Joe Biden

Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on the Administration's Actions to Punish and Deter Wrongful Detention and Hostage-Taking

April 27, 2023

Via Teleconference

10:04 A.M. EDT

MODERATOR: Good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining us on this call.

Just ground rules real quick: The call is going to be on background, attributable to a "senior administration…" -- well, to "senior administration officials," plural.

The call is going to be embargoed until 1:00 p.m. this afternoon.

Just so folks are aware, the subject matter of the call is going to be new sanctions that the Biden-Harris administration is issuing today to hold accountable those that are engaged in hostage-taking and the wrongful detention of Americans.

Not for attribution but for the awareness of those on the call, our speakers this afternoon include [senior administration official] and [senior administration official].

With that, I'll turn it over to [senior administration official]. He's going to give you a preview of the sanctions and how that supports the Biden administration's efforts.


SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you very much, [moderator]. And good morning to everyone.

Thanks for making the time this morning and especially for talking with us to hear about how the Biden-Harris administration is using the authorities and tools at our disposal to hold accountable those who've engaged in the wrongful detention and hostage-taking of Americans.

To offer some context: From day one of this administration, we have prioritized the safe return of Americans wrongfully held overseas.

And there's a very dedicated, very skilled group of experts across the government who work day in and day out to identify and pursue all available options in this area.

And I would break the area, in some ways, into four categories. One is resolving current cases, many of which we inherited from the prior administration. And we've had some remarkable successes in that area that we can talk about.

Second is warning our people. And the State Department has improved its travel advisories to be even crisper and clearer about the risks of wrongful detention specifically in certain countries.

Third is strengthening the global norm against wrongful detention. And this is something Secretary Blinken has personally taken on from his early days in the role.

And fourth is punishing -- and, by punishing, deterring -- those who engage in this sort of appalling behavior. And it's in that fourth category that I want to spend some time today.

Last summer, President Biden augmented the U.S. government's toolkit in that area with new and expanded tools to impose costs on the culprits of wrongful detention and hostage-taking when he signed and issued Executive Order 14078, which is called "Bolstering Efforts to Bring Hostages and Wrongfully Detained U.S. Nationals Home."

This executive order itself drew on the 2020 Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act. And that law, I should emphasize, is a credit to the perseverance of the Levinson family and others who have turned tragedy and hardship into constructive and meaningful action. And they really do inspire us by that work.

The executive order in particular builds on those who worked hard to bring to fruition the Levinson Act and to enhance the capacity of the U.S. government to tackle this important set of challenges.

Today, we are announcing the first set of sanctions under this executive order against actors in Russia and in Iran that have previously or are currently holding hostage or wrongfully detaining Americans.

These actors in Russia and in Iran have tried to use Americans for political leverage or to seek concessions from the United States.

These actions threaten the stability and integrity of the international political system. They also threaten the safety of U.S. nationals and other persons abroad.

To be a little more specific, we will be announcing sanctions today against Russia's Federal Security Service -- often known as the "FSB" -- for being responsible for or complicit in, directly or indirectly engaged in, or responsible for ordering, controlling, or otherwise directing the wrongful detention of a U.S. national abroad.

The FSB has repeatedly been involved in the arrest, investigation, and detention of U.S. nationals wrongfully detained in Russia.

Indeed, Russia's state-owned media outlets have publicly acknowledged the FSB's involvement in the arrest and investigation of wrongfully detained U.S. nationals.

In addition, we will be announcing sanctions against Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Intelligence Organization -- better known as "IRGC-IO" -- for being responsible for or complicit in, directly or indirectly engaged in, or responsible for ordering, controlling, or otherwise directing the wrongful detention of a U.S. national abroad.

That's the exact language of the EO you hear me repeating both times.

The IRGC-IO frequently holds and interrogates detainees, including at least one wrongfully detained U.S. national, in Evin Prison. And Evin Prison has a long and sordid history of human rights abuses, including extensive reports of torture.

In addition, four IRGC-IO leaders will also be designated today for their support to or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, the IRGC-IO's conduct in this area.

