WASHINGTON — The families of some Americans held overseas are criticizing the White House after President Joe Biden signed an executive order Tuesday aimed at increasing the federal government’s efforts to bring home U.S. citizens held hostage or otherwise wrongfully detained.
In the executive order, Biden declared a national emergency over hostage-taking and the wrongful detention of U.S. nationals, saying in a letter to Congress Tuesday that the situation “constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.”
The move comes after growing criticism that the Biden administration hasn’t done enough to assist WNBA player Brittney Griner, who the U.S. says is being wrongfully detained by Russian authorities. But some family members of those held overseas said the executive order doesn’t go far enough.
"Is it a good thing that they signed this executive order? Sure. But it's a half measure," said Jonathan Franks, spokesman for Bring Our Families Home Campaign, which represents 20 families. "It needed to be done, but what the families are looking for isn’t so much an executive order, as it is bold and decisive leadership and decision making, an end to what has been their strategy since day one, which is to decide not to decide on these cases.”
He said the families want to see higher level engagement by the White House to help get their loved ones released, including taking action on prisoner exchanges, unfreezing government assets or visits by high-level officials.
"We have people who are in life or death situations right now and there seems to be precious little being done to bring them back," Franks said. "They can do press conferences, press releases, issue written documents, things like that. But an executive order never brought back a hostage."
Franks, whose group has been pushing the White House to organize a meeting between the president and the family members, said the White House held a call with the families ahead of the announcement but didn’t allow the families to ask questions or give their input.
“These are people that are, in effect, being silenced by hostage takers. So to be silenced by our own governments is something that I can understand why some of them are upset,” he said.
The executive order would allow for sanctions and visa bans to be placed on those involved in detaining or holding Americans hostage though the administration didn’t announce any new sanctions Tuesday.
It also directs government agencies to prioritize U.S. government support for the families and instructs officials to increase their engagement and information sharing with families, including intelligence information.
There are at least 64 publicly known cases of Americans being held hostage or wrongfully detained overseas, according to the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation.
“This EO reflects the administration’s commitment not just to the issues generally but to the families in particular, and it has been informed by the government’s regular engagements with them and other stakeholders who have continued to undertake important constructive advocacy efforts on behalf of their loved ones,” said a senior administration official on a call with reporters.
The State Department will also list a travel advisory, indicated with a letter D, to warn Americans of the risk of wrongful detention in certain countries, including China, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Russia, and Venezuela.