Six years after journalist Austin Tice disappeared in war-torn Syria, the State Department says it believes he is alive and that his case has “attention at the highest level” of the Trump administration, including its new envoy for hostage affairs, Robert C. O’Brien.
Tice, a former Marine, was freelancing for McClatchy, The Washington Post and other outlets when he was detained en route from Syria to Lebanon on Aug. 14, 2012. He was last sighted six weeks after his disappearance, when a video was posted that showed him being guided up a rocky hill by a group of armed men.
Tice’s parents, Debra and Marc, often come to Washington for updates. Debra Tice has been in Washington the last two weeks meeting with administration officials and other groups such as Reporters Without Borders, and is involved with messaging and the work being done to bring her son home.
The Tice family has been encouraged by the Trump administration’s engagement and accessibility, Debra Tice says. They talk regularly with officials and even spoke briefly with Trump, who said he was aware of the Tice case.
“We know it’s important to him to bring Americans safely home,” Debra Tice said. “He’s demonstrated that. Our interaction with the administration and our new special presidential envoy, so far, we’re off on a good foot.”
U.S. officials declined to comment on Tice’s possible whereabouts, who might be holding him and why there have been no apparent demands made for his return. But in a statement, the State Department insisted the administration is fully engaged in Tice’s safe return.
“His case has the attention of the highest levels in the U.S. government and the administration,” a State Department official said, speaking anonymously per administration practice. “We are actively working to bring Austin Tice home.”
In response to other questions from McClatchy, a State Department spokesman said, “President Trump recently appointed Robert C. O’Brien to serve as the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.. Mr. O’Brien will focus on leading our efforts with other countries to bring our people home by coordinating diplomatic engagements and working with the highest levels of foreign governments to secure the safe recovery of United States hostages, including Austin Tice.”
In April, the FBI announced a new reward of $1 million for information leading to Tice’s safe recovery and return.
The Trump administration says 17 Americans have been freed since Trump took office.
In May, Joshua Holt, who traveled to Venezuela from Utah in 2016 to get married, was released from prison by the Venezuelan government after being accused of espionage. Two weeks earlier, North Korea released three American prisoners before the summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Another American, student Otto Warmbier, was released from North Korea, but died days later. Last year, an Egyptian-American woman was released in Egypt after being held for nearly three years on human trafficking charges.
Although little is publicly known about Tice’s possible whereabouts, his family has stated he is not being held by any element of the Syrian resistance, including ISIS. The family cannot provide further details without compromising relationships with valuable sources.
Peter Bergen, a national security analyst who advocates for missing or detained foreign correspondents, said Tice’s case is rare. “It is quite unusual for a journalist to be detained for this length of time,” said Bergen, a journalist who serves as vice president of Global Studies and Fellows at the New America Foundation. But it isn’t unprecedented.
Terry Anderson, Middle East bureau chief for The Associated Press, was held captive for more than six years by Hezbollah militants in Lebanon between 1985 and 1991. But his captors periodically released photos of him, providing some evidence of his condition.
The situation in Syria is complicated, Bergen said, partly because of the number of factions within the Syrian government and the absence of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Syria. “My understanding is there are multiple intelligence services (in Syria), and how you communicate with them is very difficult and tricky,” he said.
Sherif Mansour, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Middle East program coordinator, notes the Syrian government acknowledged this summer that hundreds of prisoners had died and Tice was not on the list.
Experts believe the public acknowledgment shows that Assad is confident about remaining in power without fear of repercussion and wants to signal a fresh start. But Mansour also sees opportunities to work with the Assad government to find Tice as the Syrian leader seeks ways to demonstrate cooperation and improve his relationship with the international community.
“The government both feels empowered enough to turn the page on what happened over the last five years and are anxious enough to reinvent their international image,” Mansour said.
One key go-between for the United States is the Czech Ambassador to Syria, Eva Filipi. Without diplomatic relations, the Czech Republic serves as a “protecting power,” or intermediary, for sharing information between the U.S. and Syria.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and who represents Tice’s home state of Texas, met with Filipi late last year, according to a member of his staff. Cornyn has also stayed in touch with the Trump administration and the Tice family about new developments.
Neither Cornyn nor Filipi were made available for interviews. On Wednesday, however, Cornyn took to the Senate floor to note the 6th anniversary of Tice’s disappearance, his family’s perseverance in securing his release and the dangers journalists face in many countries.
“2017 was perhaps the most dangerous year on record for journalists, and 2018 is not expected to be any different,” said Cornyn. “We need to be aware of this and constantly vigilant to do our part to ensure journalists’ safety and the flourishing of the free press everywhere.”
According to Reporters Without Borders, 47 journalists were killed worldwide in the first half of this year while doing their work. Of the 54 foreign journalists held hostage by hostile forces worldwide, more than half were in Syria.
In recent years, the Tice family has worked hard to keep Austin’s name in the news, regularly appearing at public events, both in the United States and Middle East. The couple hopes that regular news reports might prompt someone to come forward with new information about their son.
They’re encouraging supporters to keep up the attention and reach out to government officials in Washington and in their communities to encourage them to help bring Austin Tice home.
On Tuesday, the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. hosted an event on the sixth anniversary of Austin’s captivity with Tice’s parents and representatives from McClatchy and The Washington Post, among other media outlets. In honor of the anniversary, McClatchy is raising #FreeAustinTice flags and banners across its 30 newsrooms around the country.
“It needs to be done. Whoever you want to contact and however you want to contact, just let them know its important to you that Austin come safely home,” Debra Tice said. “He needs to come home.
Andrea Drusch contributed to this report.
This story has been updated to include Senate floor comments from Sen. John Cornyn on Wednesday.