To Negotiate The Release Of American Detainees, The U.S. Works As Quietly As Possible

A former ambassador shares a behind-the-scenes perspective on detainee and hostage situations.

By Alexandra HartMay 10, 2018 12:59 pm

Early Thursday morning at Joint Base Andrews near Washington, DC, three American detainees returned home from North Korea. President Trump greeted the men and said the release of the hostages shows that the U.S. has “a very good chance of doing something very meaningful” with North Korea.

But what goes on behind the scenes when Americans are detained abroad?

“It’s generally felt that the less focus on detainees or hostages probably the better,” says former ambassador Ryan Crocker. “That if we make a lot of noise about it, it just increases the value of the hostages in the eyes of the hostage holder. So in most cases running silent is the best way to proceed if you’re looking to get your folks back.”

Crocker says Iran and North Korea tend to arrest Americans on some pretext, give them show trials, and sentence them.

“But, unlike the hostage situation in Lebanon that I was involved in, we know where those people are,” Crocker says. “The state has them, which is a far better outcome than, again like the Lebanon hostages, where some shadowy group has them.”

Crocker says the U.S. strategy in hostage situations varies from case to case. The U.S. does not pay ransoms and it’s common practice to keep hostages and detainees out of the media spotlight to reduce their value to those who hold them. These policies are thought to make it less likely for hostages to be seized in the future.

“One thing that I have seen in the last year or so that I think is an effective step is to be more engaged and involved in discussions with family members of the prisoners or hostages,” he says. “It makes it a little bit more livable for them, and you can learn some interesting things by doing that and doing it quietly.”

Ultimately, there’s no way to know for sure what will work in a hostage situation.

“There is no one size fits all,” says Crocker. “What worked in North Korea yesterday probably isn’t going to work in Iran tomorrow.”

Written by Christopher De Los Santos.