The story behind recent releases of Americans held in foreign countries

Two young State Department foreign affairs officers helped secure recent releases of Americans held in by foreign countries. That fact has landed them as finali...

Two young State Department foreign affairs officers helped secure recent releases of Americans held in by foreign countries. That fact has landed them as finalists in this year’s Service to America Medals program, aka “the Sammies.” Fletcher Schoen developed the negotiation strategy for basketball player Brittney Griner, among others. And Jennifer Harkins was instrumental in the 2022 release of nine Americans held by Venezuela. Both them spoke with  Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin Since that case seems to be not quite as in the news or famous right now. Ms. Harkins, we’ll start with you. Tell us the background of this case and how you got to the point where they were released from Venezuela.

Jennifer Harkins I mean, it’s not even one case. I’d call it more like five different cases. There was the case of the Citgo Six. They have been detained in Venezuela since 2017. They were released in two separate kind of batches. One was released in March of 2022 with another individual and the other five were released on October 1st of last year. And then we also had Jorge Fernandez, who was crossing the border and was picked up by Venezuela in 2021. He was released in March of 2022. And Matthew Heath, who was detained in 2020. He spent two years in Venezuelan prison and he was released on October 1st. And then we also had Usman Khan, who was a recent college graduate who was living in Colombia, who was also picked up as he was crossing the border into Venezuela. And he was released on October 1st of last year. And so it was kind of all separate cases in a lot of ways except for the Citgo Six. We ended up getting two people out in March of last year, and we had seven released in October, which was the largest release of American prisoners since 1979.

Tom Temin What did you do to help facilitate all this? How would you describe your role in it?

Jennifer Harkins Sure. Yes. My main role here is to kind of formulate the strategy in working with and negotiating with the foreign government in order to secure the release. I also am the main point of contact for the families here in the U.S. continuously giving them updates. We also do a lot of congressional engagement, congressional briefings to make sure they’re up to speed. We’re kind of the main focal point for these cases, trying to pull together the entire U.S. government team, which includes the National Security Council, includes Congress, includes others within the State Department and just largely across the government. I’m kind of in charge of pulling all of that together so that we can all be kind of rowing in the same direction in order to get these guys out.

Tom Temin Interesting. So that contact with the family is part of the back end of the whole thing because they’re the ultimate stakeholders, I guess. And Fletcher Schoen you were instrumental in the Brittney Griner case, getting her out of Russia in a prisoner swap. Tell us what you did and a little bit of the background that may not be so well-known. That happened behind the scenes.

Fletcher Schoen Much like Jen on the day to day my job is contact with the families and sort of quarterbacking the effort back here in D.C. to coordinate what our strategy is going to be to bring someone like Brittney Griner home from Russia. Ultimately, she was freed in a prisoner exchange. But there is an enormous amount of work that goes on behind the scenes because that’s a decision that the president of the United States needs to make using his powers of commutation. So our strategy depends on is it the right time to go forward with that offer? Is it the last option? Have we tried other things? Have we done it in creative ways through different channels and ways the Russians may not have expected? I mean, very much so in Brittney Griner case, the delicacy of approaching it so as to not increase her value in a way that made it impossible to get her back, while also demonstrating our resolve to bring someone like her back from Russia. It was a very interesting case to approach. I was put on that two days after coming back from the Middle East with Trevor Reed and another exchange. And so there wasn’t really a day off between the two. And currently working on getting Paul Wieland and Evan Herskovitz out of Russia. All those cases also play against each other in terms of how we have to balance, Russian asks for all those things. That’s another interesting aspect of the strategy, I know Jen had to deal with that as well as Venezuela.

Tom Temin Yeah, and I wanted to ask a side question, two of you, both because both of these countries, both of their leaders, both of their activities invoke a lot of emotional reaction, a lot of heated political rhetoric and so forth. I imagine one of the difficult things is just to keep your own emotions out of it. I mean, every time I hear Sergei Lavrov talk, I’d like to throttle him by the neck. I could never work for the State Department. So how do you keep your equanimity when you are dealing with an emotional situation and maybe angering situation, but you got to keep your mind on the business at hand. What do you draw on to do that?

Fletcher Schoen Fletcher I think for me personally, I draw a lot on my time in the military and the training I received there. And I think it helps me keep a lot of perspective. This is a diplomacy. It’s it’s not war. And so I think I rely on on that perspective just to remind myself every day that someone in this enterprise on the U.S. side has to be professional. I think everybody involved does remain that way because it’s for the families to feel the incredible pain and the prisoners themselves of what these these adversarial regimes are doing. But we can’t find a solution to bring people home before their prison terms end unless we keep that professional distance. So we feel this intensely with the families. But we have to be diplomats to get this done.

Tom Temin And Jennifer, what’s your perspective on that question?

Jennifer Harkins I think you just really have to keep your eye on the ball. You have to be really focused on what it is you’re working on and not allow kind of the emotional aspect get to you, which is a lot easier said than done, especially because we work with the families so closely and they’re so largely emotional about the entire situation. You’re trying to keep them calm at the same time. And I think just being really laser focused on on what the end goal here is, is to bring home more Americans.

Tom Temin And what is it like dealing with your counterparts from those nations? Do they bring the same kind of, I guess, resolve without emotion to it, even though their politicians and higher ups might be trading barbs and rhetoric in the newspapers and so forth? What’s it like dealing with the Venezuelan and Russian counterparts? Jenn.

