WASHINGTON — The U.S. hostage envoy said Tuesday that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had directed him to open talks with Syria to ask for help finding and repatriating Americans detained there, in a rebuttal to a contention by the mother of one missing American that Pompeo was impeding her son’s release.

Roger Carstens, the presidential envoy for hostage affairs, confirmed in a statement that Pompeo told him this summer to request the Syrian government’s assistance in bringing home journalist Austin Tice, who was abducted at a checkpoint eight years ago, and other U.S. citizens imprisoned in the country.

Carstens acknowledged traveling to Syria with Kash Patel, the counterterrorism chief at the National Security Council, in what he characterized as “the first direct U.S. diplomatic engagement in 10 years.” The two countries have no direct relations.

The defense of Pompeo and his role in seeking freedom for U.S. citizens wrongfully held abroad came one day after Debra Tice accused him of “undermining” President Donald Trump’s efforts to negotiate with Damascus. Angered by Pompeo’s statement last week that he tries to “compartmentalize” prisoner issues from foreign policy issues, Tice said Pompeo was effectively saying that “there is nothing that he is willing to do to bring my son home.”

The State Department did not initially respond to Debra Tice, as Pompeo is traveling in Asia. But Carstens’s statement reflected the tightrope between defending a key administration official while beating back the words of an anguished mother.

“What she has endured over the last eight years since Austin disappeared is simply unfathomable to me, and her efforts to bring Austin home inspire me as I struggle to obtain the release of all detained Americans around the world,” Carstens said. “However, I disagree respectfully with her conclusion.


“Contrary to what Mrs. Tice has written and stated, Secretary Pompeo has been unwavering in his efforts to bring Austin Tice home — in his capacities as the former Director of the CIA and now as the Secretary of State.”

Carstens described the venture as risky but said Pompeo ordered him to proceed, and national security adviser Robert O’Brien authorized Patel to join him.

“The Secretary knew full well that Iran had vowed to get revenge for the U.S. strike that resulted in the death of Iranian General Soleimani — so sending two senior administration officials into Syria required him to weigh the cost versus benefit of retrieving Austin should things go wrong,” Carstens said. “Secretary Pompeo assumed that risk and ordered us to go.”

O’Brien, who was the U.S. hostage envoy before becoming national security adviser, also weighed in with a statement describing Pompeo’s role as “critical.” He said that “on multiple occasions, the Secretary has shown his propensity to play a direct role or to empower his staff to take the necessary steps to facilitate the release of our citizens.”

“The President and I have full confidence that the Secretary will continue to play a critical, productive role as we look to return those who remain held abroad back to their family and friends,” O’Brien said.