Today's sanctions are one of a series of efforts -- some public like this, some private -- to secure the release of U.S. nationals wrongfully held overseas, to promote accountability for the culprits, and, by doing so, to prevent and deter the next set of cases from arising in the first place.

We as an administration, as a White House, as a State Department, as a government remain committed to reuniting Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained with their families.

Let me turn things over to our next speaker, my colleague and friend [senior administration official], for more about today's actions. And then, [senior administration official] and I will do our best to answer a few questions.

Over to you, [senior administration official].

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you, [senior administration official].

Hey. Just to reiterate, to emphasize what [senior administration official] said: In July of 2022, the President signed Executive Order 14078 to provide the U.S. government with expanded tools to deter and disrupt hostage-taking and wrongful detentions, including imposing financial sanctions and visa restrictions.

Today we are using this authority, as [senior administration official] said, to promote accountability for those responsible for wrongfully detaining U.S. nationals abroad.

Our action is a warning to those around the world who would wrongfully detain U.S. nationals of the potential consequences of their actions.

As Secretary Blinken said, and I quote, "The United States will continue our relentless efforts to secure the release of U.S. nationals who are held hostage or wrongfully detained and reunite them with their loved ones. Today's actions are one tool in that cause. And we will continue to use all authorities at our disposal to bring U.S. nationals home." Unquote.

I would be remiss if I didn't also reemphasize the importance of this day, not only for the actions we are taking, but where the authorities to do so came from, as [senior administration official] said. And that is the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act.

In 2007, as you all know, Iran abducted former FBI agent Bob Levinson, and Iranian authorities have yet to account for Bob's fate. In the years since, his family has suffered unspeakable grief and pain.

Bob's family has inspired the United States to partner with the families of every U.S. hostage and wrongful detainee held captive abroad.

Bob's legacy lives on in the Levinson Act and the actions taken here today. He will never be forgotten. Bob will never be forgotten.

Thanks. I'll turn it back over to you, Josh.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks so much. [Moderator], should we open up for some questions?

MODERATOR: Yes, let's get it open for some questions.

Q: Hi, thanks so much, guys. This is Jennifer and Kylie here. We were wondering what the practical implications of these sanctions on these two organizations are and how effectively you see this deterring any future hostage-taking.

And then, why now? And are you concerned that this could impact negatively any negotiations to get out the Americans who are detained there?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, thanks for the good questions. I'll take a first stab and see if [senior administration official] wants to layer on.

So, look, this is -- sanctions have their role as part of comprehensive toolboxes to deal with hard challenges. And among today's targets, some -- because they are bad actors in the world in multiple ways -- are already sanctioned under other authorities; some are not.

But we think -- as with sanctions in the human rights context, in the corruption context, in the contributing to war and instability context -- that sanctions are a piece of holding accountable bad actors for their role in perpetrating appalling activity in the world. To have one's assets frozen, to be essentially denied the ability to move such assets through the global financial system, or at least the key parts of it that enforce sanctions like this, that is a real detriment to actors in the world.

And we think it's important to issue sanctions like this. And, of course, as in those other areas I mentioned, there will be tranches yet to come; this is just a first tranche under a new authority.

We think it is important to show that there is accountability; that in addition to resolving particular individual cases as best we can, as fast as we can, we are also showing that one cannot engage in this sort of awful behavior of using human beings as pawns, as bargaining chips, without paying consequences. And these are some of the consequences.

In terms of timing, you saw the executive order was just issued last summer. It takes time to build sanctions packages under a new authority to make sure that the evidentiary predicate has been established, that the right legal review has occurred, the right coordination has occurred.

We're proud to get this first tranche out. But as I say, there are other sanctions targets under this authority in development even right now. And that's -- it will be like other contexts in which, over time, there will be periodic new announcements of sanctions.

I will also say that we consulted across the U.S. government with key experts and made sure that the ongoing efforts to resolve these sets of cases, we don't think will be set back by the accountability that these actors deserve for the wrongdoing.

If anything, one thing that sanctions can offer -- and you see the Treasury and State Departments talk about this in their public releases about new sanctions -- is that sanctions are meant to change behavior and to incentivize better behavior. And we hope that these can contribute to doing that now and into the future.

