A grim milestone: 10 years since Austin Tice’s abduction in Syria
The Washington Post August 11, 2022
WASHINGTON — Debra and Marc Tice wanted some joy. So they got a piñata. She baked a special birthday cake. They invited their whole large family to a celebration.
But there was an absence that was impossible to ignore — the birthday boy.
For a decade, these parents of seven have yearned to celebrate in person at their Houston home with their eldest son, Austin Tice, a law student and freelance journalist who was abducted in Syria 10 years ago this week. He was taken on Aug. 14, 2012 — three days after he turned 31. His parents’ fervent belief, shared by the U.S. government officials they have endlessly consulted and others who have made public statements, is that Austin is alive even though he hasn’t been seen since a video was posted on YouTube nearly 10 years ago showing him blindfolded and being led through rugged terrain by men in white robes carrying what appear to be automatic weapons.
And so those birthdays for this young man growing older mean something beyond marking another trip around the sun. They’re a manifestation of faith and hope, even as they tumble past without him, the milestone years — his 35th, his 40th last year when the piñata seemed like the perfect touch — and the others. Each has arrived without full answers but not without a deep-seated belief that his story will eventually end well.
On Wednesday, President Joe Biden added an increased level of specificity to the decade-long saga, saying in a statement that “we know with certainty that [Austin] has been held by the Government of Syria.” It was a shift from the past when U.S. officials tended to hedge about whether they believe Austin is held by the Syrian government or groups allied with the government.
With Biden’s attention so clearly trained on their son, this year’s birthday, so close to the 10-year marker of his captivity, is a bit different for the Tices. Debra Tice is commemorating her son’s 41st in Washington without a big party, but still doing what she’s done with persistence and consistency: Pushing. Hard.
At various times, the Tices have been furious with the FBI, the State Department, the White House, the media and themselves. They’ve pressed three presidents and still nothing. They’ve clamored for more engagement with the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad.
Both Tices have been in the public eye, demanding the government do more — Marc, a clean-cut 64-year-old who is usually the more measured and soft-spoken one; Debra, the fiery embodiment of a family’s torment. She has not been afraid to confront bureaucrats, especially those who she deems unhelpful, lazy or uncaring.
“I am Austin’s mother — I will not be intimidated,” she said in an interview this week. When she goes to Washington, she’s there to demand action at the highest levels of government. “I’m not there for tea and crumpets,” said Debra, a 61-year-old with dazzling white, shoulder-length hair and a piercing gaze.
Her blunt and unflinching manner, her boundless energy and maternal instinct to protect her son, can be inspiring and energizing, said Bill McCarren, executive director of the National Press Club, which has taken up Austin’s cause with gusto. “She has gumption,” he said. But he also worries that her confrontational style might sometimes work against her.
“She’s not the easiest person to get along with,” McCarren said. “She does not suffer fools.”
McCarren has tried to educate her in the strange and disconcerting mores of Washington: how the capital can often be a place of evasions and empty promises. But these truths she cannot abide, a trait McCarren admires in her. In her own way, she is not only pushing for her son, but also pushing for Washington as a place, and the U.S. government as an institution, to do better.
Not long ago, Debra met with a large group of State Department officials in Washington. She’s concluded that many in the department have decided it is “not viable” to secure her son’s release, even though Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been publicly and privately supportive. Internal “obstacles,” as the Tices describe them, have been erected because so many people within the department have essentially given up on bringing their son home.
“You’re going to be shocked when you see [Austin] walk free,” Debra told them.
She employed some colorful language to demand that they work harder rather than, as she sees it, sitting back and claiming that there’s very little or nothing they can do. They weren’t pushing. Not like she pushes. “It’s just your little hall pass that you’re writing out for yourself,” she told them.
Recounting the meeting, her voice builds to a crescendo: “Bam!” she said emphatically in that Texas drawl. “Oh, my goodness. They were shocked.”
State Department officials declined interview requests or to address details of the meeting. “We are extensively engaged with Syrian officials to bring Austin Tice home,” a senior administration official said in an emailed statement. “But Syria has never even acknowledged holding him.”
Marine Corps veteran
Austin was a “challenging” kid, his mother recalls with affection. Never a boring moment in his life, always charging out into the world.
“He’s so intense,” she said. “He’s so fully alive, he’s so ready to go.”
He was an Eagle Scout. He joined the Marines as an infantry officer and served in Iraq and Afghanistan, then stayed on in the reserves. He graduated from Georgetown University’s school of foreign service and was attending the university’s law school in 2012 when he decided to go to Syria as a freelance journalist, becoming one of the few reporters at the time inside that most dangerous of nations for journalists. While there, he contributed to The Washington Post and CBS News, and he won a Polk Award, one of journalism’s most prestigious honors, for his reporting on Syria’s civil war for McClatchy newspapers.
Those first awful weeks of his captivity have stayed with her, even now. She castigates herself for not getting on a plane right away, rather than following advice she was receiving from U.S. officials to take steps as underwhelming as planning a news conference.
