How Not to Help Americans Captured Abroad

A few lines, buried deep in the 2015 appropriations bill, could be a nightmare for American detainees and the State Department.

The brutal execution of two American hostages in the last 15 days has forced the country's attention on the plight of U.S. citizens captured abroad. With the Islamic State (IS) in possession of more American hostages -- and over a dozen U.S. citizens still forcibly held from Cuba and Venezuela to Iran and North Korea -- a debate on the federal government's efforts to secure their release is heating up.

Unfortunately, Washington's latest attempt to aid Americans held in foreign countries will actually harm them. This month, the House will vote on a 2015 appropriations bill containing a provision, already approved by the Senate, called "Assistance for United States Citizens and Nationals Wrongly Detained Abroad" (AFDA). Buried in hundreds of pages of text and likely unread by those voting on it, AFDA is an attempt to centralize control over the detainee process. If ratified, it will sanction the federal government to subordinate some U.S. detainees to the interests of bureaucrats, politicians, and lobbyists, and restrict the efforts of families to lobby for their loved one's release.

In other words, it would harm the very people it seeks to help.

Sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), AFDA delegates new power to the secretary of state, making him judge and jury in the case of each American detainee. It gives him a list of nine criteria to decide which U.S. citizens have "more likely than not" been wrongly detained abroad; instructs him to submit quarterly reports to Congress determining which detainees are "deserving of enhanced legal and diplomatic support"; and authorizes an official government "resource manual" for families of the wrongly detained.

Of all the federal agencies that shouldn't be given such power to determine the level of official government support for detainees, it is the State Department. The reason is simple: American detainees are often used as bargaining chips by the foreign governments that hold them, and therefore are a liability for the executive department that manages foreign relations.

For the State Department, stable relations with foreign countries is an end itself. But, as former U.S. Ambassador to Yugoslavia Laurence Silberman observed, this approach often prevails "without sufficient regard to U.S. geopolitical and geostrategic interests." Every president from FDR to George W. Bush bewailed State's penchant for caution and restraint, which the 2001 bipartisan Hart-Rudman Commission euphemistically called "an ineffective organizational structure in which regional and functional policies do not serve integrated goals."

Hence the absurdity of AFDA's requirement that the U.S. federal agency most unwilling to upset foreign governments publicly declare whether foreign judicial proceedings are "more likely than not" a farce, dictating legal recourse to the families of detained Americans.

Consider the case of Reza Taghavi, an American businessman wrongly imprisoned for 30 months in Iran. Taghavi's family quietly hired a private lawyer and former government official, Pierre-Richard Prosper, to negotiate his release. While lobbying for Taghavi's freedom, Prosper prudently kept the case away from the White House and State Department for fear that Taghavi would become leverage for Tehran in its nuclear negotiations with Washington. Prosper secured his release in October 2010.

Would the State Department, then desperate to jumpstart negotiations with Iran, have declared to Congress, as required by AFDA, that Taghavi "presented credible evidence of factual innocence"? And that his "detention [was] more likely than not a pretext"? It defies belief to think it would have, and imagine the damage to Taghavi's family and Prosper's negotiating power had it determined otherwise.

AFDA's mandate for greater congressional involvement is also troubling. Congress, as George Kennan lamented, is responsive to "the pressures of various highly organized lobbies and interest groups" to tilt foreign policy to their own benefit. This interdependence on special interests prevents Congress from acting entirely on behalf of American detainees, the way NGOs and private lawyers do.

Take, as another example, Matt and Grace Huang, an American couple wrongly imprisoned in Qatar. With Qatar hosting U.S. negotiations with the Taliban and involved in the complex negotiations between Israel and Hamas, the secretary of state would surely be reluctant to upset the Qatari government by recommending to Congress, in the manner AFDA requires, "enhanced support" for the Huangs.

But suppose he did; a panoply of lobbyists, from the petroleum and hydrocarbons industries to companies for whom Qatar is a major export market, would then drown Congress in a flood of opposition to disrupting bilateral relations, threatening their business interests. Congress would predictably cave.

How would it appear to the Huangs, whose innocence is already proven, to watch their government solemnly agree on their ineligibility for enhanced support? Imagine, again, the damage such a demonstration of government opposition would inflict on the efforts of pro bono legal teams to win the Huangs' freedom.

The impetus behind AFDA is laudable: get the government to show more support for American detainees. In reality, however, AFDA will sideline the support they and their families rely on. The House Appropriations Committee should remove it from the bill.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images


The Pastor's Children

Remembering Leipzig's Christian Führer and the nobility of nonviolence that changed the world.

Christian Führer's name had all but disappeared from the collective memory of the world beyond his native Mecklenburg by the time he died in July, earlier this summer. A smattering of English-language obituaries marked his passing as the Lutheran pastor from Leipzig and author of the protest movement that would ultimately topple the Berlin Wall, and with it the East German communist state.

But the enormity of what he accomplished -- nonviolently, under the nose of the most insidious of the communist bloc's police states -- deserved more attention. That he passed without much acclaim outside his native land also says much about what has transpired over the past quarter century both in Germany and the "West," a euphemism enjoying new life thanks to Vladimir Putin's aggression in Ukraine.

