State's cold shoulder

Posted: Jan 27, 2003 12:00 AM
Larry Synclair, whose seven-year-old son Larry Jr. was abducted to Russia in 1999, was cautiously optimistic as he read a letter with the State Department's logo on it. The freshly installed head of Consular Affairs (CA), Maura Harty, had written agreeing to meet with him "either here in Washington or in a city closer to your home." As often happens in child-abduction cases, State officials had practically ignored Synclair's wishes and concerns for several years, choosing non-forceful diplomacy over any sort of "disruptive" action. But, Synclair said, it seemed to him that the letter in his hand perhaps represented "the light at the end of a nightmarish tunnel." It didn't. What Synclair got was a form letter, which was sent to all the other parents of kids kidnapped to foreign lands — all except the biggest troublemaker of the bunch, Pat Roush. In a drive to overcome the significant opposition to her nomination last fall, Harty pledged to Congress that she would be a champion for parents of abducted children — a promise she was driven to make thanks to her unenviable record in two stints of running the Office of Children's Issues (OCI), the division within CA responsible for foreign kidnapping cases. In July, even before Harty's nomination had been sent to the Senate, two dozen parents made an impassioned plea to the White House to scuttle the appointment, but to no avail. Loudest among Harty's critics was Roush, whose two daughters, Alia and Aisha, were kidnapped from their suburban Chicago home in 1986 by their Saudi national father. Roush made clear to anyone who would listen that Harty was the wrong person for the job. In a letter to President Bush, Roush wrote that Harty's record as head of OCI was "one of indifference bordering on hostility towards the interests of parents of abducted children." Prior to Harty's confirmation as assistant secretary of state for Consular Affairs, officials there at least went through the motions with Roush. But once Harty's tenure had begun, her office stopped even pretending to seek the safe return of Alia and Aisha. It's easy to understand why Harty might view Roush as an annoyance — but less easy to fathom how she justifies having left Roush off of the form letter list. CA spokeswoman Kelly Shannon explained that Roush's case is considered closed for the purposes of Children's Issues, and that a letter to Roush — the woman who had pushed for OCI's creation — was therefore unwarranted. OCI considers Roush’s case “closed” in large part because the House of Saud does—and Harty seems perfectly willing to follow the Saudi lead. Still, even if Roush had received the letter, she probably would have felt just as frustrated as many of the other parents did. "We got so many calls from very angry parents after the letter went out," explains a senior official at CA. Most of the parents were upset, the CA official explains, "because they thought the letter was promising personal meetings with Maura; but that's never going to happen." Synclair was one of the parents who believed he would be allowed to meet one-on-one with the head of CA. His hope quickly disintegrated, however, once he realized the form letter was, as he puts it, "nothing more than a PR ploy." Meetings in Washington "are still in the planning stages," says Shannon, and there are no plans at this time for any meetings outside the beltway. But since Harty will not cover the travel expenses for the parents — most of whom are short of funds from having spent so much money trying to recover their abducted children — only a few of them are likely to make the trek to Washington when, or if, a meeting occurs. Despite the official line that a meeting with Harty will happen, Synclair is doubtful at best. And much as he wants to see his son again, he's become convinced that Harty will not be the person to get the boy back: "When I responded to the letter, I never heard from Ms. Harty again. That's when I noticed someone turned out the light in the tunnel."