Tag Archives: James Foley

Parents of kidnapped journalist weigh in on new U.S. hostage policy

  • Marc and Debra Tice, parents of kidnapped journalist Austin Tice, say they are "cautiously optimistic" about the changes to U.S. hostage policy. (Photo: Amina Ismail/MEDILL NSJI)

WASHINGTON – Faced with an upsurge in journalist kidnappings, President Barack Obama issued a new executive order in June that allows families to offer ransom money without fear of prosecution and establishes an interagency fusion cell to improve U.S. hostage recovery efforts.

Kidnappings of journalists are on the rise, up 35 percent in 2014 to 119 journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders’ most recent annual roundup of abuses against journalists. RWB also reported that 66 journalists were slain in 2014, bringing the number of journalists killed in connection with their work in the past 10 years to 720.

But how far do the changes go toward providing an effective solution to the bureaucratic tangle we’ve already spun when it comes to coordinating the return of kidnapped Americans?

The fusion cell is led by senior FBI official Michael McGarrity and housed at bureau headquarters. It is made up of officials from the FBI and departments of State, Treasury, Defense and Justice, as well as the Office of Director of National Intelligence and the CIA.

Marc and Debra Tice flew to Washington in June to meet with Obama to review his executive order revising U.S. hostage policy. Austin Tice, their son, is a freelance journalist who was kidnapped while reporting in Syria in August 2012.

Speaking just days after their meeting with the president, the Tices expressed frustration at the difficulties they personally faced navigating the complicated system while trying to find their son.

“We spent two years figuring out who do you call, who’s got responsibility, who’s got capabilities, who’s got the desire, so we had to find our way through Washington and the bureaucracy and these different agencies of the government by ourselves effectively,” Marc Tice said.

“All of these resources already exist,” added Debbie Tice. “What we are really asking for is more efficient, more effective, more economical stewardship of resources.” The Tices spoke of institutional roadblocks at both the macro and micro, day-to-day levels.

“He has got an apartment that he is running, how do we deal with that? He has got bank accounts and student accounts, a social media identity… there’s a whole ecosystem that we have to go through,” Marc said.

“Think about the bank account that has nothing going into it, and has automatic payments coming out. And how quickly that can become a huge issue that we can’t get our hands around,” said Debbie.

The Tices said it took the family over a year to figure out a legal authority to deal with this issue. They still have not been able to access Austin’s Twitter account, from which he last tweeted about spending the day at Free Syrian Army pool party on August 11, 2012.

A Defense Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity explained how circuitous government efforts between the White House, the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the FBI, the Pentagon and the military services can be – especially when these agencies are all uniquely involved in different aspects of hostage recovery.

“Start with authority. Who has the authority to act for civilians?” the defense official said.

“One major criticism the Obama administration has faced is treating terrorism as a criminal activity,” he said. “Despite the ‘war on terrorism,’ we don’t treat it as a war, but as a crime.”

“If you’re in an Afghani combat zone, you’re DOD responsibility. Otherwise, you’re an FBI issue, unless you get a security order from the Secretary of Defense.

“So the FBI has the lead, but technically no overseas reach. You can only get there through the State Department and Department of Defense. And the FBI can’t tell DOD to do anything. And DOD would still need to get an execution order to do anything anyways.

“For the FBI, State and these agencies are peers – you can’t just tell them what to do. They would have to be told, pretty much, by the President. The CIA chain is just like State. They’d need presidential findings… they can’t just do a one-off. The DOD would need to call over to the Joint Staff, and then go to the Secretary of Defense for an execution order, but that can take 2 years.”

While the defense official lauded the enhanced support for hostages and their families, he criticized organizing the fusion cell under the umbrella of the FBI.

“The organization with the least reach is now entirely responsible for getting hostages home. So this could be seen as a huge slap in the face for families.”

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R- Calif., has advocated for displacing the FBI from its traditional leadership role in hostage negotiations.

“The problem is…in Iraq, there is no FBI. In Syria, there’s no FBI. In Afghanistan, there’s no FBI. In war zones, you don’t have the FBI,” Hunter said in May, discussing an amendment to the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act on the House floor.

