cases like that, cases in the wrongful detainee category. The executive order directs those across the executive branch to share consistent and accurate information with the families of those who are deemed wrongfully detained to ensure that they receive support and assistance throughout the ordeal and to work with parts of our government to try to impose costs on those responsible.
And as I indicated, those responsible can be government officials, and it’s really quite expansive language: “foreign persons determined…to be responsible for or complicit in, to have directly or indirectly engaged in…to be responsible for ordering, controlling or otherwise directing the hostage taking of a U.S. national or the wrongful detention of a U.S. national abroad,” or to have “attempted” to do so or indeed to have been the “leader…of an entity that has engaged” in that sort of activity.
And so as this authority gets implemented, it will, we hope, have a couple of effects. One is to impose consequences on those who’ve been part of this just abominable, inhumane practice; and in so doing, to generate over time a deterrent from others becoming part of that practice, as well, whether that’s at a broad leadership level or whether that’s particular individuals who realize there can be very personalized repercussions for engaging in this sort of activity.
And then, with respect to the travel indicator, of course this will help increase the transparency to Americans as they think about destinations, so they can factor in the State Department’s indication that, at least as of tomorrow -- and this will be reviewed, as you heard -- there are six countries where the risk of being wrongfully detained, held by a foreign government in order to be exploited or used as a bargaining chip, is very real for Americans in particular.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The one thing I would flag is that the “D” indicator is a way of increasing transparency for the U.S. public traveling. We have for a long time highlighted the risk of wrongful detention in certain countries, but by flagging it in this very clear way, we are hopeful that there will be fewer cases of U.S. travelers choosing to go to certain countries where this risk is greater than in others. Thanks.
Q: You mentioned that sanctions might not work or be applicable for every single case. So I’m wondering if there are particular cases or clusters of cases in which you think sanctions might be most appropriate or most relevant, or if there’s a particular impetus for this part of the EO.
And then, this notion of sharing additional information, being transparent with families, was, of course, a signature element of Presidential Policy Directive 30, which you were obviously an instrumental player in seven years ago. So I’m wondering why this element is being introduced again. Is there a sense that that action from 2015 didn’t go far enough in sharing information?
I’m just kind of curious whether there’s particular aspects or element or fact that wound up leading to this new action.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The Levinson Act, essentially, in public law, asks us to look into creating a sanctioning authority and sanctioning ability. And in wrestling with that over almost the last year and a half, this is the road that we’ve taken, and that seems to be a pretty good one.
So if there’s a reason why it’s coming out now, it’s really because it’s finally done. And it’s something that we’ve been working on based on what we were directed to by public law.
In terms of whether it can be used, I mean, obviously, I might have a country or two or three that I might be thinking about, but to be honest, I want to talk to the families. The families follow this case, as we do. We follow the cases, as you can imagine. But the families have a particular amount of depth to each one of their cases, for obvious reasons, and we would like to, in our engagements with them, kind of see who they think might be up for the targeting process. And we’d like to work with them a little bit.
So even though I might have a country or two where I think this might be a tool that could be put into action, I think I’m going to, kind of, withhold my fire for now until we can talk to the families and build up a strategy, because I don’t want to do that -- what is it called? -- like, “ready, fire, aim.” I want to do “ready, aim, fire.”
I want to make sure that this is integrated into our ongoing strategy and that it has impact. What I don’t want to do is do something where we use a pretty powerful tool but do not get the result that we want to achieve, and that’s bringing people home and then creating that deterrent effect.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And I’ll just flesh out a little bit on one of them, totally consistent with what [senior administration official] has said, which is: The focus of Presidential Policy Directive 30, in many ways, not in all ways, was in hostage cases rather than detainee cases. Now, it accounted for the latter. It specifically assigned the role of Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs to include working diplomatic engagements for cases in which a foreign government confirms, acknowledges that it’s detained a U.S. national but our government regards such detention as unlawful or wrongful. That is language that, as [senior administration official] said, was then picked up by Congress in the Levinson Act.
And indeed, PPD 30 did take account of the fact there would need to be family engagement for those cases as well. It explicitly made available to the State Department the family engagement coordinator that was being built at the time at the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell.
But over time, the cases that are in the detainee category -- the “foreign government held,” “foreign government acknowledge” category -- have risen in both number and degree of difficulty. And that is something that Americans see every day with some of the cases that are in the headlines.
