The White House's efforts to bring American hostages home. The U.S. special envoy for hostage affairs says he is confident that two Americans detained by Russia can be brought home.

Hostage envoy says the U.S. can bring home two Americans detained in Russia

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The Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich is just one of the Americans detained overseas. Russian authorities accused him of espionage and made an arrest that President Biden called totally illegal. A former U.S. Marine, Paul Whelan, has been in a Russian prison for years, so we called the man whose job is to get them out. Roger Carstens is the special U.S. envoy for hostage affairs. He's a career diplomat who served in this post since 2020 under two different presidents. As we will hear, he declined to talk too specifically about Gershkovich, but did talk about his position. The U.S. has brought home 26 Americans on his watch. Although, when we spoke, he was conscious that dozens remain outside the country.

ROGER CARSTENS: It's pretty much all hostages, all detainees all day long. We have, like, 30 to 40 cases. So the second I hang up this call, we're going to go right back into battle and throw ourselves into cases ranging from Venezuela to China, to Syria.

INSKEEP: As a layman, it's sometimes mysterious to me to think about how you would fill those hours because the prisoner is taken, and it's hard to know what to do. How do you even know where to begin?

CARSTENS: Usually when we have a case, at the very start, we try to focus on the family first. And so it's not unusual in the first seven to 10 days after receiving a wrongful determination that me and one or two members of my team head up to talk to the family of that person who's detained. We want the family to actually be a part of it. Usually after we leave a family, we'll pull in people from across the U.S. government. And we'll all go into a classified space and really explore the case in depth to determine what the specified tasks are, the implied tasks, limits, constraints, risks, risk management, risk mitigation, and then start to build out courses of action.

INSKEEP: I suppose part of this must be trying to understand the government that took an American prisoner and asking, what do they want? Let's talk about the case of Gershkovich. What do the Russians want?

CARSTENS: I would like to say that we're not entirely sure. My sense is that we've done enough spadework to where we can start putting things in the realm of the possible. But here's something that we've had to tell interested parties pretty much in the three years that I've been in this job, and that is that we can't go into too much detail. So maybe, Steve, what I could tell you is, in the 26 months of the Biden administration, we've brought back 26 Americans. And we will bring Paul Whelan and Evan Gershkovich home.

INSKEEP: Paul Whelan's family, of course, have expressed mystification that other Americans have gotten out of Russia while he remains. Do you feel you understand why that is?

CARSTENS: Oh, I absolutely understand that. I've spent a lot of time on the phone with Paul Whelan. I've spent a lot of time on the phone with the Whelan family. In fact, the very day that we brought Brittney Griner back, Paul Whelan called from Russia. And I spent 30 minutes on the phone saying, hey, Paul, here's what happened. Here's why we had - the president felt he had to make these decisions. You know, essentially Paul said, look; I wish I was there with her, but I understand. And he said this - he said, Roger, this is a great day for Brittney Griner. It's a great day for Brittney's family. And it's a great day for the United States of America. So I've never been in their shoes, but I've talked to the Whelan family enough and I've talked to these families enough to where I have a strong sense of what they're thinking about and of their frustrations.

INSKEEP: What I'm wondering, though, is if you know what makes Whelan's case harder?

CARSTENS: To me, it's always the Russians.

INSKEEP: But, I mean, it was the Russians in the other cases and you were able to get people out. What makes Whelan harder?

CARSTENS: You know, the Russians have tried to fashion him into being a spy, which he is not. And so they hold the key to the jail cell. The other side always does. And this should be easy, right? You should be able to go up and talk to the other side and come up with the release mechanism, as we call it, to generate that release that we're seeking. And yet, the other side gets a vote in this. They really do.

INSKEEP: Is it true in every case that you have to find some incentive for the other side to act properly? You either need to offer them a trade or put some risk on the table for them or something.

CARSTENS: You know, we've had a few cases where we've not had to do that. I'd rather not say which countries, but we've had a few countries that instead of having to go through a hardcore negotiation or bargaining scenario, they actually came quickly to the fore and gave us those Americans back. And I have to admit I was a little surprised in some cases to achieve a release under those conditions, conditions that are essentially no conditions. And other countries, you might have a sense of what they want. And then you get to the negotiating table and find out that you were absolutely off and that they want something entirely different. So every case is kind of different.

INSKEEP: Over the years, we've talked from time to time with relatives of Siamak Namazi and Emad Shargi, who are two people being held in Iran right now. I don't think their relations would think well of me if I did not ask you about them. What can you say about the status of the effort to release those two people who've both been held for an extended time?

CARSTENS: We've spent a lot of time with those families. In fact, I saw them both as the Shargi family and Nader Rastegar (ph). I've seen them both in the last, probably, three weeks. And they know that we're committed. And they know that the president's been following their cases. And I can tell you, the Iran families, my heart breaks for them. I've been working those cases, in some cases, for three years now. And I've told them, you know, we're committed. We're not going to take our foot off the gas. We're not going to let up. We're going to keep pursuing these cases until we find a way to bring them home.

INSKEEP: Do you ever worry about - I guess you'd call it moral hazard, giving away something to get a prisoner back that only incentivizes more prisoner taking?

CARSTENS: Oh, absolutely. Every time we've received a release, we've done so after painstakingly going through the national security risks that come with getting that release. And so is that important to us and understanding that? Absolutely. Do we wrestle with it? A hundred percent. Do we actually do the background math, the spadework to understand what the risks are? For sure. But I think we found a way to make a lot of these things work for us. We're trying to keep doing something right to keep bringing Americans home.

INSKEEP: Have you ever had a case where, in retrospect, you felt you got the calculus wrong?

CARSTENS: You know, I'll probably think about that 10 years after I leave the job. Maybe that's a flip answer, and I hope it's not. But I can say we get people back. And the second we get someone back, to be honest, you go right into the next case. What I can tell you is before we actually make the decision, we put a lot of time into thinking through that moral hazard question. And what I can tell you is that people are coming home, and I do not regret that.

INSKEEP: Envoy Carstens, thanks so much. I appreciate your time.

CARSTENS: Steve, I appreciate being with you. And I wish the best for you and your audience.


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