Biden signs executive order on Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad

The directive, among other things, authorizes sanctions, officials said.

July 19, 2022, 1:18 PM

President Joe Biden signed an executive order on Tuesday that codifies a 2020 law dealing with Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad.

Drawing on the 2020 Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, the new executive order will reinforce the U.S. government's efforts to support families of Americans wrongfully detained or held hostage overseas, according to the White House.

The order will authorize the federal government to impose financial sanctions on those who are involved -- directly or indirectly -- in wrongful detaining Americans abroad, the White House said. Moreover, government agencies will be directed to improve engagement with those Americans' families, including sharing intelligence information about their loved ones and the government’s efforts to free them. The order will also charge experts across agencies with developing "options and strategies to deter future hostage-takings," the White House said.

A senior Biden administration official told reporters that new sanctions will not be announced on Tuesday.

In addition to the executive order, Biden will introduce a new "risk indicator" -- "the 'D' indicator" -- to the U.S. Department of State's travel advisories for particular countries to alert Americans of the risk of wrongful detention by a foreign government, according to the White House.

Starting Tuesday, the first countries to receive this additional risk indicator will be China, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela, another senior administration official told reporters. The "D" indicator joins the existing "K" indicator that covers the risk of kidnapping and hostage-taking by non-state actors, as well as a range of other existing risk indicators.

China's "D" risk designation may spark ire in Beijing, where Chinese officials have largely tried to avoid the subject of wrongful detentions and where Western sanctions are a constant trigger.

Experts estimate that roughly 200 Americans are arbitrarily jailed in China, and that even more are subject to unlawful "exit bans," barring them from leaving the country. Some advocates have pushed for the Biden administration to take a more vocal approach to secure their freedom, rather than the standard behind-the-scenes diplomacy. But the State Department has recently tried a similar strategy -- updating their official advisory to American and instructing them to reconsider travel plans to China due to "arbitrary enforcement of local laws."

Syria, with which the United States does not currently have formal diplomatic relations, will be notably excluded from the "D" risk designation on Tuesday. U.S. officials believe that while the Syrian government may not be currently holding American journalist Austin Tice in its custody, it could have valuable information on his whereabouts and perhaps those of other missing Americans. Tice, 40, was abducted in Syria nearly 10 years ago.

Joey Reed and Paula Reed, the parents of Trevor Reed, a U.S. Marine detained in a Russian prison, demonstrate in Lafayette Park near the White House on March 30, 2022 in Washington.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images, FILE

The White House recently held a telephone call for the relatives of detained Americans to share information with them about these new announcements. Some of them are in Washington, D.C., this week for the unveiling of a public mural depicting their loved ones, according to Jonathan Franks, a spokesperson for many of the families.

The mural in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood will depict the faces of 18 American hostages and wrongful detainees, according to Franks, who represents a group called the Bring Our Families Home Campaign. Among those featured will be American basketball star Brittney Griner, 31, and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, 52, both of whom remain detained in Russia, as well as U.S. permanent resident Paul Rusesabagina, 68, who inspired the acclaimed 2004 film "Hotel Rwanda" and was sentenced last September to 25 years in Rwandan prison over terrorism charges.

Franks accused U.S. officials of ignoring these relatives' requests to meet with Biden, and said the phone call the White House held with the relatives was a "one-way conversation with families." He said the Biden administration was rolling out these new steps in order to "pre-manage the press attention from many hostage families being in D.C. this week to unveil their mural," saying the White House was "taking executive action to direct itself to follow existing law."

A spokesperson for the White House told ABC News that it had invited the families to learn about the new announcements before they were announced publicly.

"As part of our regular communication with families of those who are held hostage or wrongfully detained, we invited them to hear about new policy efforts we are launching to help bring their loved ones home," the spokesperson said. "We wanted to share information with the families first before we announce them publicly, which the families deserve."

The spokesperson added that the Biden administration would "continue to be in regular touch with these families through the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, and the president’s national security team as we do everything we can to support them during these difficult times.”

Whelan's brother, David Whelan, told ABC News the executive order was "a good next step and shows a long-term commitment by the Biden administration, both in the amount of time it must have taken to craft the framework ... and the focus on continued deterrence."

He said the White House holding the call with families in advance of the public announcement "was exactly what families had been asking for: communication in advance of new announcements that would impact our families."

According to the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, there are actually 64 publicly known cases of Americans being held hostage or wrongfully detained around the world.

ABC News' Cindy Smith contributed to this report.

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