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Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on the Release of Mark Frerichs

September 19, 2022

Via Teleconference

9:37 A.M. EDT

MODERATOR: Thank you to everyone for joining our press call this morning on the release of Mark Frerichs.

As a reminder of the ground rules, this call is being held on background, attributable to "senior administration officials," and the contents are embargoed until the end of the call.

For your awareness but not for your reporting, our speakers on the call today are [senior administration official] and [senior administration official].

Now I'll turn it over to our first speaker, [senior administration official].

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you so much, and thanks to all of you for taking the time to join this call.

I am delighted, gratified, and relieved to share with all of you that U.S. citizen Mark Frerichs is now a free man after two and a half years as a hostage in Afghanistan.

This result is the culmination of an extraordinary amount of effort and care across the U.S. government for many months now to bring him out of captivity and to safety.

Most importantly, after initial assessment, it appears that Mark is in stable health. He has been offered a range of support options after his time in captivity.

The President was able to speak earlier with Mark's family and share the good news about his release. His family members, who have advocated tirelessly for his release, are, of course, eager to be reunited with him.

Stepping back and as you all know, President Biden is deeply committed to bringing home all Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad. That's been a priority for the President, for the Secretary of State, and for the administration's entire national security team.

This administration is proud to have brought home American hostages and wrongful detainees from Afghanistan, from Burma, from Haiti, from Russia, from Venezuela, from West Africa, and from other parts of the world in cases that we have deliberately kept discreet for various reasons.

As part of our commitment to bring home all Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained, we have engaged extensively with Mark Frerichs's family and advocates quite truly from the earliest days of the administration. We continued to engage with them and provide them with updates on our efforts on Mark's behalf through various complications and permutations that we worked through assiduously in order to reach today's success.

When U.S. troops departed Afghanistan and we ended America's longest war last year, we remained committed to bringing Mark home, as we said publicly at the time. Since then, we've raised Mark's case with the Taliban at every opportunity and we've regularly reminded them that Mark had done nothing wrong and that releasing Mark had to occur before the Taliban could hope for better relations with the United States.

We undertook months of tough negotiations with the Taliban for Mark's release. And it became clear in the course of those negotiations that the release of Bashir Noorzai, a drug trafficker who spent 17 years in U.S. federal custody, was the key to securing Mark's overdue freedom.

We consulted with experts across the U.S. government who assessed that Noorzai's return to Afghanistan would not materially change any risk to Americans emanating from the country or the nature of the drug trade there.

And I'll emphasize, because this has been reported erroneously in some foreign reporting already: Noorzai was never a detainee at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.

The President made the difficult decision this summer in June to grant clemency to Noorzai if that meant bringing an American home where he belonged and reuniting him with his family who missed him.

We ensured that we'd be prepared to carry out Noorzai's release when we were confident that the Taliban was prepared to release Mark.

Now in the weeks after that decision and in order to protect Americans and really the whole world, as this group knows, the President authorized an airstrike that removed from the battlefield al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. And as we said publicly at the time, Mark Frerichs was foremost in the President's mind, all of our minds during that decision-making process.

We conveyed that fact to Mark's family right after the strike and emphasized that we were continuing to work on Mark's behalf and would do so until we secured his freedom.

As we also said publicly at the time, we told the Taliban immediately after the strike that we would hold them directly responsible if any harm were to come to Mark and that the best way they might begin to rebuild trust with the United States, with the world was to immediately release Mark.

That didn't happen immediately. But ultimately, we did have a narrow window of opportunity this month to secure Mark's freedom, including by releasing Noorzai. And we acted very quickly when it became clear that that window of opportunity had arrived and we became confident in it.

Through the tireless work of many, many individuals across many parts of the U.S. government, we were able to arrange for Noorzai's return to Afghanistan and Mark Frerichs's safe release into U.S. custody. This included extraordinarily careful logistical coordination at a very senior level of our government over the past few days in particular.

Mark has successfully and safely made it to Doha and into our care. And again, we are so grateful to all who made this possible.

As I indicated earlier, a wide range of types of support have been offered to him as next steps in his post-isolation recovery. And I'll respect his privacy and his family, and leave it to them if they choose to make public at some point where he goes from here and what his next steps are.