“I can’t tell you, with seven kids, how many times I’ve jumped in the car and driven to a place where they’ve had a car accident, jumped in the car and flown to wherever they were in school because they were sick,” she said in the interview. “When something happens, I show up. Why did I keep my feet on the wrong side of the ocean?”
It wasn’t until three months later that she and her husband got on that plane, landing in Beirut, where she was planning to arrange to drive to Damascus at the invitation of Syrian officials.
Then they got a call from an FBI agent working their son’s case. The agent, who they declined to identify, berated Marc Tice, saying the road was unsafe and they were about to make their other six children orphans. Journalists were telling them the opposite; the Tices believe they were being fed “misinformation.”
Under pressure from the FBI agent, Debra said, she decided not to go. A decade later, she still laments following the agent’s advice. She’s gone out of her way to apologize to the Syrian government over the years.
“To not accept that invitation, we have no idea what the ongoing repercussions of that are,” she said.
FBI officials declined to be interviewed or to address Debra Tice’s account. In a statement emailed to The Post, the bureau said: “The FBI and our U.S. government partners in the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell are constantly working to bring Austin Tice and other Americans held overseas, back home to their families. The FBI is committed to this mission, in close coordination with the victim’s family members, no matter how much time passes.”
Debra Tice eventually got to Damascus in 2014. She met with everyone she could, including Syrian government officials. Finally, she received a message from a highly placed Syrian official: “I will not meet with the mother. Send a United States government official of appropriate title.”
The basic questions remain
Years passed and the Tices never heard of any meetings about their son involving U.S. and Syrian officials. And the basic questions remained: Why this particular journalist? What would the Syrians have to gain from holding him this long without any public acknowledgment? Why no pleading hostage videos? Why no ransom request? In that information vacuum, news organizations, including Reporters Without Borders, took up his cause. The Post featured Austin in a 2019 Super Bowl advertisement.
Finally, in 2020, there seemed to be a break: Kash Patel, the Trump administration’s National Security Council counterterrorism chief, and Roger Carstens, the presidential envoy for hostage affairs, traveled to Syria for what they described as the first direct U.S. diplomatic engagement with Syria in a decade. “It was a one-and-done kind of thing said,” Marc Tice said. Instead, he said, the United States needs to lean into the fundamentals of hostage dealings: engagement, negotiation and concession.
After the Syria trip came to light, Debra Tice accused then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of “undermining” President Donald Trump’s directive to bring her son home because he had said he would “compartmentalize” prisoner issues from foreign policy writ large. Carstens came to Pompeo’s defense.
In The Post interview, Debra leveled another raft of concerns at Biden’s administration, singling out national security adviser Jake Sullivan for, as she put it, not following his boss’s directives. She thinks back to a May 2022 meeting she and her husband had with Biden. Right there in front of the Tices in the Oval Office, Biden instructed his the national security staff in the meeting to contact the Syrians and find out what they want in return for Austin’s release, Debra recalled.
Three months later she believes no contacts have been made. “I’m not sure if all the phone lines are down in D.C. or if there was some kind of, you know, solar flare,” she said. “They don’t have internet anymore? I’m really not sure what the obstacles are. But they can certainly fly down here and use my phone if they need to.”
She and her husband have learned over the course of three White House administrations that people working under the president can thwart his objectives, Debra said. (Sullivan did not respond to interview requests.)
All the while, she is puzzled about what seems like stagnation. The United States doesn’t recognize that new approaches need to be employed to save their son, she asserts. She seethes that she knows of no calls from U.S. officials to Syria at a time when Biden has even fist-bumped for the cameras with Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince who has been linked to the murder of Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
The Post’s publisher, Fred Ryan, has been a vocal advocate for the return of Austin Tice. In 2021, Ryan wrote an editorial published in The Post saying: “The United States should never stand by when dictatorships take our citizens hostage. But the offense is especially outrageous when the victims are journalists, who provide the information and perspective our democracy needs to function, often at great personal risk.” On Tuesday, he unveiled a 12-foot-by-8-foot banner above the main entrance to The Post that reads #BringAustinHome.
The White House was also taking notice. In his statement the next day, Biden went long on promises and hope, but short on specifics about what is or can be done: “I am calling on Syria to end this and help us bring [Austin] home.”
In their anguish, the Tices know what will happen each year as Aug. 14 approaches; they know the drill. The reporters will call. Cascades of them. These “quote-unquote anniversary interviews” are appreciated, Austin’s father said. But then the reporters mostly go away. It’s a brief downpour, when what they hope for is a “steady rain,” Debra said. The kind that lasts all year long, that lasts until Austin comes home.
They plan to appear at the National Press Club on Sunday for an event marking 10 years. An invitation went out a while ago. It’s billed, hopefully, as a “Welcome Home Party for Austin Tice.” But the event will go forward whether he’s home or not.