WASHINGTON — Last year, administration officials briefed President Trump on a hostage whose case he has taken an interest in: Austin Tice, a former Marine missing in Syria. The C.I.A. pledged to ramp up efforts to learn where he is being held and why Syria refuses to negotiate his release.
The C.I.A.’s renewed focus on Mr. Tice, who was working as a journalist when he was captured in 2012, reflects a broader push by the Trump administration to focus more intently on Americans being held hostage abroad.
The administration has helped free Americans held in Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Afghanistan and is trying to win Mr. Tice’s freedom as well as working to find Mark R. Frerichs, a former Navy diver kidnapped last month in Afghanistan. The White House wants him freed before American troops leave the country in a peace deal with the Taliban, an urgent deadline for the Pentagon and intelligence agencies to locate Mr. Frerichs.
Returning American hostages is Mr. Trump’s “top priority,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this week in a statement marking the 13th anniversary of the disappearance inside Iran of Robert A. Levinson, a former F.B.I. agent and C.I.A. contractor.
For the American military, the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies, focusing more on hostages is a way to show an often mercurial commander in chief that the government is responding to the priorities he has set. The appointment of the former top envoy for hostage negotiations, Robert C. O’Brien, as national security adviser has also elevated the issue, and the National Counterterrorism Center is leading a review of hostage recovery efforts.
Mr. Trump’s interest in seeing American hostages brought home is a reflection of his us-versus-them worldview that often puts foreign policy issues in stark terms, a senior administration official said, adding that the president takes it personally when adversaries illegally detain Americans.
Mr. Trump invited to the State of the Union the parents of Kayla Mueller, who was taken captive in August 2013 before being killed by the Islamic State in early 2015. The military mission last year to kill the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was named after Ms. Mueller’s birthday.
“America’s warriors never forgot Kayla — and neither will we,” Mr. Trump said during the address last month.
Before the speech, Ms. Mueller’s parents were given a tour of the White House and met briefly with Mr. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. They also spoke with both Mr. O’Brien and Kashyap Patel, then a senior counterterrorism official who was handling hostage issues.
While he was the hostage czar, Mr. O’Brien pushed hard to figure out a way to free Mr. Tice. He cited the case to Ms. Mueller’s parents when they visited the White House as one of several the administration was trying to resolve.
Based on a mosaic of intelligence, officials believe Mr. Tice, now 38, remains alive and is being held by the Syrian government, according to former and current officials. Questions remain about why the Syrian government has neither admitted to holding him in the nearly eight years since he was abducted nor negotiated his release, and why it has released other Americans who were captured after him.
The Trump administration has pushed unsuccessfully to win Mr. Tice’s release. Early in his 15-month tenure as C.I.A. director, Mike Pompeo tried to set up back-channel talks with Ali Mamlouk, Syria’s powerful intelligence chief who is close with President Bashar al-Assad. The effort fizzled but also prompted concerns among some administration officials that the C.I.A.’s outreach might have left the mistaken impression with the Syrians that Mr. Tice was a spy.
In August 2018, the C.I.A. dispatched another top senior agency official with expertise in the Middle East to meet with Mr. Mamlouk in Damascus, former American officials said. During the meeting, the C.I.A. official brought up Mr. Tice, the former officials said. What came of the meeting is not clear.
The administration has also tried without success to engage both the United Arab Emirates and the Vatican to assist with the Tice case. The Emiratis, who played a key role in 2019 in freeing Danny Burch, an American oil worker who had been held hostage in Yemen, reopened its embassy in Damascus in 2018.
As the hostage czar, Mr. O’Brien embraced the idea of traveling to Damascus to negotiate with the Syrian government. Mr. Pompeo, now the secretary of state, nixed the proposal for security reasons, though some administration officials were skeptical that Mr. O’Brien’s life would have been in danger. Other administration officials viewed such a trip as a mistake because a visit by a high-ranking American official could bolster the Assad government while probably doing little to prompt it to release Mr. Tice.
Mr. Tice’s family has sought to keep public attention on his case to pressure the government to continue working for his release. Debra Tice, Mr. Tice’s mother, has held news conferences and granted interviews in which she praised Mr. Trump’s focus on the case of her son and other hostages.
She recently told the Fox News host Tucker Carlson that the Syrian government had invited an American official to talk about her son’s case but accused “neocons at the State Department” of intervening to stop the trip. It was unclear whether she was referring to Mr. Pompeo. Ms. Tice declined through a spokesman to comment.
Critics have accused the Trump administration of missing opportunities to win Mr. Tice’s release. It has made concessions to the Assad government without demanding Mr. Tice’s release or anything else in return, including when administration officials announced in 2017 that they would no longer pursue Mr. Assad’s ouster, and again last year when Mr. Trump abruptly pulled back American forces fighting the Islamic State, essentially giving up much of the land in Syria that the military had seized from the group back to Mr. Assad’s government.
Mr. Frerichs’s case is similarly caught up in delicate geopolitical negotiations. As the military begins to withdraw its personnel from Afghanistan as part of a deal with the Taliban, the White House has stepped up its pressure on the Defense Department to get home hostages still held there, according to a senior official.
Mr. Frerichs, the former Navy diver who was working as a contractor in Afghanistan, was captured in February, and officials believe he is being held by the Haqqani militant network in Afghanistan. Some officials expressed concern that if Mr. Frerichs is not found quickly, he could be smuggled into Pakistan, making a rescue by American commandos more difficult because of the political sensitivities and potentially treacherous terrain.