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Biden order promises more help for Americans detained or held hostage abroad

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

An executive order by President Biden promises more help for Americans detained or held hostage abroad. It allows government agencies to impose financial sanctions and visa restrictions on both state and non-state actors in these detentions. The people pushing for change included Diane Foley, who was the founder of the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation. Her son, James Foley, for those who do not recall, was an American journalist working in Syria when ISIS took him hostage, held him for many months and then killed him. Diane Foley joins us now. Ms. Foley, I'm sorry to bring up the topic, but I know you live with it every day, so thank you.

DIANE FOLEY: Thank you, Steve. I'm pleased to be here.

INSKEEP: Does this...

FOLEY: It breaks my heart that - to witness this happening again with so many American citizens held hostage abroad.

INSKEEP: Does this executive order help?

FOLEY: It verbalizes teeth to the Robert Levinson Act, which was - it gives teeth, rather, to the Robert Levinson Act, which I appreciate. I think it's - that's laudable. But what we really need is action. These families - there are more than 64 public cases today. And these families of these people are languishing, many of them 4 1/2 to 10 years, as wrongful detainees all over the world.

INSKEEP: You mentioned Robert Levinson, the act - the person for whom that act was named. Of course, he's a person...

FOLEY: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...Who disappeared in Iran, is believed to be dead. But there are other Americans in Iran. We don't have to go beyond Iran to find several cases, do we?

FOLEY: Not at all - China, Venezuela, Iran, certainly, Russia. We have more and more. And the reality is that many of these people, as I said, have been held captive for multiple years, having done no crime at all. And it really - I had hoped our government would do better in this regard and make it a true priority. That's what we implore this administration to do.

INSKEEP: Some people are focused on WNBA star Brittney Griner, who's been held in Russia. She's in their criminal justice system, facing drug charges. Does this executive order help the United States to support her, do you think?

FOLEY: I think it's a good step in the right direction. But we need action. We need shrewd negotiation and action because these people cannot hang on forever. Matthew Heath in Venezuela, you know, tried to commit suicide recently. I mean, they're held in deplorable, inhumane conditions.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking through the challenge of getting leverage over people who may hold Americans hostage and who may want something in return. I guess you can threaten a country like Iran or Russia with sanctions, except the United States seems already to be sanctioning them to a great degree. And then there are non-state actors, like ISIS, that I would think it would be hard to threaten in any particular way.

FOLEY: You're absolutely right. It's very complex. But our government can do it if we put our mind to it, if it's a true priority to bring our citizens and legal, permanent residents home, we need the best of our diplomats and negotiators on this issue.

INSKEEP: The executive order promises accurate information to families. I'd like to know about your experience several years ago. Did you get enough information during your family's long crisis?

FOLEY: We had no information, absolutely none, Steve. So I think that's improving. That's beginning. We're beginning to share some information with families, but we're just not there. We're just not there. We can do better, Steve. These are our people - could be your son or father, my mother or sister. These are real, living, breathing people, our citizens who need our help.

INSKEEP: Do you mean to say that when James Foley was in captivity, the State Department might tell you, we're on it or we'll get back to you, but they didn't - you don't believe that they were telling you everything they might know or everything they were trying to do?

FOLEY: Jim was never a priority. We were told that constantly, but it was never the case. There were always policy above people. And I'm imploring this administration to put our people first for a change, Steve.

INSKEEP: I can imagine some of the difficulties with something like Iran, where the United States is trying to negotiate a nuclear agreement with Iran.

FOLEY: Right.

INSKEEP: And they're also asking after the people who were detained in Iran. But they don't want to make a nuclear trade. They don't want to, you know, give Iran some break on the nuclear deal in exchange for a hostage. I think that gets to the complexity, the conflict, between policy and people, as you put it.

FOLEY: Absolutely, Steve. It isn't easy. I'm not saying this is easy. That's why people take our citizens as political pawns, because it gives leverage. And this is what - this is why the deterrence is essential and the consequences are important. But it's important that we see this as the priority it is because it is becoming more and more problematic and difficult to bring our people home.

INSKEEP: Diane Foley, it's a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

FOLEY: I appreciate your time, Steve. Thank you.

INSKEEP: Diane Foley's son, journalist James Foley, was kidnapped and killed by ISIS in Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF IAN EWING, CHROMONICCI AND PHILANTHROPE'S "ZEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.