When I worked overseas kidnappings as a special agent with the FBI, I used to lay in bed at the end of long days in faraway places and aimlessly stare at the ceiling, contemplating the condition and ultimate fate of the captive. It was the same gut-wrenching daily ritual my State Department colleagues and the family members of the victims being detained surely endured.
Securing the victim’s release was a deadly serious business. It was not a game show.
News this past week that three of our fellow American citizens being held captive in North Korea might soon be released was simultaneously reassuring and arresting due to the irresponsible way in which it was announced. Rather than coordinating the announcement through appropriate diplomatic and national security interagency channels, the President’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, made the announcement during a casual sit-down on “Fox & Friends.”
“We got Kim Jong Un impressed enough to be releasing three prisoners today,” Giuliani told the Fox News hosts.
Let’s for a moment set aside that an announcement was made on the prisoners’ release that had not yet even transpired and focus on the fact Giuliani used the fate of three prisoners, held captive by a brutal and authoritarian regime, as political pawns. He sought to tout their release as a major diplomatic win for the White House.
Giuliani’s remarkable politicization of those being held against their will appeared part of a coordinated campaign of showmanship, kicked off a day earlier by a presidential tweet on the fate of the detainees, which included the line “stay tuned!”
The most significant consequence of treating detainment like a game show is that doing so constantly revictimizes the family and friends of those being held captive, and forces them to endure a rollercoaster of emotional turmoil as they await the big reveal.
Additionally, the administration’s approach of tipping its hand and announcing something that has not yet happened forces the US government into a position of weakness in the negotiating process. As we know, the three detainees are but one part of the larger ongoing diplomatic effort to negotiate a denuclearized North Korea. Giuliani’s premature announcement of a prisoner release now boxes American negotiators into a corner, as failing to accede to North Korean demands in exchange for the release of the detainees will embarrass the President and threaten our nation’s power and credibility.
Put another way, in the President’s book, “The Art of the Deal,” he talks about the importance of using one’s leverage in the negotiation process in order to come out on top. Perhaps Mr. Giuliani has not read the book, because his casual handling of a deadly serious topic, and his celebrating a success that has not transpired, just graced North Korean negotiators with leverage they likely never saw coming.
Had the administration sought to coordinate their public theatrics with our government’s diplomatic and national security experts, who are well versed in quietly working to secure the release of detained Americans, they would have also learned an important precept from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War:” “let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night.”
The kidnappings I worked, and those handled every day by foreign service officers and FBI special agents around the globe, are complex endeavors that require patience, humility, and, above all, secrecy. They also require a very disciplined strategy, even when resolution appears imminent. Only when a detainee is released should the government be talking publicly about a case. And never should the pain a prisoner and their family suffered be exploited for political gain.
The administration’s apparent opening of North Korea is something to be lauded, and, if ultimately successful, should be praised as a major diplomatic accomplishment. However, they should not forget that the discussions surrounding our fellow citizens, who are likely being confined in very harsh conditions, involve real human beings whose families continue to hold onto every possible word of hope coming from our leaders.