CIA director held 'secret negotiations' with Syria's spy chief over hostage journalist

CIA director held 'secret negotiations' with Syria's spy chief over hostage journalist
New report reveals how CIA chief Mike Pompeo's effort to secure an American hostage collapsed after Washington accused Damascus of carrying out chemical attacks.
2 min read
24 June, 2017
CIA chief Mike Pompeo held the talk with Ali Mamlouk in February [Getty]
The CIA's director held secret negotiations with Syria's intelligence chief earlier this year as part of an effort to free an American journalist, The New York Times reported on Friday.

The phone conversation between CIA boss Mike Pompeo and Syria's Ali Mamlouk occurred in February, the newspaper reported, citing unidentified American officials.

The subject of their conversation was Austin Tice, a former Marine who has reported for The Washington Post, McClatchy Newspapers, CBS and other outlets. Tice was taken hostage in the Arab country five years ago.

While further communications followed, the Times reported that the diplomatic effort collapsed after the US accused Syrian President Bashar Assad's government of killing dozens of civilians in a sarin gas attack in April.

US President Donald Trump responded at the time by launching some 60 cruise missiles at a Syrian air base.

The Pompeo-Mamlouk call would represent the highest-level communication between the two governments in years.

The call is considered surprising by some pundits, given the widespread allegations of Mamlouk's culpability in human rights atrocities in Syria's civil war. Mamlouk has been subject to US sanctions since 2011.

The CIA declined to comment on the matter.

Tice disappeared in 2002 while working near Damascus, shortly after his 31st birthday.

A month after his kidnapping, a video was released showing him blindfolded, being held by armed men and saying "Oh, Jesus." He has not been heard from since, though the US said Syria's government might be holding him.

No nation or group has come forward saying it has Tice. Syria's deputy foreign minister told The Associated Press last year that Tice "is not in the hands of Syrian authorities."

The report of the secret talks came after US officials confirmed a separate set of unpublicized negotiations with North Korea to free another American in captivity, Otto Warmbier. The 22-year-old University of Virginia student, who fell into a coma during his captivity, died Monday after he returned to the US last week.

The two "back channel" efforts show the Trump administration's willingness to engage in secret diplomacy with some of America's most intractable foes. Trump has threatened North Korea with the possibility of pre-emptive attack as it nears the capacity to strike the US mainland with a nuclear-tipped missile.

The US considers Assad's government in Syria a state sponsor of terrorism that provides critical help to anti-US and anti-Israel groups such as Hezbollah.