The parents of Austin Tice, a freelance journalist captured in Syria nearly three years ago, are launching an online ad campaign and petition drive this week aimed at revamping U.S. policies concerning Americans taken hostage overseas.
Tice, 31, a former Marine captain, had covered the Syrian civil war for various news outlets when he disappeared outside Damascus on Aug. 13, 2012. In a video released the next month titled “Austin Tice still alive,” a blindfolded Tice can be seen being led up a rocky hillside by masked gunmen chanting in Arabic, “God is great.”
FOR THE RECORD: Feb. 15, 2:20 p.m.: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the goal of the online campaign and petition drive launched by Austin Tice’s parents was to revamp U.S. policies concerning Americans taken hostage overseas; the goal is to raise awareness about Tice. The article also said the FBI leads negotiations concerning hostages; the agency leads investigations in such cases. At a news conference, Tice’s parents wore blindfolds that read "#FREEAUSTINTICE,” not “Austin Tice.”
The captors did not identify themselves or make any demands.
Tice’s parents, Marc and Debra Tice, have since made several trips to Lebanon to gather information about their son, the eldest of their seven children.
They do not believe Tice is being held by Islamic State militants, who have executed numerous hostages, including American freelance journalist James Foley, who was a friend of their son.
“The released hostages from ISIS have told us they never heard or saw Austin. That’s really what gives us our confidence,” said Marc Tice, 57, of Houston, using an acronym for Islamic State. He works for the German engineering company Siemens.
Although the Tices have not made direct contact with their son’s captors, they have met those with information about him.
“A number of those assure us that Austin is alive and reasonably well-treated. They tell us to be patient,” Marc Tice said, adding, “That is excruciatingly difficult. It seems like if they could tell you someone is alive, they could tell you a lot more. We can never track them back to an exact source, but they’re credible.”
He said the U.S. government also “firmly believes that Austin is alive and we firmly believe that” but “we don’t have the security clearance to see the information that tells them that.”
They would like that to change.
After Foley and others were taken last summer, President Obama ordered a review of the administration’s handling of kidnappings by terrorist organizations, including hostage negotiations, recovery and communication with family members.
This month, the Tices traveled to Washington at the invitation of administration officials who are reviewing a presidential directive that governs U.S. hostage negotiations. Foley’s mother, Diane Foley, also met with officials.
The Tices spent four hours sharing their thoughts on the mostly classified presidential directive with a review team. Marc Tice said they observed that “it is broad and vague and does not provide any real direction and structure.”
“What we would like to see is a single point of accountability for bringing hostages home,” Marc Tice said. “And that that person should have the authority to direct a team of the same people who are working on hostage situations now but with the authority to decide which agency takes the lead.”
The FBI leads investigations now, but in his son’s case — which involved dealing with the Syrian government, foreign diplomats and opposition groups — Marc Tice said the FBI had been “woefully undermanned and [lacked] the experience and the resources to be the lead.”
“We are convinced that bringing Austin home safely is going to be dictated by the actions of the U.S. government and the Syrian government,” Tice said, adding that the State Department, rather than the FBI, would be better suited to such efforts.
Other hostages’ relatives have criticized the U.S. government’s refusal to pay ransoms and its use of news blackouts after kidnappings. A White House spokesman has said the administration’s review does not include a reconsideration of U.S. policy against paying ransoms for hostages. Marc Tice said the government needs to be more flexible.
“Dictating or advocating that you should always have a blackout or that you should never negotiate with hostage takers or never consider ransom or concessions — working with hard and fast rules like that is not appropriate,” he said. “You want to approach these cases with all the potential tools possible to resolve them in hopes that it can lead to some creative method of resolution.”
This week, ads on the websites of more than 260 news organizations will direct readers to a petition the Tices have launched with the Paris-based advocacy group Reporters Without Borders that asks Obama to bring their son home safely.
On Thursday the Tices appeared at the National Press Club in Washington to discuss the campaign. At one point, they wore black blindfolds labeled, "#FREEAUSTINTICE.”
The petition website asks supporters to post photographs of themselves wearing blindfolds, because, as Marc Tice said, “when a journalist goes missing, the world is blindfolded.”