[Senior administration official], you should please jump in as well.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hey, thank you, [senior administration official]. I agree with everything you said.

I would just say that as the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Office, our job is to engage in diplomacy. More often than not, diplomacy involves incentives, and incentives are preferred.

But from time to time, diplomacy requires that some consequences be introduced -- negative consequences be introduced for bad actors, particularly in this area of detaining -- wrongfully detaining, taking hostage Americans.

And so, as [senior administration official] pointed out, this executive order was issued last summer. And over the past several months, the bad actors in question here have demonstrated they need some consequences. And that's what today's actions are intended to take.

Q: Hi, guys. Thank you so much for talking to us. I'm sorry if this sounds exactly like Jenny's question, but I really want to push you on it.

There are sanctions on both of these organizations under different authorities. And so, realistically speaking, I mean, are we going to see any changes? How do you anticipate that this punishment will manifest itself realistically when you already have several other sanctions on these groups and individuals connected to them? And that's it. Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. Thanks, Vivian, for the question. Look, this is a question that arises in the sanctions context long before this EO or this tranche of sanctions, which is that, regrettably perhaps, actors in the world who are bad in one way are bad in other ways.

And you often find that actors are -- whether they're entities, whether they're individuals or both -- they are sanctioned for human rights abuses, they are sanctioned for corruption, they are sanctioned for other behavior that qualifies them for sanctions.

We don't think being sanctioned under one authority should make you immune from being sanctioned under another. If you engage in wrongful detentions of U.S. nationals, you should be sanctioned for engaging in wrongful detention of U.S. nationals. You shouldn't get an out just because you engaged in other bad behavior as well -- as, for example, IRGC-IO and the FSB have.

We do think it sends a broader message that the first tranche of sanctions are being announced specifically for this type of behavior. Because we're very concerned about this type of behavior.

You saw, this week, our Ambassador to the United Nations stand side-by-side with Elizabeth Whelan to make the case to the international community in New York, but really to the watching world, that the use of human beings as political pawns, as bargaining chips, detained by governments but on false pretenses, is a practice that seems to be trending in the wrong direction and that we, as a global community, need to point back in the right direction, which is the direction of extinction.

And so, we think showing that there's a penalty to be paid, in addition to other steps that might be taken -- there's a penalty of this particular type to be paid for engaging in this behavior -- is in and of itself an important step.

Q: Thanks for doing this. A couple questions. I was wondering if you could clarify: These individuals are -- you said these sanctions are on the organizations. Why are you not sanctioning any individuals who are responsible for the wrongful detention of Americans?

And then, can you provide a list of or mention any specific wrongfully detained Americans that formed the underpinning for these specific sanctions? Is it ongoing detainees or previous ones? If you could can you name some specific cases.

And then lastly, you mentioned that sanctions are not just -- can sometimes be incentives. Is the thinking here that you could lift these sanctions as part of negotiations, as part of a trade to bring Americans home? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks so much, Zeke. And again, I'll -- I'll take the first swing, and then [senior administration official] will back me up.

So, okay, in terms of entities and individuals: So, in addition to the two entities, the FSB and the IRGC-IO, that are being sanctioned today, there are four individuals associated with the IRGC-IO also being sanctioned under these authorities.

I'll give you a quick rundown on the four. Mohammad Kazemi became the commander of the IRGC-IO back in June 2022. He has been responsible for suppressing civil society, arresting Iranian dissidents, and has overseen the brutal crackdown against protests, and obviously, as with all of these folks, we think is tied to wrongful detention of Americans. So that's one -- Mohammad Kazemi.

The second, Mohamad Sayyar, is the deputy -- co-deputy chief, I should say -- of the IRGC-IO. And in addition to wrongful detention activities, we believe Sayyari has been directly involved in arranging logistics for those held prisoner in Iran.

The third individual target is Mohammad Mohagheghi, the co-deputy chief, brigadier general of IRGC-IO. And, in addition to wrongful detention activities, has been involved in counter espionage operations in Syria among other activities.