And so the Levinson Act took an important step forward in entrenching some of the reforms set out in PPD 30, not just for hostage cases, but also for detainee cases. This implements that; it takes it forward.
And indeed, in some ways, one key theme of both the executive order that will be announced tomorrow, as well as the “D” indicator, is that they continue to elevate the priority being placed on the “government held,” “government acknowledged” wrongful detainee cases and enhance the toolbox available to us across the government in addressing those cases, which ultimately means resolving the current ones and trying to warn about and deter future ones.
Americans Detained in Iran
Emad Shargi, a 56-year old U.S. citizen, was first arrested in April 2018 and held in section 2A of Evin prison for 8 months. For his first 44 days in prison, he was held incommunicado, with no contact or access to the outside world, including family and legal counsel. While detained, he was repeatedly interrogated and also held in solitary confinement, according to Shargi’s family. He was questioned about his business dealings and travels.
Shargi was released on bail in December 2018. Approximately one year later, in December 2019, he was issued an official document from the Revolutionary Court declaring his innocence and clearing him of all spying and national security charges. But his passport was withheld, and he was not permitted to leave Iran.
On November 30, 2020, Shargi was summoned to court and convicted of espionage without a trial. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, a family friend told NBC News. His lawyer filed an appeal. On January 14, 2021, the Young Journalists Club, a news agency affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, reported that Shargi had been arrested near the western border. As of April 2021, he was being held in section 2A of Evin prison and has not been allowed visitors or access to legal counsel since his arrest, according to his family.
“Nobody has been able to see him in nearly five months,” Shargi’s two daughters, Ariana and Hannah, wrote in The Washington Post in April 2021. “He is trapped in terrible conditions during a deadly pandemic and is being refused a vaccine. We have no way of knowing how he is, except for a couple of short, monitored phone calls.”
Shargi and his wife, Amidi Shargi, were born in Iran but left as children. Emad Shargi completed his higher education in the United States. He received an undergraduate degree from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree from George Washington University. He previously worked in the plastics industry supplying plastics for water bottles and later at a company in Abu Dhabi leasing and selling private airplanes. He and his wife went to Iran in 2017, after their youngest child left home for college. At the time of his arrest in April 2018, he had just started working for the Dutch division of Sarava Holding, a tech investment company.
On January 24, 2018, the Revolutionary Guards intelligence organization detained Morad Tahbaz, a dual American-Iranian citizen, and eight other environmental activists accused of espionage. Their trial began on in January 2019 but was delayed until the beginning of August. On November 20, 2019, an Iranian court sentenced Tahbaz to 10 years in prison.
The activists were members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation conducting research on Iran’s endangered cheetah population. On October 24, 2018, the judiciary charged Tahbaz with “seeking proximity to military sites with the cover of environmental projects and obtaining military information from them.” One of the four charges against him included “sowing corruption on earth,” which typically carries the death penalty. But on October 14, 2019, Judiciary Spokesman Gholam-Hossein Esmail said the capital charge had been dropped. The activists still faced charges of “assembly and collusion against national security” and “contacts with U.S. enemy government … for the purpose of spying,” according to the judiciary.
Tahbaz reportedly has cancer and his health has continued to deteriorate because he has not received medication and treatment for more than a year.
Morad Tahbaz is one of at least nine environmental activists detained in Iran as security forces worked to quash an unexpectedly broad protest movement https://t.co/GuOX4prqxh— The Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) February 13, 2018
Karan Vafadari and Afarin Niasari
Husband and wife Karan Vafadari and Afarin Niasari were arrested by the Revolutionary Guards intelligence organization in July 2016 on charges of espionage and indecent behavior, although details about their case were only published in December 2016. Vafadari is a dual citizen of the United States and Iran. Niasari holds a U.S. green card. On July 21, 2018, Vafadari and Niasari were released on bail after having their initial sentences reduced earlier in 2018. They were awaiting a final verdict on their appeal request as of late July 2018.
The couple reportedly managed an art gallery in Tehran. Niasari was apprehended by IRGC intelligence at Imam Khomeini airport in Tehran before leaving to visit family abroad, according to Vafadari’s sister. Soon after, Niasari was ordered to call her husband and ask him to come to the airport, where he too was apprehended.
