CSIS Launches Bipartisan Commission on Hostage Taking and Wrongful Detention

WASHINGTON, DC – June 1, 2023 – The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) today launched the bipartisan CSIS Commission on Hostage Taking and Wrongful Detention to explore responses to the growing phenomenon of hostage taking. Over the next 18 months, the commission will meet to explore and consider tools to strengthen U.S. policy, with the goal of:

  • Proposing new U.S. government policies that could deter further hostage taking;
  • Studying the efficacy of different strategies toward diverse actors;
  • Developing additional tools and authorities to empower U.S. officials and the families of hostages.

Former national security adviser to President Trump Robert O’Brien co-chairs the commission alongside Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), who serves in an honorary capacity. The commission includes returned hostages, hostage family members, former law enforcement and national security officials, diplomats, academics, and journalists, all of whom have a long track record working on hostage and detainee issues.

“It is an honor to join with distinguished colleagues to address the wrongful detention of Americans and the scourge of hostage-taking abroad,” O’Brien said of the commission. “At a time when Americans are divided on many issues, we are 100% united on the proposition that our countrymen and women held captive in foreign lands should be returned home immediately. Our bipartisan effort on this front must succeed.”

“The plight of Americans unjustly detained abroad is excruciating for both them and their loved ones,” Shaheen said. “The totality of the U.S. government must be brought to bear to explore every measure to ensure the safe return of all unjustly detained Americans. This bipartisan commission brings together advocates, journalists, government officials and outside experts to help sharpen U.S. policy and actions to ensure the safe return of all Americans and put an end to the use of Americans as political tools of our adversaries. I’m proud to serve as an honorary co-chair of this important effort to help bring Americans home.”

The Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian, who was held hostage in Iran when serving as Tehran bureau chief, will help direct the effort, in cooperation with Dr. Jon B. Alterman, a senior vice president and the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy at CSIS.

“Since returning from captivity in Iran in 2016, I have focused much of my reporting on cases of Americans held hostage abroad, and unfortunately the number of cases is rapidly increasing,” Rezaian said. “Bringing leaders in all aspects of hostage recovery together to develop new ways of addressing this old problem is our effort to attempt to stop it from spiraling out of control.”

“The imprisonment of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in Russia is the most recent example of a troubling trend: groups and governments holding Americans hostage in hopes of wresting things from the U.S. government,” said Alterman. “In the last year alone, 19 foreign governments wrongfully detained Americans. This is a growing national security crisis, and this commission will surface innovative policy solutions to help address it as such.”

The James W. Foley Legacy Foundation estimates a 580 percent increase in the number of U.S. nationals wrongfully held overseas from 2012–2022 compared with the previous decade. During the same period, the average length of captivity for U.S. hostages increased by 60 percent, to more than four years on average.

In a rare example of bipartisanship, U.S. government officials across the political spectrum and throughout the career national security workforce have made significant strides in the right direction. Both Presidents Obama and Trump made hostage return a high priority for their administrations, and a bipartisan task force emerged in Congress to work toward bringing constituents home. Congress passed the Levinson Act in 2020, a bipartisan measure that created new institutions and empowered the State Department to officially designate Americans as “wrongfully detained.”

“But given the scale and worrying trends of hostage-taking and wrongful detention of Americans,” added Alterman, “the United States needs fresh ideas to address this crisis.”

To learn more about the CSIS Commission on Hostage Taking and Wrongful Detention, visit here.

Members of the Commission:

  • Robert O’Brien (Co-Chair), Larson LLP
  • Jeanne Shaheen (Honorary Co-Chair), D-New Hampshire
  • Jon Alterman (Executive Director), CSIS
  • Jason Rezaian (Executive Director), Washington Post/CSIS
  • David Bradley, National Journal Group
  • Mickey Bergman, Richardson Center for Global Engagement
  • (Ret.) Chris Costa, International Spy Museum
  • Jeffrey Feltman, Brookings Institution and UN Foundation
  • Danielle Gilbert, Northwestern University
  • Emily Horne, Allegro Public Affairs
  • Eric Lebson, Camden Advisory Group
  • Cynthia Loertscher, James W. Foley Legacy Foundation
  • Sarah (Levinson) Moriarty, New America
  • Jason Poblete, Poblete Tamargo LLP
  • Tim Rieser, U.S. Senate staff
  • David Rohde, NBC
  • Joel Simon, Journalism Protection Initiative, Newmark School
  • Jonathan Wackrow, Teneo
  • Nizar Zakka, Hostage Aid Worldwide

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a bipartisan, nonprofit policy research organization dedicated to advancing practical ideas to address the world’s greatest challenges.