On June 15, the Senate unanimously approved the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act (S.712). The bipartisan legislation aims to strengthen U.S. government efforts to repatriate Americans held hostage or unlawfully detained abroad. It would establish a Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, an interagency Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell and a Hostage Recovery Group, which would make policy recommendations. The bill had been approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 21.
The act was named in honor of Former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who is presumed to have died in Iranian custody in early 2020. Levinson had reportedly been on a rogue CIA mission when he disappeared on Kish Island in 2007. He was the longest held hostage in U.S. history. At least three Americans – Baquer Namazi, Siamak Namazi, and Morad Tahbaz – remained in Iranian custody as of June 2020.
The bill was co-sponsored by Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Chris Coons (D-DE) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). “This important bipartisan bill will help ensure that American hostages are brought back home safely and able to reunite with their families,” Rubio said. “I urge my colleagues in the House to take swift action and pass this important bill and send it to the president for signing.” On March 7, a bipartisan group led by Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) introduced similar legislation in the House.
The following is summary of the bill from the Congressional Research Service and remarks by the co-sponsors.
Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act
This bill establishes various entities and procedures to address the wrongful detainment of U.S. nationals abroad.
The President shall appoint a Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. The envoy's duties shall include leading diplomatic engagement on U.S. hostage policy and coordinating diplomatic engagements in support of hostage recovery efforts.
The President shall establish an interagency Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, which shall assess and track all hostage cases of U.S. nationals and coordinate agency efforts to safely recover hostages. The President shall also establish the Hostage Recovery Group, which shall make recommendations regarding hostage recovery options and coordinate the development and implementation of U.S. hostage recovery policies.
The President is authorized to impose visa- and property-blocking sanctions against any foreign person responsible for or complicit in the unlawful or wrongful detention of a U.S. national abroad.
The Department of State shall review cases where U.S. nationals are detained abroad and refer instances of wrongful or unlawful detainment to the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs.
Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ)
Statement on May 21: “I am very proud to be able to deliver on my promise to the Levinson family on approving this important legislation in honor of Bob Levinson. Today, the United States is one step closer to holding the Iranian regime and other bad actors accountable for perpetrating unconscionable human rights abuses and inflicting gratuitous cruelties on individuals like Bob Levinson.”
“As we continue to push this bill forward towards its enactment into law, we must remain guided by the Levinson family’s determination and persistence in their quest for justice. The United States must do everything possible to secure the resources necessary to safeguard American lives abroad and prevent others from enduring similar tragedies in the future.”
Statement on June 16: “I was honored to lead this fight in the Senate, but this important day belongs to the family and friends of Bob Levinson.”
“Year after year, they fought valiantly and with great tenacity and devotion, to gather information about Bob’s whereabouts and to bring him home. It is their determination and sacrifice that served as the foundation for this legislation, which will address both the wrongful imprisonment of Americans like Bob Levinson, and the hostage-taking of Americans like James Foley.”
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL)
Statement on May 21: “Following the tragic news earlier this year regarding death former FBI Agent Bob Levinson, who was the longest held hostage in American history, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations pays tribute to his life by passing this important bipartisan bill to help ensure American hostages will be brought back home.”
“This bipartisan effort will strengthen the tools within the Executive Branch to facilitate the return of American hostages held overseas.”
Statement on June 16: “Earlier this year we received the tragic news about Bob Levinson, the longest held American hostage. It is our hope that no American family will ever have to endure what the Levinson family went through. This important bipartisan bill will help ensure that American hostages are brought back home safely and able to reunite with their families.”
“I urge my colleagues in the House to take swift action and pass this important bill and send it to the president for signing.”
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT)
Statement on May 21: “The barbarity of the Iranian regime was graphically illustrated in the case of Robert Levinson.”
“Countless appeals for his release were ignored, and in the end the Iranians achieved nothing by subjecting him to appalling cruelty all those years. When American citizens and nationals are arrested and imprisoned, our embassies should determine if there is reason to believe that they are being held as hostages or otherwise wrongly detained. This bill specifies criteria for making such determinations and would ensure that those Americans receive every available diplomatic or other assistance to protect their rights and obtain their release. There should be no higher priority for U.S. diplomacy than freeing American hostages.”
Senator Chris Coons (D-DE)
Statement on May 21: “We must do everything we can to prevent the unlawful detention and hostage-taking of American citizens.”
“This bipartisan bill honors the life of Bob Levinson, who was wrongfully detained in Iran for over a decade, by strengthening our ability to bring these individual Americans home and hold their captors accountable.”
Statement on June 16: "This is an important step in our efforts to prevent the unlawful detention and hostage-taking of American citizens abroad.”
“This bipartisan bill honors Bob Levinson, who was held hostage in Iran for over a decade, by strengthening our ability to bring Americans like Bob home and hold their captors accountable."
Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH)
Statement on May 21: “Any time an American citizen is held unjustly, it demands the attention and full weight of the United States government to secure their freedom.”
“This legislation reaffirms our country’s commitment to bring Americans home safely and bolsters diplomatic powers for the President and administration to use to compel their release. This legislation honors Robert Levinson, who died in Iranian custody after being held hostage for 13 years, and every American who is or has been wrongfully detained. I’m pleased by the bipartisan support from the committee to move this bill forward and I’ll continue to work across the aisle to see this legislation through Congress.”
Statement on June 16: “Any time an American citizen is held unjustly, it demands the attention and full weight of the United States government to secure their freedom.”
“This legislation reaffirms our country's commitment to bring Americans home safely and bolsters diplomatic powers for the President and administration to use to compel their release. I'm pleased we were able to pass this bill in the Senate on a bipartisan basis and hope it will soon be considered in the House and sent to the President’s desk."