Families hope to meet with Biden as first National Hostage Day flag is raised

State Department spokesperson on Gaza, Haiti

Washington — On Saturday, the U.S. is marking its first National Hostage and Wrongful Detainee Day. Bipartisan legislation signed into law by President Biden established March 9 as a day of remembrance for Americans wrongfully held overseas. 

The Hostage and Wrongful Detainee Day Act was introduced and shepherded through Congress last year by Reps. Haley Stevens and French Hill, and Sen. Chris Coons. The measure also created a national flag for wrongfully detained Americans and hostages, which was raised for the first time outside the State Department on Friday morning alongside the American flag. The black and yellow flag is reminiscent of America’s prisoners of war and those missing in action (POW/MIA) flag.

March 8, 2024. Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell shown with flag to be raised outside the State Department every year to commemorate National Hostage Day on March 9.
State Dept. Flickr account

A handful of former hostages and their families attended the flag-raising ceremony with State Department officials, standing alongside families of those who remain wrongfully detained abroad.

Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell announced at the ceremony that the flag will be raised outside the State Department every year on March 9. It will also fly when an American hostage held abroad either dies or returns home.

Diane Foley, Siamak Namazi and Emad Shargi at the State Department. March 8, 2024.
Camilla Schick

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who claims to carry in his pocket a card with a list of the dozens of Americans held hostage or unjustly detained, announced in a video address before the flag-raising that he has “been able to cross off 46 names on that list” over the past three years. 

“Roger presented me with my own card — I’m having it laminated. I will carry it with me always,” Campbell told the crowd, referring to Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.

As he stood under the flag, Carstens told CBS News that the new flag is one of only three allowed to fly outside federal buildings, in addition to the American flag and the POW/MIA flag.

Hostage families at the State Department. March 8, 2024
Camilla Schick

The date of March 9 holds special significance for the family of one hostage in particular.

“March 9 is the anniversary of my father’s disappearance,” said Sarah Levinson Moriarty, the daughter of Robert Levinson, who disappeared in Iran in 2007 and became the longest-held American hostage in history. In March 2020, U.S. officials told the Levinson family that they had intelligence indicating Robert had died in captivity in Iran. 

“It’s been a horrific day for us for the past 17 years. When we were advocating for this day of awareness and the flag being codified, we took the opportunity to turn a really negative day into a positive for our nation,” Levinson Moriarty told CBS News.

The flag can fly on three days of the year: Hostage Day on March 9, Flag Day on June 14, and on July 4, as well as when a hostage dies abroad or comes home, Levinson Moriarty said.

“It would be meaningful to my father to know his suffering and pain was not in vain, and that our family and our nation have been able to take what happened to him and turn it into something that can help others to prevent it,” she added.

The flag was designed by David Ewald, a professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. He told CBS News that the families of those wrongfully detained had helped create its distinctive yellow and black design, with two rows of tally marks extending across its center evoking the passage of time for detainees. Ewald said he didn’t think he would see the day it flew, describing the flag as a real “heavy weight.”

After the flag-raising ceremony, a number of families headed to Lafayette Square in front of the White House to stage a sit-in, one of several protests that the grassroots organization Bring Our Families Home has held outside the president’s door to pressure him to meet with them and for the administration to do more to bring their loved ones home.

“My dad was taken when [President Biden] was vice president,” said Harrison Li, the son of 61-year-old Kai Li, who has been wrongfully detained in China since 2012. “So it’s really been a very long time.”

Kai Li is one of three Americans wrongfully detained in China, along with Mark Swidan and David Lin. Harrison Li is a co-chair of Bring Our Families Home, which was formed soon after the president met in March 2022 with the parents of Trevor Reed, a Marine Corps veteran who was detained in Russia in 2019. Reed was freed in a prisoner swap just a month later, prompting some of the families of other hostages to wonder whether they were being treated differently by the U.S. government.

“All the China cases have been very, very long cases. I know that there are people putting in effort. But I think the real roadblock is there’s a lot of disagreement and bureaucracy,” Harrison Li said. “The sense I get is there’s a lot of folks who maybe aren’t so sure on what to do and how to approach these cases, and that leads to a lot of gridlock. That’s really yet another reason why we’re looking to just meet with the president — he can sort of break up that gridlock.”

He continued, “If we’re able to get Trevor Reed and Brittney Griner out of Russia during the Ukraine situation, then you can imagine getting Americans out of China at a time, especially now, when they’re trying to warm up relations with the U.S.”

Li’s predecessor at Bring Our Families Home was Neda Sharghi, whose brother Emad Shargi was held for years in Iran. Neda Sharghi had buttonholed the president at a crowded White House Persian New Year’s party in March 2023, after months of unsuccessful attempts by her family to receive a meeting. Emad was released in a prisoner exchange with Iran a few months later, along with fellow Americans Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz and two others who wished to remain anonymous. The Biden administration also helped make available $6 billion in restricted Iranian oil revenue to the regime in Tehran.

Families embroiled in the most recent hostage crisis — Israeli-Americans held by the militant group Hamas in Gaza — met Wednesday with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and with national security adviser Jake Sullivan. They were invited to meet in person with the president in December, weeks after their families were taken hostage — a comparatively compressed timeframe that was not lost on the families of hostages held in other countries. There are six American dual citizens still unaccounted for, including Keith Siegel, Sagui Dekel-Chen, Edan Alexander, Hersh Goldberg-Polin, Omer Neutra, and Itay Chen. CIA Director Bill Burns was in Doha on Friday pressing for a Hamas-Israel deal to release 40 or more hostages in exchange for a six week cessation in violence and surge of aid into Gaza.

A handful of family members of Americans wrongfully detained abroad were invited by members of Congress to the president’s State of the Union address, Thursday, including Anna Corbett, wife of Ryan Corbett, who is currently being held by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Harrison Li was also invited.

“I wanted to attend, hopefully to get out to meet people who can help me get to the president, or even perhaps meet the president himself, however briefly,” Li told CBS News.

The family of Wall Street Journal journalist Evan Gershkovich were also guests of the First Lady on Thursday night, as President Biden made mention of Evan and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, both detained in Russia.

Paul Whelan has been detained in Russia since 2018. His brother, David Whelan, says that the government has made progress in its efforts to deal with American hostages. 

“When Paul was arrested there was no infrastructure, no support for families, there was no overt activity by the U.S. government, by the State Department or anybody. So we’ve come so far from that,” David Whelan told CBS News. “We’re now starting to see tangible evidence of the U.S. government trying to grapple with this hostage-taking problem.”

Biden has met with the Whelan family twice—in September 2022, and in January.

“I think that the families of hostages and detainees have the right to request a meeting with the President. I think that the U.S. Government, the State Department and the White House in particular, should take a good hard look at how they treat family cases differently, because, whether they intend to treat them differently or not, they are doing so.” 

“At the same time, and obviously with the privilege of having had Elizabeth (Paul’s sister) speak to the president twice, I think Paul’s case is a really good example of how speaking to the President doesn’t actually result in someone coming home.”

“I think our government has always said that these types of things are a top priority,” Sarah Levinson Moriarty said. “But what better way to show it than to actually meet with these families, hold their hands and tell them that the U.S. government is doing every possible thing that they can to end their suffering.” 

— Margaret Brennan and Andrew Bast contributed to this report.

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