Hope for Heedful Headlines on Hostage Recovery in 2016

Blog Post
Jan. 14, 2016

This article originally appeared in the New America Weekly.

It wasn’t the hottest headline of 2015, but it was one well worth reading.

The Obama administration issued a Presidential Policy Directive related to hostage recovery efforts in June. Ultimately, the directive entails a significant reorganization to the way that hostage cases are handled by the US government. If this is to mean anything in the upcoming year, the newly formed group dealing with hostage recovery needs to navigate the difficulties of effectively communicating what it is doing and why to the American people.

In addition to airstrikes in Syria and homeland security efforts at home, a significant part of the United States’ longer term fight against ISIS involves a battle of narratives. Unfortunately, the gruesome, inhumane and horrific nature of hostage videos released over the last couple of years can serve as propaganda, induce fear, and assist groups like ISIS with recruitment efforts. In addition, these videos can also end up influencing debate about U.S. policy here at home with regard to hostages and the fight against ISIS writ large.

Some have also argued that ISIS uses these videos to strategically impact and manipulate public opinion and US strategy. For example, in his article, “Don’t Start a War Over a Hostage,” Jacob Siegel writes, “Using a lurid murder to frame its warning against airstrikes was, at least, a form of psychological warfare. It may actually be an attempt to bait the U.S. into sending troops to the Middle East, drawing Americans back within striking range, and into a battle that would increase their recruitment and prestige among fellow jihadis.” Just this Sunday, another video (that has not yet been authenticated by authorities) was released and the video claims show the murder five hostages who those in the video accuse of working for British intelligence

On the flip side, it is worth remembering that there have also been hostage success cases. For example, back in September, there was a hostage-related victory when two American hostages were released by Houthi rebels in Yemen, along with one Briton and three Saudis. Successful hostage recovery outcomes are what the Obama administration is hoping will become more common due to reforms resulting from the directive.

While beheading videos and failed rescue attempts tend to get significant media coverage, the hostage-related reforms made last year didn't garner nearly as much attention. Which brings us back to the presidential directive. At the heart of the reorganization is the creation of a Hostage Response Group (HRG) and a Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell (HRFC), along with the appointment of a Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs. The presidential directive explicitly notes that the US government policy “does not preclude engaging in communications with hostage-takers” and still includes a “no concessions” policy.

The reforms also focus on improving closer intra-agency coordination on these cases and improving the communication, engagement and sharing of information with the families of hostages. The reforms came in response to criticism launched at the government for how it was handling these cases. In many cases, these came directly from the families of the hostages themselves who were not satisfied with the government’s efforts and organized significant efforts on their own.

First and foremost, then, the group’s primary mission is hostage recovery and getting Americans home safely. However, in order to work, the new Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell (HRFC) will also need to manage expectations and communicate effectively with the families and the American public. This will be of particular importance if and when these cases end up making their way into the mainstream media.

Why? Because the American people do not know a lot about how these situations are handled from the inside. This is a double-edged sword for the new team’s efforts. Much like the intelligence community tends to get the spotlight on it for its failures, with successes often going unnoticed, the failures in hostage scenarios tend to get amplified by the media when, in reality, these situations are some of the most challenging situations to resolve. Traditionally, intelligence agencies and groups related to national security tend to shy away from dealing with the media or do not devote as much time to developing a media strategy, and this may be understandable, but it is also why the public is often misinformed and failures may sometimes be subject to misguided or inaccurate criticism. This itself will be a failure for the group if they cannot successfully navigate their interaction with the press and the families on this issue.

Does this mean that the hostage group should develop a political spin machine? Of course not.

Gaining the trust of the families (to say nothing of that of the American public) is critical for this group to be able to work effectively, and nobody ought to trust a communications strategy built on deception or fallacies.

However, there are some general ways the HRFC and HRG can work to communicate the information about hostage cases to the public effectively while instilling in it (that is, the public) enough confidence that it trusts the Group in its endeavors and that the information it says is necessarily confidential is exactly that. At the same time, it is also important for the families, the American people and the media to acknowledge and respect the fact that they do not have a right to all of the information related to these cases. Classified information is classified for a reason and its release may undermine success and put lives at risk. Navigating the proper calibration in these cases will be a sensitive and challenging endeavor with high stakes in the upcoming year, but as someone rooting for the success of this new group, here are a few general suggestions for the year ahead.

First, the Hostage Response Group and Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell ought to focus on conveying messages that manage expectations.The Group needs to help people to better understand the challenges associated with hostage recovery and understand the various elements that make these so difficult (i.e. not wanting to encourage more kidnappings by giving more groups incentives to continue these activities, not wanting to put the life of the hostage at risk with a rescue operation, etc). All of these are highly challenging and complex cases with unique challenges, so the team needs to set reasonable expectations of what success looks like based on the facts at hand. Similarly, a failure in a hostage case or the release of a horrific video on social media is not necessarily indicative of a group gaining strength. These cases are one factor among many in assessing counter-terrorism progress. Tragically, in many of these cases—particularly those involving ISIS or ISIS-inspired individuals—the hostage-taking individual(s) do not always desire a genuine negotiation. In the most recent Paris attacks, for example, NBC reported that the captain of the commandos who stormed the Bataclan theater noted the “negotiations” were more of a tactic to gain time to murder more individuals. The captain stated, "It was not really a negotiation," he added. "They want just to prepare themselves for the final assault. They don't want to negotiate anything." In other cases, there may be the ability to negotiate.

Second, the HRG and HRFC need to clearly articulate to the media how the new organization is going to be improving efforts to rescue/recover hostages. Making people understand how the organizational changes implemented are going to improve these efforts is critical. At the appropriate times, illustrating specific examples of how the reorganization has assisted with information-sharing or interagency coordination can demonstrate ways the new organization is assisting hostage recovery investigations and efforts. People are generally skeptical of bureaucratic reorganizations making a real impact unless they see precisely how and why this is an improvement from previous structure and why things will be different.

Third, using data from previous cases to tell a narrative to the families, the media, and the American public would also be helpful. Data can often help to tell a powerful story and be used to support the policy decisions and approaches being taken by the US government. What are the drivers of success and failure in hostage episodes? How is the group leverage these lessons across the current pending cases? Are there similar cases that are analogous from the past that are helping to inform current US efforts? All of this information helps put the current work into historical context and also helps to educate the media and the public.

Fourth, at the end of the day, the work on these cases is being done by extremely experienced and committed public servants. The work is intense, emotional, challenging and difficult. Many of the individuals working on these issues are impressive and devoted public servants who have spent their lives in the law enforcement, defense and national security communities. The team should amplify the personal stories of those working on this issue each day. The power of personal narrative is one that is authentic and powerful. Even the most perfect and talented team will have failures, but when you trust the capabilities, character and commitment of those on the team, the failures are more palatable. On the flip side, the narrative of a powerful team helps to inspire and maintain a sense of optimism that the US government is truly doing everything it can to secure the recovery of Americans being held hostage without putting additional lives at risk. At the end of the day, we trust people, not bureaucratic reorganizations.

In 2016, it will be up to the committed men and women working tirelessly to get Americans home safely to earn the trust and confidence of the families and the American people along the way. The hostage recovery presidential directive and subsequent reorganization give us hope for both better outcomes and more heedful headlines on hostage recovery in 2016.