Tibits and rumors about the Brittney Griner detention in Russia are teasing out, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken revealing that a "substantial offer" was made to Russia.
Some read it as a prisoner swap.
Any swap and its fairness are a controversial subject.
Let's wait for more details lest matters are made worse through misguided conjecture.
What's certain is a broad national consensus to recover our wrongfully detained compatriots abroad without incentivizing more of the same, including potential extortions.
And this is well-founded.
Anecdotal research show Americans comprised 66% of all wrongful detentions globally since 1995, trailed by Bulgarians at 8%.
We must up our recovery tactics, first at home and then abroad.
As for Ms. Griner, how can we make sense of what is happening?
More generally, are there patterns in detention and hostage cases, even a formula for bringing our Americans home?
The tough, hard truth is that if you have seen one such case, you have seen only one such case. There is remarkably little, almost no, research on cases of foreign governments wrongfully detaining American citizens.
When a case of this sort happens, we scramble for piecemeal measures as if suddenly stunned out of bed in the middle of the night: no light and no shoes, to manage quickly the unknown.
In serving as previous special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, I needed to think past these unstudied riddles. Future envoys need the president’s personal support to do so, as well.
At times, I used the "medical approach."
We had dozens of "patients" ranging from sudden shock to near death.
For each one I wanted to know what to look for, how to look for it, and how to describe it in ways that could lead to a plan of action. Only then could our team develop a "line of effort" or several that might lead us to the next level — which most times was twistier.
I then realized that the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs does have a more potent and secret weapon — its name.
"Special Presidential" is a rare charge. It was bestowed upon Col. Edward Mandell House to broker the World War I peace treaty, and later to George Marshall to implement the post-World War II "Marshall Plan."
Developed in 2015 for hostage affairs, "Presidential" means that an all-of-government rescue armada needs to be at the ready, willing to spend ammunition and take some hits.
Although the envoy is at the wheel, in fact the president is the fleet admiral.
He needs to come out of his cabin, bark orders throughout the vessel and hold forth.
Because of the gambling below decks by our bureaucrats wanting to survive and prosper past the rescue mission. From where they sit the hostage problem is only one of the cards in their hands. They bristle at handing their chips to the president for his envoy’s use.
They do not want to sink a trade deal planned with the offending country; they do not want more sanctions on top of what is already in place; they do not want to swap a foreign criminal in our jail after putting so much into the conviction; they do not want a "merchant of death" terrorist back in business on their beat; they do not want to pay ransom already budgeted for other programs.
Overall, they do not want to humiliate their foreign contacts in the offending country on a single issue for fear of harming their next promotion.
As an example: I once requested a State Department office to provide the telephone number of a foreign prison detaining an American. The officers, at a lesser rank, refused me lest any progress come at that desk’s collateral expense.
But what if — consequences be da**ed — the bureaucrats went all-in on hostage recovery? Would they get any credit?
As a matter of political currency, most likely not.
Therefore, we find more difficulty and dissent within our own recovery crew than with our adversaries wrongfully detaining our compatriots.
So, at critical points the president must crack the D.C. whip.
The Oval Office must marshal the United States’ all-of-government resources to create and enforce consequences on the captor.
The goal is to make it more expensive to continue than to relinquish the detainee.
Getting to that point requires enlightened leadership over the D.C. bureaucracy.
The president must make it too expensive, also, for bureaucrats to hold their cards and secondary interests. Further, he must create incentives for playing one’s hand to the benefit of the table, not only to that one party.
Again, our secret weapon, our ruby slippers, to bring Americans home is the word "Presidential" in the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs.
Mr. President, you know the power you have.
Use your office.
In full-throat, instruct your cabinet to prioritize hostage recovery cooperation in their agencies, sternly and repeatedly.
Optimize our all-of-government tactics to make wrongful detention far more expensive for our adversaries than for us to bear at home.
Finally, grow your "Office of Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs" into its skin.
This includes securing U.S. Senate approval for the title of ambassador to enhance your Envoy’s authority in D.C. and abroad.
For Ms. Griner, and others today and tomorrow, please take these actions. Otherwise, your crusading David has little chance against the Goliaths at home and abroad.
Hugh Dugan served as Acting Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs and Senior Director for International Organization Affairs in the National Security Council after having advised 11 U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations since 1989. Read Hugh Dugan's Reports — More Here.
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