905. Debra Tice, the mother of missing journalist Austin Tice, used that number almost in passing Wednesday night as she answered a question about how she’d been coping with the absence of her son. She’d been dealing with it, she said, for “these past 905 days.”
On Thursday, it became 906, as the Tices and the journalist advocacy group Reporters Without Borders kicked off a campaign to raise awareness of Austin Tice’s situation — the first American journalist to vanish in Syria. The goal: Bring pressure, through social media and a publicity campaign, on whoever is holding him and on the Obama administration to find a way to win his freedom. The Tices have been assured that he’s still alive.
“We are committed to the goal that no other family has to experience this in the way we have,” Debra Tice said during a panel discussion at the Newseum, a privately operated Washington museum of the news industry.
Her frustrations, she said, have been many: a U.S. government that doesn’t share information with her or seemingly among its own departments. An FBI that seems interested in finding out what she knows, but doesn’t tell her what it knows. An administration that refuses to talk to the Syrian government, even though both governments have assured her they want to see her son returned home.
“They have this common interest but they won’t talk to one another,” she said. “How about one chat? A single-agenda meeting?”
Later, she added, “I don’t believe in not speaking. How is that an effective form of diplomacy?”
Austin Tice’s satellite phone, which he used to communicate with his editors at McClatchy and at The Washington Post and his family in Houston, last transmitted in the mid-afternoon Syrian time on Aug. 13, 2012. Debra Tice and her husband, Marc, think their son was kidnapped the next day as he began a trip that was to take him from south of Damascus, where he’d been reporting for several weeks, to Beirut, the Lebanese capital.
The only news of him since has been a video that was posted to YouTube on Sept. 26, 2012. It shows an obviously distraught Tice, blindfolded, being led up a hillside by his captors. The video breaks off as he’s heard speaking fractured Arabic, then saying, “Jesus. Oh, Jesus.” The new publicity campaign encourages people to post photos of themselves on social media, wearing blindfolds, with the hashtag #freeaustintice.
Since that video was posted, the Tices have traveled to Beirut twice in hopes of making contact with someone who can help them win their son’s release. They’ve given television and newspaper interviews. They’ve spent uncounted hours with officials of several countries. They’ve met repeatedly with the FBI agents assigned to investigate Austin’s kidnapping. Debra Tice described her relationship with the FBI as “acrimonious, in a middle-school kind of way.”
That’s been a theme of families of Americans who have been kidnapped in Syria, and it was echoed Wednesday by Diane Foley, whose son, journalist James Foley, was taken captive four months after Austin and whose beheading by the Islamic State was recorded in a video posted online Aug. 19.
“I found out when Jim was killed from a hysterical AP reporter,” Diane Foley said, sitting on the stage at the Newseum next to Debra Tice. “I never heard from the government until the president went on TV.”
She voiced other frustrations with the way the government had dealt with her son’s case, which began when he failed to return from Syria on Nov. 22, 2012. It was Thanksgiving Day.
“Our FBI knew where Jim was after six months,” she said, but the U.S. government was unwilling to do anything to win his release from his Islamist captors.
She said her son’s captors had been in regular contact for a month, making demands for his release. The FBI declined to communicate with them, she said, and told the Foleys they would have to do the negotiations. “But we’re not negotiators,” she said. The FBI’s refusal to engage angered the captors, she said.
The FBI couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
“It doesn’t make sense to me that no one would talk to Jim’s captors,” she said, adding, “Our government didn’t engage at a high-enough level.”
President Barack Obama has ordered a review of government hostage policy, and Debra Tice said she’d met Monday with the group that’s undertaking the review. The review is being led by the government’s National Counterterrorism Center, and Doug Frantz, the assistant secretary of state for public affairs, who appeared Wednesday on a separate panel, said the government wanted to do better.
Seventy to 80 people across the government are engaged full time in the review, Frantz said, which is led by a three-star general. The group gathers twice a week for six hours to discuss its progress. It has contacted 83 hostages or family members and 20 have come forward to be interviewed, he said.
One issue not on the table, though, is paying ransom, the way several European journalists held by the Islamic State won their freedom. “If we pay ransom, we put targets on the back of every American,” Frantz said.
Debra Tice disagreed. “When you’re looking at your primary goal is to get your hostage home, every option should be on the table,” she said.
In her meeting with the review board, she said, she made her view of the situation clear. “We are not volunteering,” she said of her time. “We are investing. And we expect a return.”