WASHINGTON – When relatives of American oil executives jailed in Venezuela met virtually with a senior Justice Department official this month, it didn't take long for their frustrations to surface.
They pressed the official on the prospects of a prisoner exchange that could get their loved ones home but were told that was ultimately a White House decision and not something the U.S. government was generally inclined to do anyway. And they vented about the extradition to the U.S. of an associate of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, an action that inflamed tensions with Caracas and resulted in the American captives being returned to jail from house arrest that day.
The meeting, not previously reported and described by a person who participated in it, ended without firm commitments. But it underscored the simmering frustrations directed by some hostage and detainee families toward the Justice Department, an agency they see as unwilling to think creatively about ways to bring their relatives home from abroad and stubbornly resistant to the possibility of exchanging prisoners.
“The question remains of how to get the Department of Justice to fully engage in the process of recovering hostages and wrongful detainees,” said Everett Rutherford, whose nephew, Matthew Heath, is being held in Venezuela on what the Tennessee man's family says are bogus weapons charges. “And there hasn't yet been an answer given to that yet — except for the fact that we've been told that the president himself can direct them to do so.”
The Justice Department isn’t typically thought of as a lead agency in hostage matters. The State Department, after all, has diplomatic tools at its disposal and is home to the government’s chief hostage negotiator, while the Pentagon has authority to launch military raids to free hostages from captivity. But it's the Justice Department's oversight of federal criminal prosecutions that helps give it input in interagency discussions, even if the agency's primary mission is holding criminals accountable in the United States.
The Justice Department said in a statement that it “recognizes that families are put in an extraordinarily difficult circumstance, with unimaginable pain” when Americans are wrongfully detained and that it works with other federal agencies to bring them home in a manner consistent with the government’s “no-concessions” policy in hostage matters.
From the U.S. government’s perspective, a prisoner swap risks creating a false equivalency between a wrongfully detained American and a justly convicted felon, and could also encourage additional captures by foreign countries.
Mickey Bergman, who as vice president of the Richardson Center for Global Engagement has worked on hostage cases, said he’s heard that argument but thinks “the framing is wrong.”
“Because it’s not about the guilty people that get released, it’s about the innocent Americans that come back home,” Bergman said. “And so I reverse the question and say: Is leaving ... innocent Americans to rot in prisons around the world worth the insistence of us having criminals, foreign criminals, serve their full time in the American system?”
The issue is newly relevant as several countries or groups holding Americans, including Russia and the Taliban, have floated the names of prisoners in the U.S. they want released.
The families' frustration is less with current political leadership of the Justice Department than with the nature of the institution itself, an agency that across administrations has prioritized its independence and its prerogative to make prosecutorial decisions and sentencing recommendations free from political considerations. The instinct is crucial for democracy, but it can also result in actions that hostage families see as dismissive of their interests.
The October extradition to Miami of Colombian businessman Alex Saab, presented by U.S. officials as a close Maduro associate, agitated relatives of six Citgo executives who've been jailed for years in Venezuela over a never-executed plan to refinance billions in the oil company’s bonds. It was a tension point in this month's Justice Department call and in a December meeting between hostage families and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, though the situation may be complicated by the revelation this week that Saab was signed up by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration as a source in 2018.
The reticence to swaps predates the Biden administration, and some of the deals the families seek didn't gain traction under former President Donald Trump, either. Even so, there is a precedent for arrangements that serve a diplomatic purpose.
The Trump administration, seen as more willing to flout convention in hostage affairs, brought home Navy veteran Michael White in 2020 in an agreement that spared an American-Iranian doctor prosecuted by the Justice Department any more time behind bars and that permitted him to return to Iran. Even before then, the Obama administration pardoned or dropped charges against seven Iranians in a prisoner exchange tied to the nuclear deal with Tehran. Three jailed Cubans were sent home in 2014 as Havana released American Alan Gross after five years' imprisonment.
There are roughly 60 Americans known to be held hostage or wrongfully detained, a definition that covers Americans believed innocent or jailed for the purpose of exacting concessions from the U.S.
Families of at least some see fresh opportunities to cut deals.
The Taliban, whose Haqqani network is believed to be holding hostage Navy veteran Mark Frerichs of Illinois, has told the U.S. it seeks the release of imprisoned drug lord Bashir Noorzai. Russia has locked up Marine veteran Trevor Reed, sentenced to nine years on charges he assaulted police officers in Moscow, and Michigan corporate security executive Paul Whelan, imprisoned on espionage charges. Officials there have floated at various times the names of citizens it would like home, including international arms dealer Viktor Bout and drug smuggler Konstantin Yaroshenko, both imprisoned in the U.S.
The U.S. considers Whelan and Reed to be wrongfully detained.
Nine Americans, including Heath and the so-called Citgo 6, are detained in Venezuela at a time when the U.S. is holding two nephews of Venezuela's first lady on drug charges.
Some hostage and detainee families say they're heartened by the access they've had to senior administration officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Sullivan. But the resistance to a trade has remained constant.
Charlene Cakora, Frerichs’ sister, met with White House and Justice Department officials last August and says she was told that Noorzai, a convicted Afghan drug lord, was a “bad guy.” She said in an interview that if the government won't “trade for my brother, then I want to know what other ideas are out there.”
Paula Reed and Joey Reed, Trevor's parents, say U.S. officials have told them that they'd seek the same outcome if they were their shoes. But though the Granbury, Texas, couple has urged Justice Department officials during meetings to seek a deal now, the officials have said only that they're “considering everything,” said Paula Reed.
“They didn’t say: ‘Oh, we agree with you, that’s a great deal. That’s a good point.' They didn’t say anything like that. They just said: ‘We hear you. Thank you very much,”’ she said. “They didn’t give us indication one way or the other.”
Elizabeth Whelan, Paul's sister, said she's been grateful for the U.S. government's attention. She said she's not entirely sure what Russia wants for her brother and said demands by it and other countries seem “stupid” and “over the top.”
“But,” she added, “I feel my brother is worth whatever Russia is asking for.”
Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman in Miami contributed to this report.