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Nearly 10 years since Austin Tice disappeared, his family has not given up hope

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

On the bulletin board above my desk, I keep a small pin. It says free Austin Tice. His parents handed me that pen, and I have kept it ever since. Austin Tice is a journalist. This coming Sunday, August 14, will mark 10 years since he was detained at a checkpoint in Syria. All we have seen of him since is a video that surfaced five weeks later in which Tice appears blindfolded and bound, surrounded by men with guns. His parents have never stopped looking for him, and they say there's evidence to suggest he is alive. Earlier this week, Debra Tice, Austin's mom, came to NPR headquarters in Washington to speak with me again, and I noticed she was wearing her pin.

DEBRA TICE: This is a new one.

KELLY: Bring home.

TICE: Bring Austin home.

KELLY: Bring Austin home.

TICE: And this is the new campaign. This was started by The Washington Post.

KELLY: Who he wrote for.

TICE: Yes, he did. And they raised a banner on their building that says bring Austin home. And I was able to be there when they put that up. It was really great.

KELLY: In terms of what you know about Austin, I imagine any parent would understand your need to keep hope alive and how desperately you want that to be true. But you say you have evidence that that is, in fact, true. Can you share what you know?

TICE: Well, I mean, it's intel. That's basically about as much as I can say you about it.

KELLY: From the U.S. government.

TICE: Both ways, some from the American government. And I think the fact that we have no news is truly good news because I do believe if there were any kind of news, someone who cares for me would make sure that I knew.

KELLY: You handed me that pin four years ago when I first interviewed you, along with your husband, Marc, Austin's dad. And I have a few of the same questions now that I did then. Again - and I don't want to pin you down in any way that would jeopardize any negotiations underway for his release - but do you know for sure that he's in Syria?

TICE: He is in Syria. That is a certainty. And he is - he's definitely being held with a government-related entity.

KELLY: So some kind of group or entity...

TICE: Affiliated - right.

KELLY: ...With ties to the government of Bashar al-Assad.

TICE: Yeah. Yeah.

KELLY: I'm thinking about how you and your family are on your third American president trying to work on this. I know you were dealing with the Obama administration and then the Trump administration and now Biden. How engaged is the Biden administration in trying to get your son home?

TICE: Our best engagement is through the National Security Council. You know, they're in the White House. So that's a good place to have our best connection. I think you know how we got a meeting with the president - that I was in the audience at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. So then when the president stood up to speak, he pointed to me and said...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Mom, I'd like to meet you and Dad to talk about your son.

TICE: We feel fairly certain that the president was very much off script when he said that. And so that was Saturday night. And we had our meeting in his office Monday afternoon.

KELLY: And I know President Biden has just issued a statement marking the 10th anniversary of Austin's detention. What's your reaction when your read it? What did you think?

TICE: I think we're finally on the right track. There are things in this that really touched my heart.

KELLY: You've got a copy of the statement in front of you. Like, what touches your heart in it? Read me along.

TICE: Well, I really appreciate that the president understands that Austin is an investigative journalist who put the truth above himself. To me, that feels so much like he really knows Austin's character. And that means a lot to me. That's in the first paragraph. And the president's calling on Syria to end this and help us bring him home. Help us bring him home. I like that collaborative language because it is going to take both. And I appreciate the acknowledgment of that.

KELLY: A line from President Biden's statement that I was struck by was this one. Quote, "There is no higher priority in my administration than the recovery and return of Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad." You know, I have thought of you, Mrs. Tice, often as we have reported on other high-profile detentions of Americans overseas. The case of WNBA star Brittney Griner in Russia right now is making headlines - obviously, a very different situation from your son's. But I have wondered what goes through your mind as you follow these other cases.

TICE: Every effort to bring someone home raises the water for everyone else that wants to come home. And so I can tell you that that when I saw the news so early in the morning that Trevor Reed was free...

KELLY: Another American who'd been held in Russia.

TICE: Yes. And I was just, hallelujah, good brother. You know, you just paved a highway for Austin because you showed that we can engage, that we can negotiate, and that we can make a concession. These are things I've been told for nine years cannot happen. So what are we lacking in Austin's case? It must be the will.

KELLY: It sounds as though after 10 years of what I'm sure has been hell every day, you sound as determined and hopeful and actually like there is some progress, like things are moving.

TICE: I do believe things are moving now. Keeping in mind that we're almost 3 1/2 months from our meeting with the president, we had certainly expected that we would have him home before August 14. Whatever it is that Austin does to keep time, on Sunday, Austin will have to know it's been 10 years. And that is one of the deepest pains that I've felt over all of this time because he should not be there now. So I am. I'm more hopeful than I've been in a very long time.

KELLY: Debra Tice, thank you.

TICE: Thank you so much, Mary Louise. Thank you for making this time.

KELLY: Debra Tice - her son, the journalist Austin Tice, was kidnapped in Syria 10 years ago this week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.