And finally, the fourth individual target is Ruhollah Bazghandi, the -- a IRGC-IO counterintelligence official we think has been, of course, involved in wrongful detention of U.S. and other foreign prisoners, but has also been involved in assassination plots and other activities.

So you have those four individuals as well. Again, this does not mean this is the end of the universe of sanction targets under this authority -- certainly globally, but with respect to Russia or Iran, as well. But we think it's a really important start. So that's one.

You asked about, kind of, the victim side. And, look, these sanctions are premised on engaging in a pattern of activity of wrongful detention or hostage-taking by these entities and actors. That said, of course, it is quite public that there have been cases in Russia that we have been proud to resolve as an administration. And there are cases that we are working very, very hard yet to resolve.

And similarly, in Iran, there are cases resolved and cases unresolved. And I think those speak to the pattern of activity that has justly earned these actors and individuals their sanction status as of today.

And then finally, you asked kind of whether these might be "leverage to resolve" cases. Look, here's what you'll see in the Treasury announcement today, and I think it's helpful language: "The power and integrity of OFAC sanctions" -- I'm quoting here -- "drives not only from the ability to designate but also from a willingness to remove persons consistent with the law. The ultimate goal of sanctions is not to punish, but to bring about a positive change in behavior."

So all I'll say is we take an all-tools approach to bringing Americans home. And as this administration has brought hostages and wrongful detainees home from Afghanistan and Burma and Haiti and Iran and Russia and Venezuela, we have brought to bear different tools and different contexts. And I don't think we rule things out if they could be the difference between an American being in detention, where they never should have been, versus home with their families where they belong.

[Senior administration official], over to you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, [senior administration official]. Absolutely right.

The truth is, as I said, this get -- today's action, pursuant to last summer's executive order, gave us a whole new set of tools for our toolkit in returning Americans who were wrongfully detained and held hostage abroad.

The bad actors involved here, of course, have a long pattern of many, many years of doing this to Americans, and we've had this tool at our disposal since last summer. In the months since, we've made the calculation that it's time to impose consequences.

But as [senior administration official] said, that doesn't mean we can't impose more consequences. Or if the bad actors involved, or the governments for which they work, have a change of course -- specifically on American citizens, U.S. nationals that we are trying to liberate and to bring home -- we have some flexibility thanks to the executive order and to the Levinson Act given to us by the Congress.


Q: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. So I believe when you announced the sanctions authorization last year, you reached out to the families of Americans held abroad. Did you do the same before announcing these sanctions?

And just kind of related to that, I'm curious: How do you determine which families of Americans held abroad gets a meeting with the President? Obviously, he's met with families of Trevor Reed, Paul Whelan, and Brittney Griner. But there are many other families of Americans held abroad who are -- who want to meet with the President but haven't had the opportunity. Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks so much. So, on the first question, yes, we've previewed this for a number of relevant families ahead of today's announcement.

And then, on the second: Look, the President meets with families in -- going through these horrific sorts of circumstances much as the President engages in other sorts of meetings, which is he can't do everything, but he does want a firsthand sense of what things are like in the areas that he works so hard to address.

And in this case, having direct contact with some families allows them to have direct conversations, just as he does when he visits places where infrastructure is being built but not other places, or just as he does when he is able to meet with some foreign leaders and not others. You can't do it all when you're the President, but you do want as much as possible that visceral firsthand sense of where there are still challenges as well as the impact that your work can have.

I would emphasize also that there are families who have met with this President whose loved ones have come home, and there are families who've met with this President whose loved ones we are still working to bring home. There are families who haven't met with this President whose loved ones have come home. And, of course, there are families who haven't met with this President for whom we're still working to bring their loved ones home.

It is not a determinant of effort. It is certainly not a determinant of result.

And indeed, the reason that the Obama-Biden administration created dedicated structures in our government -- like the office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs at the State Department, like the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell based at the FBI -- is to ensure that there are experts, including quite senior officials, who work to resolve these cases day in and day out. And that work continues regardless of any presidential meeting.

Q: Hello, there. Thank you for doing the call. I have a couple of questions.