“What you have is the Department of Defense and different intelligence agencies. [They] are the ones who track the networks, know the networks, know who the bad guys are, know where the hostages may be and then, in case we actually get good intelligence, the Department of Defense and our intelligence communities, those are the people that would act on the intelligence, not the FBI.”

Chris Voss, former lead FBI hostage negotiator, had a different take.

“The issue is in agencies putting the right people in the right places, and they’ve now designated the right places. In kidnapping issues, the actual authority and responsibility rests with the FBI, which is in charge of investigating murders and kidnappings overseas. Moving the coordination to that effort over to the FBI makes more sense, and elevates responsibility to FBI to a higher level.”

Voss said that now the overall coordination should be easier and quicker because of the higher level of authority involved – “but it still comes down to the level of expertise of the person in the position. Did the people involved with the government do a very poor job over the past two years?”

“In all these ISIL instances, there’s been a complete absence of any evidence of government subject matter expertise. It’s time for the government to take a hard look at the people doing the jobs and see if they’re up to the task. And there’s no evidence that they are.”

#MedillRemembers James Foley, One Year Later

Fourteen fallen journalists immortalized at Newseum

  • Journalists remembered at the Newseum. (Ramsen Shamon/MEDILL NSJI)
    Journalists remembered at the Newseum. (Ramsen Shamon/MEDILL NSJI)

WASHINGTON—The Newseum honored 14 journalists on June 8 for their courage while reporting under hostile conditions, representing all journalists who died in 2014.

Family members and friends of the fallen attended the museum’s annual Journalists Memorial, which recognizes the risks journalists face in getting the news.

“It has been a brutal time for journalists worldwide. Numbers vary, but according to most international media organizations, more than 80 journalists were killed last year,” said Kathy Gannon, an award-winning Associated Press correspondent who was shot at by an Afghan police officer in April of last year while in a car. Her colleague Anja Niedringhaus died in the attack.

Gannon was the recent recipient of the 2014 James Foley Medal for Courage in Journalism awarded by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

After her speech Gannon hugged friends, some were teary-eyed.

John Foley, father of the late James Foley, honored his son and all journalists killed last year.

In his last letter addressed to his family in captivity, James wrote: “I know you are thinking of me and praying for me. And I am so thankful. I feel you all especially when I pray. I pray for you to stay strong and to believe. I really feel I can touch you even in this darkness when I pray.”

Islamic State militants beheaded him in August.

“He left his mark as a wonderful human being,” Foley said. “He defended our right to know.”

Islamic State militants also murdered journalist Steven Sotloff in 2014.

While crossing into Syria from Turkey, Sotloff was abducted by the Islamic State in 2013. He was killed in September, the execution videotaped and released online.

Sotloff’s mother Shirley, accompanied by her husband Arthur, read her son’s handwritten words aloud. The words were also written while Sotloff was taken hostage: “Everyone has two lives. The second one begins when you realize you only have one.”

The 2Lives foundation was created in honor of Sotloff to “support aspiring young journalists,” according to his mother.

Shirley said Sotloff’s dedication to the Newseum’s Journalists Memorial held a special place in the their hearts.

Peter Prichard, chairman and chief executive officer of the Newseum, said that attention should be placed on why the journalists passed instead of how they passed.

“It’s certainly right and just that we pause today in our busy lives to remember what these journalists did and why they did it,” Prichard said. “And it’s also right that we should recognize and honor the family members who have lost their loved ones for what is, in the end, a noble cause.”

A hashtag –#WithoutNews –accompanied Monday’s event, urging news consumers to think about the threats experienced by journalists as they report.

The hashtag also asked individuals to envision a world without news.

ISIS’ media plan: Kill one, win one thousand

Journalists are on the front lines covering terrorism. We are unarmed and unprotected. We work mostly alone. We not only work in hostile areas but now we are also the targets of terrorism.

It wasn’t always this way. Richard Engel, chief foreign correspondent for NBC News, noted at a panel discussion on reporting from the frontline at the University of Chicago in May that journalists used to enjoy some protection in hostile environments.

“The rebel groups didn’t like you,” said Engel. “But back then they knew they needed me because I was there to do a story about them and what I said had some sort of impact.”

But the code of conduct has changed. A reporter no longer serves as the messenger. Terrorists can cut out the journalist and go directly to the Internet to deliver their message. Engel believes the change occured because terrorists find journalists frustrating to deal with since they often edited interviews, taking rebels’ words out of context.