Jennifer Harkins It’s interesting. I mean the background on these people and you know how many bodies they have kind of under their belt. And yet you still have to go into the conversation as if they’re kind of your best friend, right? As if you’re going to be pals with them and kind of work towards a solution. It’s definitely an interesting experience. There’s very little animosity, believe it or not. It’s very collaborative. It kind of goes back to your last question. You have to really set all of that emotion aside, all of kind of your preconceived notions of these people so that you can connect with them in a way that you’re able to come to a solution.

Fletcher Schoen I agree with Jen on that. When we’re formulating our strategy to get people out of Russia, the key thing we remember is that we care about this issue so much more than they do. In the end, the people on the other side of the line are killers. That’s a fact. And they want that to be known. And so we have to formulate how we do this in a way that gets them back home and is advantageous for the United States, knowing that they have all the time in the world. They don’t actually care about the people they’re bringing back or Americans who are in prison over there. So that’s an interesting part of the job. I’d say, yeah, it’s professional, but you have to keep that in the back of the mind at all times.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Fletcher Schoen and Jennifer Harkins. They are foreign affairs officers in the office of Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs at the State Department and finalists in this year’s Service to America Medals Program. And just of all of the things you could have done in life, what attracted you to diplomacy in the State Department? Maybe give us a little brief bio.

Jennifer Harkins Sure. Yeah. I mean, I started in Consular Affairs working on cases of American citizens. It’s a little bit less specific and less focused on kind of the return of Americans back to the U.S. It’s more in providing Americans overseas with support and making sure that they’re kind of being treated fairly and equally overseas. And so ultimately, the reason I kind of gravitated towards the office now is that it is much more focused. It’s much more surrounded around advocacy and and actually trying to achieve a goal as opposed to providing resources and kind of being available to especially to family members to talk about a situation with their loved one overseas. And so I think it just comes down to helping people. That’s kind of what diplomacy is all about. No matter where you are in the State Department, you’re helping people, whether or not it’s people from the U.S. that are traveling overseas or if you’re kind of helping more kind of local people in local economies, local political situations. That’s kind of, I think, what attracts everybody to diplomacy.

Tom Temin I imagine at friends gatherings and family gatherings, you must get a lot of questions because what you’ve done is pretty impressive, frankly, and outside of most people’s experience.

Jennifer Harkins Yeah, it does. Catches people’s eye for sure. A lot of people who don’t know what you do at all you start to explain it to them and it’s just like the most fascinating conversation they’ll have that week. It is kind of a fun topic at cocktail parties and things like that.

Tom Temin And Fletcher, you mentioned military service. Tell us about your background and how you got to this place at the State Department.

Fletcher Schoen Sure. So I grew up always intensely interested in international affairs. I had family in the State Department and people in the federal government. So I traveled around the world visiting them at the different posts they were at. I always wanted to do something like that, so I found myself in the military after college. I did about six years in Army Special Operations. Towards the end of that, I wanted to do something more cerebral and more on at the policy level of things as opposed to being down in the mud. So I got to the State Department because that’s where you do those kind of things. I was very attracted to this officer’s mission because it has a very clear end state. Diplomacy is is very amorphous at times. It’s about building relationships and keeping your interests out there. But there is such a fine point on the success of what we do here when we bring someone home, that it gives a sense of mission complete. I really enjoy that. The flip side is we’re failing until we succeed. And so this job can be very difficult. But when we do bring people home, I think there’s no one more invested in them coming back other than their families and the prisoners themselves. And so it is an incredible sense of success and fulfillment. And that’s really why two years into this job, I’m still doing it.

Tom Temin And you mentioned, too, that the next big challenges for you are the Evan Gershkovich case and also Paul Wheelan. Lord knows what resolution of that is going to look like or when it’s going to occur. I wouldn’t ask you to predict it, but in your mind, do you visualize them getting off a plane and stepping back onto American soil?

Fletcher Schoen Absolutely. With their families, too. When we speak with them, we talk about what that day is going to look like because you have to hold on to it. And like Jen, I’ve been involved in these recoveries, have been out with Ambassador Carstens, picking up Trevor Reed and Brittney Griner. And so I know the mechanics of those days. I know what it’s like to have someone get on the plane and be heading home after basically a nightmare of being used as a political bargaining chip. But particular I’ve been working with Paul Wheelan’s family for two years. They’re five almost five years into this ordeal. Evan’s parents I know very well. And he and I are not too far apart in age. And so I really just can’t wait to meet him on what I hope is one of the happiest days in his life.

Tom Temin And Jennifer, what’s your next big challenge?

Jennifer Harkins We still have Americans down in Venezuela, some of which are wrongfully detained, and we’re still working towards bringing them home. So there always seems to be more. So it really does. But the interesting thing about Venezuela compared to Russia is that myself and Ambassador Carstens, we do travel down there every once in a while, mainly to speak to the other side and try to work towards releases, but also to get down there to see the Americans who are detained. And so it’s kind of a little different than what Fletcher’s thinking of, where he’s eager to to kind of meet Evan and Paul. I’ve already met all the guys we’re working towards securing their release. I’ve met them multiple times. And so kind of having that personal contact with them and being invested in their cases kind of adds something extra to the cake here when when we finally get them home.

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