But know that he continues to receive quite dedicated U.S. government support, including having with him the Special Presidential Envoy for hostage affairs, Roger Carstens, which is why Roger wasn't able to join us on this call.

I would emphasize that we are particularly grateful for Qatar's assistance in this and, frankly, many other matters as America's protecting power in Afghanistan. And we anticipate that the Secretary of State will speak with his Qatari counterpart to convey those thanks.

Let me close by emphasizing that this administration will continue to work tirelessly to bring home other Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained.

Resolving each of these cases can and often is every bit as hard as everything you've just heard and more, but a very good day like today proves that success is possible and proves that we'll keep at it until we get there.

Let me now turn to a colleague -- [senior administration official], as you heard -- for some brief additional remarks on how this fits into our approach to the Taliban.

[Senior administration official], over to you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you very much. Let me add that I am very glad that Mark is on his way home. He has been a constant focus of ours in engagements with the Taliban, and this is a good day.

In terms of what this means for our broader engagement with the Taliban, we will continue to make clear that taking hostages -- that's the activity of terrorist and criminal groups. And if the Taliban is as interested as they say they are in normal relations with the international community, then that practice must resolutely end.

We have interests to protect in Afghanistan. There is a dire humanitarian and economic crisis underway, and the United States has done more than any other country to address it.

We contributed over $815 million in humanitarian assistance just since last August, passed seven general licenses, and championed a U.N. Security Council resolution explicitly designed to ease the activity of relief organizations as well as companies that are seeking to meet that need.

We're in close touch with international financial institutions about making available over a billion dollars' worth of resources for basic services for the Afghan people.

We want to see humanitarian principles respected. We want to see aid delivered equitably. So we will engage on those issues with the Taliban and with other Afghans in the country.

We also want to ensure that they live up to their terrorism commitments, and that clearly is a work in progress. And the recent revelation that they were harboring Ayman al-Zawahiri in downtown Kabul validates our concern.

The protection of women, girls, and minority rights is also a central pillar of our engagement, as it is for the rest of the international community. This week marks one year since girls were barred from entering secondary schools. And so, it is a bad anniversary and one priority set of issues that we will continue to engage on.

So we're very glad to see Mark home. He's been gone for too long. And we'll continue to advance our interests through engagement with the Taliban and with the country's diverse society.

MODERATOR: Great, thank you. [Operator], we'll turn it back to you to moderate Q&A.

Q: Hi, thanks so much for doing the call. Just a couple of questions. What changed in the circumstances to allow for that small window of opportunity to get Frerichs out right now? Did the U.S give the Taliban anything else besides Noorzai to secure this release? Where was Frerichs being held in Afghanistan? Did his location change at all over the course of his captivity? And is the Taliban holding any other American or Americans hostage right now? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. Thanks for the questions. So, look, I'll say, as I indicated, that in June, the President had made the decision -- one that he called "tough" even in the public statement you've probably seen already this morning, but nonetheless a decision that would get an American home safe. And that allowed us to be prepared as early as June.

Being prepared is important. It still takes quite a bit to work out something like this, including something as logistically challenging as having confidence on both sides of an arrangement like this that it will go forward as agreed to.

And so, I'll just say it took some time to get from that readiness to -- to proceed, to actually being prepared to do so. But once it became clear that we could be confident in doing so, we moved extraordinarily quickly and were able to get this done and obviously are pleased by the result.

As for where he was being held, that as a question you'd have to direct to the Taliban. And Frerichs was, in a sense, a category of one. He was, as is well known, someone who, as U.S. troops withdrew, had been held a hostage for far too long and remained held hostage, in our view, far too long.

And so we're very grateful to have resolved this at this point -- though, of course, over two and a half years in captivity is far too long for anyone to have to endure.

Q: Hi, thanks for doing this. Just a follow-up on Jennifer's question. Is it accurate to say that he was in Taliban government captivity? Can you just address who was holding him? And, you know, maybe -- I know you can't address all of the details, but I do think it's an important distinction -- you know, the Taliban government versus some other group.