We are all familiar with the fate of James Foley as Medill students. He was one of our own, part of our extended family by education and trade. He was abducted while covering the Syrian civil war by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2012 and very publicly beheaded in a video that went viral in 2014.

Certainly journalists who cover terrorism on the front line face risks. There is no doubt that an assignment could end up with the story being published about the writer’s death. Yet, journalists can’t allow fear to stop the stories. I’m not advocating anyone put their life in danger for death defeats a journalist’s purpose: To get the story out to others who have the power and resources to make change happen. But we must continue reporting, taking calculated risks, so the world can have a fair and unbiased report of what is truly happening, rather than accept the propaganda terrorists push out as the truth.

Some experts believe that targeting Western journalists as part of an ISIS terrorism campaign is a critical part of its marketing plan to instill fear in journalists and the public.

“Terrorism works in a similar fashion as good advertising and marketing work,” said Angi English, executive director of the Texas Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities, a part of the state’s emergency management division.

English recently graduated from the Masters program at the Naval Postgraduate School and Homeland Security where she studied national security issues. She recently wrote “The Social Influence of the ISIS Beheadings.”

Ken Aucremanne agrees. He formerly worked with the military and is a graduate researcher in social media at American University in Washington D.C. He said killing journalists is ISIS’ way of controlling its message. English adds that beheading journalists and putting the videos on social media can instill fear into the thousands of Americans that ISIS can’t reach directly because it gives them the message that their government can’t protect them.

“Kill one, win a thousand,” said English. “It’s a Chinese proverb. If it is so horrific that it jars our consciousness, our whole psyche, when you do it to one person, people get the message.”

ISIS is both symbolically and physically cutting off information to the West by cutting off journalists’ heads.

ISIS also has gotten extremely sophisticated in the way it uses video and social media. Terrorist groups used to put out shaky, grainy video but no more. ISIS has stolen video techniques from independent filmmakers and the journalists they kill.

“Terrorist organizations, for the most part, they don’t have critical infrastructure and resources to attack other nations,” said English.


Screenshot of ISIS video on how it produces video.

Instead, they use video and social media as their tools of terror. ISIS creates and shares cinematic videos that people are drawn to, giving the terrorist group an air of credibility.

“Ten or 15 years ago if you wanted to get the whole world to see your vision, you had to send someone to flight school and target the World Trade Center, but today all you need to do is go to film school,” said Aucremanne.

Aucremanne believes ISIS is using video because cameras and equipment are inexpensive and unrestricted in ways that weapons are not. The second video in this Daily Mail article shows ISIS’ behind the scenes video production techniques. Jon Lee Anderson, a correspondent for the New Yorker, said during the frontline reporting panel at the University of Chicago rebels now need fewer tools to be terrorists.

Screenshot of ISIS video on how it produces video.

Screenshot of ISIS video on how it produces video.

“All that is needed to be a terrorist or commit global terrorism is an iPhone, knife and a victim, with that you have your battlefield,” he said. “You have tens of millions of people who are going to see that and be terrorized by it.”

The West focuses on the gruesome and graphic beheading videos, but those are only a small portion of the videos ISIS is releasing. Aucremanne said there are plenty of other videos designed to show ISIS fighters as heroes and instill Pan-Arabic pride that are being distributed through private social media channels.

Honoring Medill grad James Foley – and the kind of journalism he championed

After seeing confirmation that James Foley has been murdered at the hands of the barbaric terrorist group Islamic State, I have been struggling to find the right words to say – besides the obvious, which is to tell my students and fellow journalists that no story is worth giving one’s life for.

James Wright Foley

But saying that – or saying only that – would be a disservice to all of the committed and courageous journalists who have given their lives in pursuit of reporting from the most dangerous corners of the earth.

That is especially the case with Foley, a Medill grad who was kidnapped in 2012 while reporting from Syria. My former Medill colleague Steve Duke said it best on a Facebook post when he described James, his former student. “He was a brave, committed journalist who went into dangerous places so the rest of us could know what was going on,” Duke wrote.

A year before being captured in Syria, Foley was kidnapped in Libya. After his release, he wasted little time in getting back out on the front lines in search of the story – and the truth – even after acknowledging to an editor that some would think he was “crazy” for doing so.

