David Bradley is the quintessential American self-made man whose generosity of spirit and money apparently belies the intelligence, tenacity and skill of a street fighter, according to a stunning 25,000-word New Yorker piece released Wednesday.
The owner of Atlantic Media is the quiet, persistent protagonist of “Five Hostages,” a detailed chronicle of how five families of U.S. hostages banded together because they felt abandoned by their government.
In Bradley, they found a kindred soul who knew about tragedy in war after losing journalist Michael Kelly near the start of the second Iraq War. Kelly died in a Humvee during an accident in what was a huge loss for Bradley and National Journal, which he owns. Kelly was the first journalist to die in the conflict and the pain was personal and professional for Bradley.
It helps explain his deep, abiding and largely secret involvement in helping five families of hostages, including journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
Bradley, 62, who owns The Atlantic, National Journal and Quartz, among other properties, is pale, nearly bald but “his courtly demeanor disguises considerable ambition and persistence,” according to the New Yorker’s story.
That persistence prompted an aggressive, organized, largely futile effort to free U.S. hostages held by ISIS. The failed effort underscores weaknesses in how the government handles such situations.The lengthy chronicle by Lawrence Wright is of the roller coaster emotional ride taken by families, including those of journalist Steve Sotloff and James Foley.
According to Wright, it all began on May 14, 2014 in Bradley’s fancy Georgian home along Embassy Row in Washington, D.C. as he hosted five families of hostages Foley, Sotloff, Kayla Mueller, Peter Kassig and Theo Padnos, “each harboring a grave secret.” Unknown to the world, they were parents of Americans kidnapped in Syria and had been warned by the Federal Bureau of Investigation not to discuss the matter publicly.
Bradley was drawn into the endeavor by the 2011 kidnapping of a freelancer, Clare Gillis, who had done work for The Atlantic. He succeeded in getting her group, which included freelancer Foley, freed by forces loyal to the government of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi.
Foley sent a thank you note to Bradley. “After Foley was freed in the first kidnapping, his relatives joked about hiding his passport,” reports Wright.
But a year and a half later, he was captured again and, soon, his parents had doubts about the FBI. They kept telling the family not to do anything and to trust them. “And telling us that our kid is their highest priority. Which we didn’t believe,” says John, the father.
It was then that Diane Foley, the mother, asked Bradley if he could put together another team.
Bradley initially sought out contacts, notably diplomats and journalists, who knew fixers in the region who could deal with Syria’s Assad regime
But it was soon clear that the regime didn’t have Foley. In fact, it was increasingly apparently that he was in the north, perhaps held hostage by ISIS.
All along the interpersonal dynamics among the families were complicated and included at least one family’s doubts about Bradley himself.
Carl and Marsha Mueller liked the other parents assembled by Bradley but, for Carl, “Bradley seemed like something out of a comic-book fantasy: a person with vast resources who could summon powerful people at will. And, given that Bradley was the publisher of The Atlantic, he wondered: Was this just an elaborate way of getting a story?”
It is no surprise that a central and frustrating dispute between the families and the administration during secretive discussions involved ransoms. The U.S. government policy is not to pay. That is not for some other Western nations, which obviously rankled the families.
According to Wright, officials were blunt on this score. “Colonel Mark Mitchell, the director of counter terrorism at the National Security Council, warned the families that they risked prosecution if they paid terrorists or tried to persuade an allied power to do so.”
He quotes John Foley, father of James, as saying, “I’d rather be in prison myself and have Jimmy home.”
Arguable holes in the government’s logic and policy were apparent, even as it insisted that paying ransoms simply emboldened terrorists.
“This was the logic behind U.S. policy, and yet the government has paid ransoms to criminal organizations, such as drug cartels,” Wright notes.
“Every Federal Reserve branch in the U.S. maintains a stash of bills to be used to pay ransoms. Corporations routinely take out ransom insurance for employees stationed abroad, and the F.B.I. even facilitates such payments. It’s only when the kidnappers are part of an acknowledged terrorist group that payments become illegal.”
And it wasn’t the terrorists alone who sought money. As Wright makes clear, various intermediaries and fixers wanted some, too.
Wright underscores mutual suspicions between Bradley and the government, with the latter finding the wealthy publisher an amateur even as he kept up the project, traveled widely and enlisted many talented people to help. For example, he hired one West Coast lawyer to go to Afghanistan and study insurgencies.
But his efforts were clearly prodigious and admirable even if, in most cases, unsuccessful.
No surprise, Theo Padnos, a hostage who was released, “remains burdened by the fact that he remains alive” and stays in touch with his former captors in the hope he might help other hostages.
In the end, what is one to think of Bradley?
I know some in Washington who have found his gentility and grace feigned and artificial. But at least one friend who has worked closely with him later realized something different: Bradley was trying to live these aspirations in a world where they are increasingly absent.
I’ve written for The Atlantic but never met Bradley. The New Yorker piece should do little to minimize that very positive impression or other reasons to admire the guy.