Rob Saale was the director of the U.S. Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, an interagency group housed at the FBI, between 2017 and 2019. In that capacity, he oversaw the coordination of government if.forts and policies to facilitate the recovery of American hostages held abroad. He managed multiple incident aspects, including intelligence coordination, operational response, family engagement, oversight of the media and legislative affairs, as well as strategy development.
During his 23-year career with the FBI, Saale was involved in or had responsibility for international criminal and national security investigations of public corruption and violent criminal, white collar, and counterterrorism violations.
Saale is currently the president of STAR Consulting and Investigations, an international security consulting firm he founded.
CTC: This past June marked the fourth anniversary of the creation of the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell at the FBI, an organization you led before you retired from the FBI. Can you tell us about what that organization is and why it was created?
Saale: So, the Cell was created after the debacle with the families of the ISIS hostages-Jim Foley, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig, and Kayla Mueller. There was a combination of factors that led to the issues between their families and the government. There was stove-piping of information on the intelligence side and fights between different [U.S. government] agencies on how to handle the issue. Families were treated poorly by the U.S. government across the board. They were told if they paid a ransom, they'd be prosecuted. They did not have information shared with them and were held at arm's length. There was a big outrage about the treatment of the families. Diane Foley [Jim Foley's mother] really led that charge. And the [Obama] administration realized that they had handled the whole affair poorly, and so, to their credit, they conducted a hostage review. That review was only supposed to last 90 days but ended up lasting close to a year, and [it] assessed the state of the hostage enterprise at the time and how to make it better. The result was Presidential Policy Directive-30 (PPD-30), which established the current hostage recovery enterprise. (1)
The three pieces of that enterprise currently are the Hostage Response Group (HRG), the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell (HRFC), and the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs (SPERA) at the Department of State. The HRG is the sub-deputies' group at the National Security Council led by the Senior Advisor to the President for Counterterrorism. The HRG is the arbitrator of disputes between the interagency [for handling hostage cases] and approves policies and recovery strategies that are brought to it by the Fusion Cell. The Fusion Cell is responsible for coordinating both recovery efforts and efforts to support the families. Additionally, the Fusion Cell is responsible for making sure that intelligence is being shared among the interagency. The Special Presidential Envoy is the diplomatic arm for this. So that enterprise is really three pieces working together. The Cell is developing recovery strategies and ensuring that the operational nuts and bolts are all coming together; the HRG is a vehicle to quickly make time-sensitive decisions about hostage recoveries; and the SPERA is the diplomatic arm.
The Fusion Cell has five main components. It has (I) an intelligence component with representation from across the intelligence community; (2) an operational component with representation from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), State Department Diplomatic Security Service, Department of Treasury, the Department of Defense (DoD) broadly, as well as specific representation from the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA) and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC); (3) a family engagement team with FBI Victim's Specialists and State Department Consular Affairs, operational psychologists, and a FBI crisis negotiator; (4) the external engagement team, which has an external engagement coordinator, a media coordinator, a legislative coordinator; and then finally (5) a legal team, the DoJ [Department of Justice] attorney. All these groups are under the leadership team, which consists of the Fusion Cell's director and two deputies, which could come from one of three organizations--State, FBI, or DoD.
CTC: As the HRFC was being stood up, it was also given an operational role in managing hostage cases. I can only imagine that there were a lot of challenges in creating new processes and interagency collaboration while still managing active cases. By the time you took over, the HRFC was just under two years old. What were some of the priorities you focused on and some of the organizational challenges you had to overcome?
Saale: By the time I got there, the Cell's processes for responding to cases and how they engaged with families were pretty well developed. What I found was that a lot of that institutional knowledge was just in people's heads; it hadn't been codified anywhere. So that was my first priority, making sure those standard operating procedures and processes were codified and developed into a resource for the next generation to use. My next priority was dealing with some of the less urgent yet still important parts of PPD-30. Prevention, for instance, is important, but not much had been done on that front because of the need to get the Fusion Cell up and running. Prevention is more than just regurgitating State Department travel warnings and telling people not to travel. Prevention could be identifying, dismantling, disrupting--through law enforcement means or kinetic means--some of these captor networks and facilitators to cut back on the number of hostage-takings. Part of that as well is the prosecution aspect. We tried to address those areas outside of the day-to-day process of running cases and outreach to the external partners.
CTC: The hostages taken by the Islamic State weren't the first U.S. citizens to be taken hostage by terrorist groups. The United States had to deal with a rash of kidnappings and hostage-takings during operations in Iraq in the period after the 2003 U.S. invasion. Do you think the fact that many people involved with those events were no longer working in government-the lack of institutional knowledge that you mentioned--contributed to the challenges that the government had in responding in the Islamic State cases?
Saale: Absolutely. In late 2011 through 2013, I was up at FBI headquarters running the violent gang unit that managed all the [FBI's] gang cases at the programmatic level, but then I moved to the Violent Crime Unit. Part of their program management responsibilities were extraterritorial criminal kidnappings. At that time, it was really just being given lip service. All the Bureau was doing was tracking cases, for the most part. They weren't trying to actively manage those cases at the headquarters level. At individual field offices, it would vary, but at the headquarters level, it wasn't being done. When we had Jessica Buchanan taken hostage by Somali pirates in October 2011, we began pulling together an ad hoc group that met on a weekly basis and focused on that one case. I like to call it the grandfather of the Fusion Cell because it had many of the same components that the Fusion Cell had. It was very personality-driven and involved developing a lot of relationships, and at the end of the day, we were successful in getting her rescued. (a) What PPD-30 did was take the personality aspect and the individual relationship component out and codified those processes and institutionalized those relationships so that when people left their...