In a January 2018 letter obtained by the Center for Human Rights in Iran, Vafadari stated that he had been sentenced to 27 years in prison,124 lashes, confiscation of all assets, and a fine. He also cited charges related to espionage, alcohol consumption, receiving gifts of alcohol, and hosting parties. His wife Niasari had received 16 years. Vafadari attributed his treatment and sentence to being Zoroastrian and a dual national. Their sentences were subsequently reduced to 15 years and 10 years, respectively.
Iran's IRGC has arrested Karan Vafadari an Iranian-American & his wife 3 months ago, a family member says.They ran an art gallery in Tehran. pic.twitter.com/JT8gfDvnwN— IranHumanRights.org (@ICHRI) December 2, 2016
On July 21, 2018, Vafadari and Niasari were released from prison on bail after having their initial sentences reduced earlier in 2018. They were awaiting a final verdict on their appeal request as of late July.
Baquer Namazi was reportedly arrested on February 22, 2016, four months after his son Siamak was detained. The elder Namazi, age 80 at the time of his arrest, is a former provincial governor and UNICEF representative who worked in several countries, including Kenya, Somalia and Egypt. His work largely focused on aid for women and children affected by war. Baquer Namazi most recently ran Hamyaran, an umbrella organization of a number of different Iranian NGOs. On October 18, 2016, he was sentenced to 10 years for allegedly cooperating with U.S. intelligence agencies to spy on Iran.
On January 15, 2018, Baquer was rushed to the hospital after a severe drop in blood pressure and irregular heartbreak. He was granted a four-day medical leave beginning on January 28. He was told to report to the government’s medical examiner on February 4, and that his leave would be extended until then. The examiner recommended a three-month leave on medical grounds. But on February 6, 2018, Namazi received a call ordering him to return to Evin Prison.
On August 28, 2018, the Center for Human Rights in Iran reported that Namazi had been released on medical furlough “for a considerable length of time” due to complications from his heart condition. He had to report back to Evin Prison weekly and was unable to leave the country to undergo heart surgery, according to his family.
On October 4, 2021, Namazi’s family said that he required urgent surgery to remove a 95 percent to 97 percent blockage in his right internal carotid artery, which supplies blood to the brain. Neurologists in Iran and the United States warned that his risk of death, stroke or heart attack could be 10 percent to 15 percent higher if is forced to undergo surgery in Iran. Namazi would risk contracting COVID-19 in an Iranian hospital. “I am begging for Iran to show mercy and for the international community, President Joe Biden, and U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres to do everything that they can to pressure Iran to lift the travel ban.,” said son Babak Namazi. “My dad deserves to spend whatever little time he has left with his children and grandchildren.”
February 22, 2022 marked the sixth anniversary of Namazi's detention. “We call on the Iranian government to allow Baquer Namazi to return home, and release his son Siamak, as well as their fellow U.S. citizens Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz, who is also a U.K. citizen,” State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said. “Iran’s wrongful detention of U.S. citizens for use as political leverage is outrageous.”
Dubai-based businessman Siamak Namazi was arrested in October 2015. On July 11, 2016, Tehran’s prosecutor announced that Namazi had been indicted but did not specify the charges. On October 18, 2016, after being tried without access to a lawyer, Namazi was sentenced to 10 years in prison for collaborating with a foreign government.
On October 17, 2016, the Mizan news agency, the judiciary news service, posted a video that appeared to show Namazi in the hours immediately following his arrest. The short clip was an anti-American montage that showed images of a captured American surveillance drone, Jason Rezaian (a dual-national journalist who was accused of spying for the United States), U.S. sailors kneeling before being detained by Iranian forces and more.
Five other defendants were also convicted and given similar sentences, including Siamak Namazi’s father Baquer. On August 26, 2018 the Tehran Appeals Court denied the appeals of Siamak and Baquer Namazi, upholding their convictions of collaborating with the U.S. government. The family's U.S.-based lawyer Jared Genser condemned the move as a “cruel and unjust decision” of the court. Namazi was being held in Evin Prison as of 2021.
Clip shows detention moment of American-Iranian Siamak Namazi in Iran pic.twitter.com/i9hQbLvxNh— Sobhan Hassanvand (@Hassanvand) October 16, 2016