WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden signed an executive order Tuesday aimed at increasing the flow of information to families of Americans detained abroad and at imposing sanctions on the criminals, terrorists or government officials who hold them captive.
It is unclear if the new order will result in bringing home more Americans jailed in foreign countries, but senior Biden administration officials who previewed the action to reporters said they regard it as an important way to raise the cost of hostage-taking and to punish captors.
The executive order is being announced as the administration faces criticism from some families over a perceived lack of creativity and aggressiveness in getting their loved ones home. It also comes as the ongoing detention in Russia of WNBA star Brittney Griner has brought increased attention to the population of Americans who are jailed abroad and designated by the U.S. as wrongfully detained.
A representative for Griner told ESPN’s T.J. Quinn that they didn’t plan to comment. “We’re focused on her trial right now,” the representative said.
The action relies on a section of the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act — named after a retired FBI agent who vanished in Iran 15 years ago and is now presumed dead — that authorizes the president to impose sanctions, including visa revocations, on people believed to be involved in the wrongful detention of Americans.
In this case, officials said, that could apply to government officials or to criminals or terrorists unaffiliated with a government. Since sanctions may not always help facilitate a jailed American’s release — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for instance, has proceeded despite a wave of economic sanctions from Western allies — such punishment is expected to be used judiciously, according to one official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the administration.
“This threatens the rank and file who play a role in these cases,” Danielle Gilbert, a fellow at Dartmouth College’s Dickey Center for domestic and international study and an expert in state-sponsored hostage taking, told ESPN. “It’s a credible threat to punish a broad swath of officials for engaging in this egregious behavior.”
“Sanctions aren’t always effective. Research shows they only achieve their goals in a minority of cases,” Gilbert said. “But if the threat of sanctions makes it harder to take Americans hostage — if it makes it harder for our adversaries to engage in this form of coercion — the policy will have made a huge impact.”
Another element of the order will direct federal agencies to do better at sharing information and intelligence with families of detainees about the latest status of their case and efforts to get their loved one home.
In addition, the State Department is adding a new risk indicator to its country-specific travel advisories to warn travelers about nations where there is believed to be an elevated risk of detention.
The department already uses foreign travel risk indicators for categories including crime, health and kidnapping. Officials said the new risk indicator, marked as “D” for detention, will be applied at least initially to the following countries: Burma, China, Iran, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela.
Relatives of jailed Americans are gathering in Washington this week for the unveiling of a mural to honor the detainees. Administration officials would not say whether Biden would meet with the families.
Elizabeth Whelan, the sister of Paul Whelan, who is detained in Russia, said her family welcomed the announcement.
“I view it as a really significant move,” she told ESPN. “I’m so tired of people being afraid of making moves that protect Americans, and I really don’t care what Russia thinks about it. Russia has taken our citizens and is holding them basically as hostages.”
As for whether it would bring her brother or Griner home sooner, she said, “It’s really hard to say. All I know is it puts a little more leverage on our side, so I think that’s hopeful. I can’t see how that doesn’t push things a little more in the right direction.”
She also lauded the part of the executive order that grants families access to more intelligence about their detained loved ones.
“We [have had] this pressure to go to the West Wing of the White House to find out if something is happening, and if we were given more information we wouldn’t feel that pressure, we would know much more clearly what’s going on,” she said.
Paul Whelan has been in Russia since December 2018 when he was charged with and later convicted of espionage. The United States considers him to be wrongfully detained.
Jonathan Franks, a spokesperson for the Bring Our Families Home Campaign, a group that advocates for the interests of hostages and detainees, said in a statement that the “families continue to await a reply to their requests for meetings with President Biden.”
Franks said that rather than engaging with the families in a meaningful way, “the White House is taking executive action to direct itself to follow existing law.”
Information from ESPN’s T.J. Quinn and The Associated Press was used in this report.