And can you elaborate a little bit on something that you all mentioned in your opening remarks, which is what -- what do you think -- how do you -- or how do you plan to address the potential message that some other governments or groups around the world could be getting from, you know, this prisoner release -- that, you know, if they take Americans, they can secure the release of people in American custody that they want to see freed?

Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks for the question. So, on the first one, the United States, of course, does not recognize the Taliban as a government. But it was the Taliban with which we negotiated the release of Mark Frerichs. It was the Taliban we held responsible for his continued detention before reaching that point.

And so, that was the entity with whom we knew we had to engage and, indeed, with which we did engage in order to reach this successful result.

In terms of how to think about this more broadly: Look, it's just a sad fact that human beings have been held and treated as bargaining chips and as pawns for decades, really for centuries, to secure various political ends. And that's appalling, but it is a fact that we need to grapple with when we have the type of commitment that our government does and this President does to bring our people home.

And if anyone takes away from this the notion that -- that this sort of thing is anything but rare or painful for a President to approve, then they're not listening to what the President is saying and they're not looking at the sheer number and the sheer rarity of this.

There's no -- there's no symmetry, of course, between someone like Frerichs and someone like Noorzai. Frerichs, as we emphasized publicly and to the Taliban, had done nothing wrong and should not have been held. Noorzai received due process of law, access to counsel, and his day in court.

But I think it's a sign of the humanity, frankly, of a government like ours that despite that imbalance, we will take the steps we need to do to bring Americans back to their loved ones and friends who miss them.

I would also emphasize that we really see it as a priority not just to resolve the existing cases, not just to bring home those like Mark Frerichs, but also to prevent and deter what otherwise would be future cases.

That's why you saw President Biden issue an executive order this summer that builds on the Levinson Act to create new penalties for those who engage in hostage-taking or wrongful detention -- penalties like asset freezing and visa bans -- to punish and ultimately, by punishing, deter this sort of activity.

It's also why you saw the State Department add the new "D," for wrongful detention, indicator this summer, which is something of a complement to the "K," for kidnapping, indicator -- both of which make very clear, in the State Department's travel advisories, countries where Americans are at particular risk of being detained wrongfully and against their will.

And I would add, it's also why you see Secretary of State Blinken, really from his first weeks in the role, be such a strong and vocal supporter of a Canadian-led multilateral commitment to work against arbitrary detention of this sort, and to build and strengthen a global norm against this sort of behavior.

So, all told, we think it's incumbent upon us as a government to resolve the existing cases, which is just another way -- another way of saying getting Americans home to their loved ones and friends, but also to prevent and deter future cases.

[Senior administration official], I should let you answer, especially on Missy's first question -- anything you want to chime in with.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: [Senior administration official], I think you covered it. Nothing to add.

Q: Hi, guys. Thank you so much for doing this. [Senior administration official], you have -- you've repeatedly described this as a difficult decision. And I have, I guess, two specific questions related to Noorzai. I appreciate you said that he was not in Guantanamo. Can you elaborate a little bit on which facility he actually was in and where he was released from?

And also, can you talk a little bit about the Justice Department's perspective on equity here? You talked about how, you know, you consulted with a broad array of government officials. But when Noorzai was sentenced to life imprisonment, he was described as somebody who would help finance, you know, a generation of fighters through the drug trade and one of the most the most prolific heroin traffickers in the world.

I imagine it was not easy for the Justice Department to wrap their hands around releasing somebody like this. So can you talk a little bit about those discussions?

Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, thanks for both questions, Eric. So, as you say, Noorzai was not in Guantanamo. He was in BOP custody. I believe he may have been in different facilities over his long period of time -- 17 years -- in BOP custody. He was convicted in a federal court in New York. I'm not sure exactly which facilities geographically he was held at. But as you say, it was BOP custody, not Guantanamo.

And, look, nothing can take away the rightful stigma, the guilt that attaches to the convictions that Noorzai received. And, of course, 17 years is itself a steep price to pay. So nothing erases that.

And at the same time, it is -- and I'm going to quote what the President said in his statement this morning, "Bringing the negotiations that led to Mark's freedom to a successful resolution required difficult decisions, which I did not take lightly." And it is a difficult decision to lighten the sentence.

