Who We Are
The Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs (SPEHA) is appointed by the President and reports to the Secretary of State. The office coordinates the Department of State’s diplomatic, family, congressional, and external engagements related to overseas hostage-taking and wrongful detention.
What We Do
SPEHA’s mission is to lead and partner with an inclusive coalition of government and private sector organizations to secure the freedom of U.S. national hostages and wrongful detainees held abroad, support their families, and end the practice of hostage-taking and wrongful detention as coercive diplomatic practices. We do this through diplomatic outreach; family and victim engagement and support; interagency coordination; case review, planning, and management; policy development; Levinson Act implementation; Congressional and media engagement, and non-governmental partner engagement with private sector advocates and experts.
Hostage-taking is defined in Executive Order 13698 (June 24, 2015) as the unlawful abduction or holding of a U.S. national against their will by a non-state actor in order to compel a third person or governmental organization to do or abstain from doing any act as a condition for the release of the person detained (with or without a ransom demand).
Wrongful Detention is defined in the Levinson Act (December 27, 2020), and incorporated into Department of State guidance, as the detention of a U.S. national, including Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs), when certain criteria are met.
- Most cases of U.S. nationals arrested or detained overseas arise out of legitimate law enforcement and judicial processes.
- In rare instances, the circumstances of the charges or the detention may be such that the United States would regard the foreign government’s ongoing incarceration of the U.S. national as “wrongful.”
- In assessing whether a U.S. national is wrongfully detained by a foreign government, the Department of State looks at the totality of the circumstances, any may consider factors including, but not limited to, the fairness of the judicial process, the veracity of the charges, and motivation or other circumstances surrounding or related to the arrest or the detention.
- Executive Order 13698 of June 24, 2015 (Hostage Recovery Activities) and Presidential Policy Directive 30 of June 24, 2015 (U.S. Nationals Taken Hostage Abroad and Personnel Recovery Efforts) (PPD-30) were issued by President Obama in 2015 after the Obama Administration called for a review of the U.S. government response to overseas hostage taking. PPD-30 and E.O. 13698 reshaped the way the U.S. government handles overseas hostage takings and placed special emphasis on improving its ability to support the families of U.S. hostages. PPD-30 and E.O. 13698 established the U.S. government’s hostage recovery enterprise consisting of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs (State Department), the Hostage Response Group (NSC), and the interagency Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell (located at FBI headquarters).
- The Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act (the Levinson Act), signed into law on December 27, 2020, as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 (P.L. 116-260), codifies key elements of hostage and wrongful detention policy and provides a framework for the Secretary of State to review cases and make wrongful detention determinations where appropriate. The Levinson Act, named in honor of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, abducted in Iran and the longest held hostage in U.S. history.
- Executive Order No. 14078 of July 19, 2022 (Bolstering Efforts to Bring Hostages and Wrongfully Detained United States Nationals Home) was issued by President Biden to expand the tools available to deter and disrupt hostage-taking and wrongful detentions by creating new ways to impose costs on terrorist organizations, criminal groups, and other malicious actors who take hostages for financial, political, or other gains and thus threaten the integrity of the international political system and the safety of U.S. nationals and other persons abroad.