I don’t think he was crazy at all. I think he was incredibly courageous, and the very embodiment of what it means to be a war correspondent. He was someone who risked his life to bear witness to the truth.

As such, I hope that Medill, and possibly other journalism and educational organizations will honor his life, and his death, with some form of commemoration. My humble vote: changing the name of the Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism Award to the Medill James Foley Medal for Courage in Journalism Award. The award is given to the individual or team of journalists, working for a U.S.-based media outlet, who best displayed moral, ethical or physical courage in the pursuit of a story or series of stories.

That is small consolation to his family, of course. But it would be an important symbolic statement that the Medill community values the kind of reporting that Foley and others like him have done.

Just this year, more than 30 reporters have been killed for being journalists, with many others killed or injured in the line of duty, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Many thousands of other journalists face similar risks in conflict zones around the world every day.

The best person to speak for Foley and his commitment to journalism is Foley himself. Fortunately for us, he took the time to address the circumstances of his first kidnapping, and the lessons he learned from it, in a very frank talk at Medill in 2011. Read about it here.

Foley, a 2008 Medill grad, was emotional that day as he recounted his 44-day ordeal in prison cells in Libya to a packed audience in Evanston as part of the Gertrude and G.D. Crain Jr. lecture series.

Especially remarkable was that Foley agreed to publicly discuss his experience just two weeks after his release. He was contemplative and brutally honest about his time reporting from Libya for Boston-based GlobalPost about clashes between rebel groups and Libyan armed forces battling for control of key cities.

Previously a teacher, Foley switched to journalism in part because his brother was in the Air Force. He said he was also a frustrated writer who wanted to see the world. He said he wanted to tell the American public the real stories about war and where American taxpayer dollars were being spent in the name of protecting them.

At Medill, he took classes on national security reporting and even attended the same weekend “Hostile Environment” training seminar that I take my Washington-based students to, so they can begin the process of learning how to minimize the dangers of reporting from the field.

Foley liked embedding with U.S. troops, but that wasn’t enough. He decided that to get the real story, he had to cover the Libyan revolution by mingling with rebel groups as they advanced on government forces 500 miles southeast of Tripoli.

While doing so, Foley and three other journalists were shot at by Libyan troops in the frontline town of Brega. While three of them were taken captive, the fourth — South African photographer Anton Hammerl — is believed to have been killed in the gunfire.

“Our story is a very cautionary tale,” Foley, then 37, conceded. “We made a lot of mistakes.”

Foley told the audience that day that his Medill training, as well as his field experience, taught him that the critical aspect of covering conflicts is to be mentally strong. That came in handy, not only during his time in prisons and  after media organizations and humanitarian groups successfully pressured Libyan authorities to release him and the other two journalists.

Despite his time spent in Libyan prisons, Foley said he wouldn’t stop reporting on conflicts.

“I told my editor I know this is crazy but I want to go back to Libya,” he said. “But emotionally I am nowhere near ready.”

“Feeling like you’ve survived something—it’s a strange sort of force that you are drawn back to,” Foley was quoted as saying about his Libya experience in news reports today.

Foley was back on the front lines soon enough, covering the conflict in Syria, where he wanted “to expose untold stories,” the BBC reports. The circumstances of how he was taken into custody, and by whom, are still cloudy – at least publicly. His family has asked for privacy during this impossibly difficult time.

Conclusive evidence that Foley had in fact been murdered by ISIL was still being pursued Wednesday. But his mother, Diane Foley, posted a statement on the “Free James Foley” Facebook page in which she implored the kidnappers to spare the lives of the remaining hostages, including at least one American journalist.

On a more personal note, she added, “We have never been prouder of our son Jim. He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people.”

During his talk at Medill, Foley said his Libya experience taught him another important lesson, one that is especially relevant today with the news of his death. He said the loss of a fellow journalist had made the recovery process a lot more difficult for him.

“Every day I have to deal with the fact that Anton is not going to see his three kids anymore,” he said of the South African photographer. He told the hushed crowd that day that he believed conflict zones can, indeed, be covered safely.

“This can be done,” he said, “but you have to be very careful.” “It’s not worth losing your life,” he added. “Not worth seeing your mother, father, brother or sister bawling.”