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The Biden administration is facing questions over whether its strategy to bring hostages home could be incentivizing more hostage-taking from hostile nations.
Biden administration officials have made clear their ultimate objective is the safe return of Americans being wrongly detained abroad. While not every release of a U.S. prisoner has involved some form of payment, some of the highest profile cases — the release of Brittney Griner from Russia last year and of five Americans in Iran last week — have included either a prisoner swap or the release of funds.
The approach has set off a broader debate over whether the strategy will incentivize bad actors to take Americans hostage abroad, believing they can extract something from the U.S. government in return.
“We do know that denying concessions or refusing to make concessions has never stopped the practice of hostage-taking,” said Dani Gilbert, an expert in hostage-taking at Northwestern University.
“Hostage takers derive a lot of benefit from capturing Americans that has nothing to do with the results of a negotiation, to include the public attention that they get from holding an American captive, the propaganda that it serves for them, and the benefits to a hostage taker sometimes if they kill or injure American captives.”
Biden is not the first president to agree to prisoner swaps or other concessions in exchange for the safe return of imprisoned Americans. But the high-profile nature of some prisoner releases during his first term has drawn the ire of Republicans and put a spotlight on the conundrum officials face when deciding whether to agree to such deals.
Last December, the Biden administration agreed to release convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout in a one-for-one swap with Russia for the release of basketball star Brittney Griner.
This month, the U.S. agreed to release five Iranians and unfreeze $6 billion in Iranian funds in exchange for the release of five Americans who were detained in Iran for years.
Critics argue that such tactics will only increase the risks for Americans abroad.
“I think they’re engaged in human trafficking. And I think it’s a very dangerous proposition,” said John Bolton, who has served in the State Department and as former President Trump’s national security adviser.
“The policy question is what do you do to minimize the risk to Americans around the world in whatever environment to reduce the likelihood they will be taken hostage by state actors, terrorists, you name it,” he continued. “One critical way to do that is to make it clear that the price for the release of an American hostage is zero. In other words, there are no trades. When you abandon that policy, you’re simply indicating that trading is possible and the only issue is the price.”
Bolton pointed to alternative methods, such as using back channels for negotiating and imposing harsh consequences on countries or groups that take Americans hostage to establish a form of deterrence.
He also argued swaps could make it more difficult to win the release of prisoners like Paul Whelan and Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, both of whom are being held in Russia. And any swap with Russia would be under enormous scrutiny because of its invasion of Ukraine.
The White House has rejected claims from conservatives that its tactics incentivize hostage-taking. Officials have spoken about the difficult decisions they face in agreeing to deals to secure the release of some Americans while others remain in detention in Russia, Iran and elsewhere.
“These bad actors don’t need incentives. And this isn’t going to change the calculus, necessarily, of what they’ve been doing,” John Kirby, a national security spokesperson for the White House, told reporters. “What it is going to do is get our Americans home.”
Emily Horne, former spokesperson for the National Security Council under the Biden administration, backed Kirby’s comments, saying the facts around these deals don’t point to any incentive for bad actors.
“The idea that a humanitarian deal and a prisoner trade, both of which have also been done in Republican administrations, to bring these five Americans home would beget further hostage shaking is just nonsensical, the facts don’t bear it out,” she told The Hill.
Republican Sens. Mitt Romney (Utah), Tom Cotton (Ark.) and Tim Scott (S.C.), who is running for president, and Democrats like Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.) criticized the deal the Biden administration struck with the Iranians over concerns that it encourages more hostage-taking. They argued the government shouldn’t have negotiated with Iran in the first place, and that Biden is sending money to terrorists.
The administration has stressed that the $6 billion will be available for Iran only for humanitarian transactions, such as food, medicine and agricultural products, and they will lock up the funds if Iran tries to use them for a use other than humanitarian purchases.
Trump bashed the deal Monday and said he never had to pay for a hostage, though the White House has reiterated the payment was not a ransom and emphasized that U.S. taxpayer dollars were not part of the deal.
While the former president did not free up funds as part of prisoner swaps, Trump did meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un after Americans were freed from the hermit nation, which critics at the time said granted Kim legitimacy.
“It’s unsurprisingly a bad faith take from the former president that ignores the complexity of the situation,” Horne said, adding that it’s “pretty outrageous” considering Biden’s hostage-taking negotiator also worked in that role for Trump.
Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs since he was appointed by Trump in 2020, was behind negotiations for the release of Griner and Marine Corps veteran Trevor Reed, who was released in 2022, among others.
Experts, though, noted that while concessions like freeing up Iran’s funds allowed for the American hostages to be brought home, the U.S. government needs to focus on deterrence to avoid these situations.
“I think that the most important thing for this administration and for the U.S. government more broadly to figure out is how do we make this practice actively costly for the perpetrators?” Gilbert said. “So if denying concessions has never stopped it, and making concessions is the best way to bring people home, what punishments can the U.S. government put on the perpetrators of this practice, so that they are deterred from doing it in the future?”
Jon Alterman, co-director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’s Commission on Hostage Taking and Wrongful Detention, called it a “reasonable concern” to be wary of incentivizing hostage-taking.
“What you really want to do is keep people from taking hostages in the first place. But, you don’t get credit for persuading people not to take hostages. And that’s one of the things that’s hardest about all of this, is if you successfully deter countries from taking hostages, then the issue becomes less salient,” Alterman said.
“You can do it either by providing honey or vinegar. Realistically, you have to do a combination of each.”