Just Call Them Hostages

President Ronald Reagan was silent about the AIDS epidemic for its first six years. After 47,000 infections, under pressure from friends and advisors, he launched a commission in 1987 and endorsed a public information campaign by the Centers for Disease Control. Public recognition that AIDS represented a threat to the population at large climbed 20 percent in a year. What the government said mattered.

There is a comparable issue today where the government is not silent, but oblique when it should and could be strong. More and more Americans are being taken hostage—the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation counts 59 currently held, and there was a 580 percent increase of such cases from 2012 to 2022. Like AIDS in the 1980s, a sense that hostages are to blame for their captivity undermines public support for their plight.

Many U.S. citizens held abroad are taken precisely because they are American, and their captors hope to use them as leverage against the U.S. government. And while the U.S. government has made great strides since 2015 in dealing with the problem, it has failed in one critical aspect. U.S. policy does not allow the government to call these detained citizens what they are: hostages.

Like Reagan’s six-year silence, the United States’ refusal to use frank language weakens its position and allows the public to remain disengaged. The U.S. government should have no qualms about calling Evan Gershkovich, and other Americans held without legitimate cause, hostages.

President Barack Obama took the first stride when he ordered a comprehensive review of U.S. hostage policy in 2014. He was responding, in large part, to a horrifying string of Islamic State (IS) kidnappings that resulted in the murder by beheading of four Americans, including Jim Foley, namesake of the Foley Foundation.

Those efforts resulted in Presidential Policy Directive 30 (PPD-30) and later new legislation named the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage Taking Accountability Act after a former FBI agent who was abducted in Iran in 2007. The landmark law took effect in late 2020 and transformed U.S. hostage policy, codifying dedicated institutions and resources to combat the phenomenon. By law, the secretary of state may now officially designate Americans as “wrongfully detained” when certain criteria are met. The Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs (SPEHA), which was established as part of PPD-30, then champions those cases alongside an interagency body called the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell. Often referred to collectively as the “hostage enterprise,” these institutions leverage all instruments of U.S. power with accountability straight to the president to bring Americans home.

Lawmakers chose “wrongfully detained” instead of “hostage” or another term because of realities specific to that time, but the circumstances have changed. In 2015, nonstate actors like the IS and Boko Haram seized the world’s attention through hostage-taking and staggering violence. Responding to the moment, policymakers chose the designation “wrongfully detained” as it gave the U.S. government wiggle room to use its traditional diplomatic toolkit when working to release detainees. Had policymakers used the term “hostage,” they argued, working to retrieve detainees could look a lot like negotiating with terrorist groups, which the United States has long claimed it does not do—though, of course, it often does.

But today, the trend has reversed. States like China, Iran, and Russia now account for 90 percent of all cases where Americans are unjustly and illegally taken abroad. The priorities and assumptions underpinning the “wrongfully detained” designation have changed, and the policy needs to change with them.

Faster and clearer designations would help the U.S. government rally the country. By design, “wrongfully detained” leaves room for debate about the circumstances of an arrest and detention. The word “hostage,” however, means any deliberation over the merits of an arrest has already been resolved. It removes any question of the captive’s responsibility and frames them as an innocent victim in the other party’s game. Indeed, research by Northwestern University’s Dani Gilbert, a commissioner with the CSIS Commission on Hostage Taking and Wrongful Detention, suggests that the framing of hostage-taking cases has a significant effect on media coverage. Presenting cases as “terrorism” instead of just “criminal” activity, for example, increases the number of articles written when controlling for other variables. Similarly, a term like “hostage” would command greater public interest, tacitly granting the U.S. government greater flexibility to deal with the problem.

Those who support the “wrongfully detained” designation argue that U.S. government use of “hostage” could do more harm than good. On the one hand, supporters argue that using such an aggressive term may sour diplomacy before it even starts. But this argument fails to acknowledge that the U.S. government already uses the term “hostage” in every other official capacity. It is the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs who works to bring Americans home, together with the interagency Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell. Returned Americans who sue their former captors in court are described as hostages in federal case law, and U.S. presidents have frequently referred to hostages alongside wrongful detainees in oral and written communications—most recently by President Biden at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

On the other hand, supporters of “wrongfully detained” argue that the greater public attention created by “hostage” would empower hostage-takers with greater leverage over the U.S. government, and even incentivize future hostage-taking. But again, the supporters are refusing to adapt to a changed context. The limiting reactant in bringing Americans home is not an excess of public interest, but an absence of it.

Today, Americans unjustly held abroad hail from red, blue, and battleground states. In total, representatives from more than a quarter of U.S. states (including Florida, California, Texas, and New York) and the District of Columbia are actively working—or should be—to secure the release of their constituents. And despite the newly expanded U.S. policy toolkit that came into effect with PPD-30 in 2015, almost half of all U.S. states have had residents unjustly held abroad since its inception. And that only includes the cases that have been publicly documented.

Photo: CSIS

Yet Americans don’t seem to care. Gallup polled the nation in 1985 and 2014 about whether the U.S. government should prioritize securing the safe release of hostages or discourage future hostage taking by refusing to negotiate. In 1985, just 47 percent felt the government should prioritize the safe return of current hostages. By 2014, support had declined slightly to just 43 percent (perhaps in part because Gallup changed the wording of their question to replace “hostages” with the more neutral “prisoners”).

Popular support is a necessary condition for bringing Americans home, but too much or too little can be problematic. When just right, however, public support allows the president to take risks and try new methods of preventing hostage taking in the first place or make necessary but unpopular deals when those efforts fail. A public that understands hostage taking is a strategic crisis is a public that supports the government’s efforts to deal with it.

In support of Gershkovich and every American who will be taken in the future, the U.S. government should do its part to rally the country to the cause by having the courage to call a spade a spade. “Wrongfully detained” was an excellent start, but it cannot stand forever as the one-size-fits-all designation. Although well-intentioned and designed to paint with a broad brush, it can sometimes restrict where it should empower and confuse where it should clarify. And ultimately it fails to inspire sufficient public support and may even diminish it.

Whether via executive order or amended legislation, the secretary of state should also be empowered to make a second designation: “state hostage.” An American unjustly confined simply because they are American is a hostage, and their government should be able to describe them as such. With messaging refined, the legal and diplomatic arsenal enshrined by the Levinson Act can be freed to focus on what actually matters: bringing hostages home.

Danny Sharp is an associate director and associate fellow with the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Jason Rezaian is a senior associate with the CSIS Middle East Program.

This commentary does not represent an official finding or recommendation of the CSIS Commission on Hostage Taking and Wrongful Detention.

Daniel Sharp
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Middle East Program
Jason Rezaian
Senior Associate (Non-Resident), Middle East Program