First of all, how far along is the process on Mark Fogel? And why is he not considered wrongfully detained? We've never had a good answer to that. And are you in touch with his family?

Also we know that the President's time is really valuable,

but there's still complaints from families that some hostages get more attention than others, as you know. And I don't think your previous answer really responded to their needs, especially some of those still being held in Iran, if you care to address that.

And, you know, finally, has he had contact with Evan Gershkovich's family? And, if so, can you describe it? Is it a phone call? Or it could be anything at the presidential level regarding the Gershkovichs. Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, thanks -- thanks for the questions. I'll work backwards.

The President did speak by phone with the Gershkovich family, I believe, as he was taking off for his Ireland trip. And I think we've indicated that we were grateful to the Gershkovich parents for taking the time to speak with the President, who of course conveyed how awful these circumstances are and how hard we will work to try to resolve a very challenging case that's now before all of us.

And look, we -- we understand that -- that what families want is to be advocates for their loved ones. They want to be heard. They want to know that their government is prioritizing the work here. And I can assure on all fronts that the answer is they are heard and they are impressive and, frankly, quite moving as advocates for their loved ones and that the priority is absolutely there.

So when there isn't a presidential meeting, we work very hard to communicate that in other ways, including with what are often quite frequent meetings with senior folks here at the White House, myself included; with senior folks over at the State Department, including [senior administration official]; and with others to try to keep families informed.

I'm not going to get into the details of any wrongful detention designation review -- which is, by law, entrusted to the State Department -- other than to say that that designation is not the gatekeeper to whether a family whose loved one is held abroad gets senior attention.

And indeed, the Fogel family has been here at the White House with senior officials; has been in touch even more frequently with the State Department, including at a leadership level; and, moreover, that we have formally sought the Embassy Moscow for Fogel's release on humanitarian grounds.

[Senior administration official], you may not have anything to add, but I'll -- I'll give you the chance in case you want to.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hey, [senior administration official]. Thanks so much.

Ditto what you said about Mark Fogel. Ambassador Tracy has pressed for his humanitarian release. And, obviously, that's an ongoing process within the building, constantly evaluating the circumstances of the case.

I should say, more generally, about -- to the earlier point about family engagement that, on Gershkovich, SPEHA Carstens has visit with the Gershkovich family up at their home.

And, of course, we're in constant contact -- SPEHA Carstens and also the Secretary -- in constant contact with the families of hostages and wrongful detainees. He sits with them -- the Secretary, my boss, myself, our team here sit with the families every week, talk with them, cry with them, update them, and try to communicate our support as best as possible until we can free their loved ones and bring them home.

Q: Hey, guys. Thanks. On -- on the question of timing, you know, obviously, you guys have had the authority to begin to do this for some months. Did this begin -- did the planning for this begin before Evan Gershkovich was taken? Or did his detention by the Russians -- and maybe the question is: and did his detention by the Russians accelerate or motivate or prompt the decision to announce the sanctions and to do the sanctions now? How connected are those cases?


The work to develop the sanctions package was well underway before the appalling detention of Evan a month ago. But I would emphasize that, as I indicated before, these sorts of sanctions are about patterns of activity.

And so I do think when one sees another detention deemed wrongful by the State Department like that, it reinforces the just unacceptable behavior that we see happening with respect to the -- the sanctioned entities and individuals today.

And of course, you know, part of what we do is try to make sure our warnings to Americans reflect that -- that the travel advisories that now have, since last summer, the "D" for wrongful detention indicator and have, especially in the case of Iran and Russia, just extremely stark language warning about the risks of wrongful detention.

Part of what we do, of course, is try to resolve cases, and that includes new ones when those regrettably arise. And now, as today's announcement instantiates, part of what we do is punish those who engage in this sort of behavior.

MODERATOR: That concludes our call today. Thank you all for your time.

And just, again, a reminder that this is all held under embargo until 1:00 p.m. Thanks so much.

10:33 A.M. EDT

Joseph R. Biden, Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on the Administration's Actions to Punish and Deter Wrongful Detention and Hostage-Taking Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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