Stoking anger at the East German regime's cheerleading for the Tiananmen Square crackdown, Führer carefully nurtured frustration with the hypocrisy of the "my dialectic right or wrong" way of thinking that prevailed across the Soviet bloc in those days. It is easy to forget how little of the internal dissent we in the West actually saw. But Führer's weekly "prayers for peace," hosted by the mild-mannered Lutheran pastor for years in the vestry of Leipzig's Church of St. Nicholas -- die Nikolaikirche -- blossomed into a mass movement that changed the world.

From my one meeting with Führer, in 1990, I think that the relative lack of acclaim that accompanied his death would not have bothered him much. We met in a café not far from his church, but he insisted that we not use the church as a prop and that his role was merely as catalyst, not engineer, of the East German state's demise. His quest had little to do with the self, he told me, shy and dressed in his standard uniform of stone-washed jeans. "We were not arrogant, we did not threaten," he told me. "But we insisted on the truth. I think that was the simple formula for success." He was an anachronism, particularly in post-war Europe, mixing man-of-the-cloth with man-of-the-Left, an advocate of non-violence focused on collective freedoms -- spiritual, political, and intellectual.

In fact, his Monday Prayers for Peace had been going since the early 1980s when, on Sept. 4, 1989, the gathering finally spilled out of his church's walls and took to the streets of Leipzig's Karl Marx Platz. "Wir Sind das Volk!" (We are the people!) -- they chanted in stunning defiance before being beaten and arrested. The gatherings swelled every successive Monday that autumn, in spite of threats and provocation of East Germany's Stasi security forces. By Oct. 9, crowds outside his church had swollen to 70,000. Reports of hundreds of arrests and grave threats of a Tiananmen-style crackdown filled the state-controlled airwaves, but something in the air had changed. Surrogate radio broadcasts from the West told another truth. Police bullied, threatened, and jailed protestors, including Führer himself. But in a country that had tragically failed to stand up to its own government in the past, a cleansing moment had arrived.

"What I saw that evening still makes me shiver today. And if anything deserves to be called 'miracle,' then this was a miracle of Biblical proportions," the pastor told an interviewer in 2009 on the 20th anniversary of the protests. "We succeeded in bringing about a revolution that achieved German unity -- this time without war and military might. After so much violence and so many wars that we, the Germans, so often started, this was a peaceful revolution. I will never forget that day."

Führer's template -- rising from below without a charismatic leader -- has been adopted by one democracy movement after another since 1989. Some have been more successful than others in coopting rather than confronting the police, in emphasizing dignity over indignation, in staying on the path of nonviolence, or avoiding the descent into chaos or irrelevance. But none have so comprehensively changed history.

Brave activists and common citizens have tried and failed to replicate this success in Iran, Egypt, Venezuela, Syria, and countless other states where aggressive or brutal tactics eventually wore them down. Like the dissolution of the Soviet Union two years after Führer's uprising and the creation of a quasi-democratic Russian state -- an event that had its own cast of heroic dissidents -- time has generally shown that movements led from above will collapse in on themselves, ossifying into autarky, dictatorship or worse. In effect, it is one thing for the army or a faction or an ethnic group to make common cause with "the people." It is quite another for the people themselves to drive events and to refuse to allow elements of the ancien regime to highjack the cause.

Defining what constitutes a popular uprising is a chump's game: Most of those behind such upheaval will claim the mantle of "the people" at some point, and some may even mean it -- for a while, at least. But the true test comes when power must again be shared, or transferred, in the democratic process. It is at this point that the fatal flaws in most such regimes emerge. Paranoia, paternalism, or simple criminal instincts come to the fore. Fidel Castro in 1959 decided the Cuban people could not be trusted with freedom. Russia, starting with its war against Georgia in 2008 and continuing in the eastern Ukraine today, has channeled the Argentine junta of 1992, opting for a dose of good old-fashioned territorial nationalism to keep complainers in check. Egypt's army in 2013 decided the people, along with Egypt's state-dominated economy, needed to be protected from the Muslim Brotherhood.

It's all the more reason to marvel at the Leipzig miracle. Whether Führer himself coined the movement's powerful riposte to the thugs who ran East Germany's "people's democracy" is unclear. True to form, he never claimed credit. But "Wir Sind das Volk!" elegantly called the totalitarian bluff and led directly to the end of the Cold War.

Or at least the end of the first Cold War. Cold War II is now discussed without irony, though it would be premature to declare it underway. However dire the current state of Russian-Western ties, the fact is the Iron Curtain of old is gone, and any attempt to erect a new one has been pushed 1,000 miles eastward. Literally hundreds of millions of people in Central and Eastern Europe have real freedoms of the kind Führer and his Leipzig followers fought to secure. That may not be as happy a narrative as the end of history, but at a time when the throw weight of Russian missile systems is suddenly back in the news, it's certainly one worth celebrating.

Sebastian Willnow/DDP