Parents of U.S. journalist who went missing in Syria want answers

Hostage family frustrated with U.S.
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Story highlights

  • State Department says Washington is in awe of family's courage, tenacity
  • Freelance journalist Austin Tice has been missing in Syria since 2012
  • His parents express frustration over lack of information from U.S.
  • The Tices have traveled to Lebanon three times to get information
For a year after her journalist son went missing in Syria in 2012, Debra Tice kept calling his cell phone. It would ring and ring. Nothing. She would send Austin Tice messages on Facebook. No response.
"It's excruciating," Tice's father, Marc, told CNN on Monday at their Houston home. The void of not knowing what happened to their son or who has him is a "constant presence."
All they know is that he was abducted in a Damascus suburb.
His absence haunts them. When they try to relax and do something normal in life, some small pleasure, there is an immediate feeling that they should be writing another letter, making another call or searching for some thread they haven't pulled that may be hidden in the extensive notes they've accumulated over the years they have searched.
When Debra Tice insists that her son will be found, she speaks firmly, her eyes intently fixed, voice firm and clear.
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"There has never been a moment of questioning that he's coming home," she said.
That state of mind keeps despair at bay, and she won't waver from faith.
But could ISIS, the vicious militant group that has beheaded two other American journalists, have him?
The Tices don't know for sure, but say they don't think that's the case.
There has been no communication or ransom requests from the captors to the Tices -- a tactic ISIS has previously used in the abductions of other journalists.
That is what leads the Tices to believe ISIS does not have their son.
Even contemplating a scenario like that is unbearable to them.
"If we start thinking about that ... the pit of despair has no depth," Debra Tice said. "It's an abyss."
Video of Tice
Only one clue has emerged since the disappearance of the 33-year-old, who is also a former U.S. Marine captain.
A shaky 47-second video uploaded to YouTube in September 2012 showed him blindfolded, apparently being walked through rocky terrain by men carrying guns.
At that time, the State Department said Tice was believed to be in the custody of the Syrian government -- but the regime of President Bashar al-Assad did not say it was detaining him.
His parents said this week that they've been told by the Syrian government that their son is not in its detention facilities.
Tice was freelancing for McClatchy and The Washington Post, filing stories for them starting in May 2012.
His Twitter posts and pictures on the photo-sharing site Flickr drew thousands of followers.
In July 2012, Tice appeared on CNN's "Global Public Square" to talk about what he saw in Syria. He was then a law student and spending his summer reporting on the war.
He described being embedded with a rebel group fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and seeing that the government's helicopters fly so high it seemed impossible that fighters could aim their missiles. He also said that he witnessed hostile fire that seemed random and badly aimed from al-Assad's tanks and troops.
He was last publicly heard from via Twitter on August 11 of that year, saying that he spent the day with Free Syrian Army rebels who were fighting to oust al-Assad from power.
Tice tweeted that he enjoyed a good time at a pool party.
"They even brought me whiskey. Hands down, best birthday ever," he posted.
Parents on a mission
The Tices have traveled, at their own expense, to Lebanon to meet with people who they felt might help them find their son, they told CNN.
They made three trips to Beirut, they said, and did not want to specify exactly whom they talked with, referring only to "folks" in "channels that are credible."
They said the most complete information they've received about their son -- including that he is alive -- has come from sources other than those in the United States. They have worked to cultivate those sources.
They expressed extreme frustration with U.S. government "policies" that they said keep people in the U.S. government from giving them information about their son.
The parents have repeatedly been told that they need security clearance to hear information that officials have.
"We don't want to be treated like we're a security risk," Marc Tice said. "Who else has more motivation to be careful about information about our son?"
"We've asked repeatedly, 'What is it that we need to do to enable you to share this information with us?'" Debra Tice said she told U.S. officials, without saying which officials specifically.
The parents have been told "we'll get back to you," she said.
Marc Tice said the process has been "terribly frustrating," adding that he feels that there are many in the U.S. government that the parents have dealt with who genuinely seem to empathize and want to help the Tices.
But the Tices want to be clear. They aren't concerned with changing policy. They have a singular focus.
"We want to get our son home safely," Debra Tice said.
A spokeswoman for the State Department said Wednesday that the family's frustration is "understandable and heartbreaking."
"No parent should ever endure the Tice family's anguish. We are in awe of their courage and tenacity in doing everything in their power to bring Austin home," Jen Psaki said. "The government provides all of the information we can to families in these circumstances without jeopardizing our efforts to bring Austin home safely or putting at risk the intelligence sources on which we depend for our national security."
She said several U.S. agencies had been working for Austin Tice's release, though their efforts couldn't be discussed publicly.
A 'strong guy'
The Tices have talked to people who have been held hostage and freed. The parents are comforted to hear how much it means to those former captives when they realize how hard and constant their families' fight to find them was.
"It's about faith," Debra Tice said.
Marc Tice said his son is a "strong guy" with a "strong mind, a strong body," which gives him confidence that whatever his son is enduring, he will somehow find a way through.
Austin Tice loves the people of the Middle East, his parents said. Since he was a child, he has been curious. He wanted to know how people lived. He wanted to explore the world.
He felt compelled to go to Syria because he was frustrated hearing time and again, during media coverage of the civil war, that reports could not be verified.
Al-Assad often blocked foreign journalists from covering the conflict and many journalists steered away from the war because the violence was so intense and often directed at them.
"He thought, 'Really, I have the ability to stay safe,'" Marc Tice said.
His son, he said, felt it was a "calling" to go.