Again, you can't eradicate the guilt. You can't give back the years that someone has spent in custody. You don't want to, because they've earned that with their guilt. But at the same time, when there are opportunities to bring Americans home who should never have been held in the first place -- they were far overdue in coming home -- those are choices that at least this President, in this circumstance, was willing to make.

And then I'll say that for DOJ's perspective, I would refer you to DOJ.

But zooming out a bit, the President heard from -- as he always does on tough national security decisions -- his departments and agencies that work on these matters, including the leadership of those. He took into consideration what are very real pros and cons, very real benefits and risks.

Ultimately, it is only the President who can grant clemency of this nature and thus resolve a matter like this in this way. And he made what he described as a "difficult decision," but one that also leads to a really good day like today, where an American who has been held for over two and a half years is out of captivity, is getting the support and treatment that he deserves, and can look forward to seeing his family again.

Q: Thank you very much. Here are my questions: Can you describe Mark's health, number one?

Number two, can you just tell us exactly the day when he was released? It's not clear with different time zones. If you could pinpoint that.

And then finally, his family had advocated for this kind of swap with the drug lord for quite a long time, even in the -- with the prior administration. We were told just now that it just became clear that this swap was key. What finally happened to recognize that this was the key to the deal?

Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, thanks for the questions. So, I'll just say in general terms that our understanding is that Mark's health thankfully appears stable, solid. I'm sure he will continue to get checked out. And I'll probably leave further updates to fam- -- to the family and its advocates if they want to provide them. But it was a great comfort to all of us who have worked so hard on this and who care so much about this to hear that his health appears stable.

His release was today; Monday was his release.

And, you know, I'll probably leave some of the internal negotiations that led to this result to exactly that -- internal negotiations -- because that's how these things tend to work best. But I will just say that it is challenging to work out, especially with the entities that hold Americans in ways that we do not think they should be held, a resolution to these cases. They can be more complicated than gets portrayed.

But what we tell the families, the loved ones is that we are committed to working through those negotiations or other means of resolution until we deliver on the result that the families want and that we as a government want, which is bringing their loved ones home. And that's where we are delighted to have -- to have gotten to here.

Q: Yeah, thanks. Are you tracking other Americans held in Afghanistan? What can you tell us, for instance, about filmmaker Ivor Shearer and his Afghan producer? Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you for the question. We are aware of that matter, but I don't have more for you on that right now.

Q: Thank you. Hi, thanks for doing this. I just want to ask you about your assessment that Noorzai's return will not change the risk to Americans and also in drug trade. What is that based on exactly? And were you able to receive any assurances from the Taliban that he won't go back to the drug trade in Afghanistan?

And on Mark Frerichs himself: We understand he's in Qatar right now. Can you tell us what's the next step? And when should we anticipate him to be in the United States?

Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, thanks for both questions. So I will say that the assessment I mentioned was based on experts across the government to have a deep understanding of the current state of the drug trade in Afghanistan, broader threat networks there, and what it might mean for someone of a certain age who has been in U.S. custody for 17 years to return to that. And they returned with an assessment, as I indicated, that for Noorzai to return would not materially change any risk to Americans or fundamentally alter the contours of the drug -- the drug trade there.

And then I think I will continue to leave Mark Frerichs's next steps to him to share if he is so inclined, out of respect for his privacy. But I would just emphasize that we had -- as we always do in these situations -- not only an immediate set of support options available to him in Qatar, but also a range of contingency plans based on his condition, his assessment, and his choices, which obviously are critical at this stage.

And my understanding is that he has given some direction as to where he wants to go next. And as I say, I'll respect his privacy and leave it to him and his family to figure out if they want to share more at some point.

MODERATOR: Thank you so much, [senior administration official]. And thank you again for everyone who joined us this morning.

And as a reminder of the ground rules: This call was held on background, attributable to "senior administration officials." And with that, the embargo is now lifted.

Thank you, everyone, and have a good day.

10:02 A.M. EDT

Joseph R. Biden, Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on the Release of Mark Frerichs Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/358005

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