The Biden administration believes there are “20 or more Americans” missing from Israel as of Tuesday, but that number does not necessarily reflect the number of hostages in Hamas custody at this time, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said.
“We do not know about their condition, and we cannot confirm a precise number of American citizens,” Sullivan said during Tuesday’s White House press briefing.
President Joe Biden confirmed that 14 Americans were among those killed during Hamas’ attack over the weekend and he said that US citizens are among those held hostage by Hamas in Gaza.
"We will work hour by hour, both to determine whether we can account for any of those Americans, or to confirm exactly what the number of Americans are being held hostage, and we will come back to you with that information as soon as we have it,” Sullivan said. “As you know, very sadly and tragically, the number of dead has risen with each passing hour, and that's true of the total number, it's also true of Americans, which has gone up just today from an earlier report this morning of 12 and 13 — now 14.”
Sullivan declined to weigh in on the possibility of a ground incursion into Gaza and how that might affect American hostages.
"I'm not going to get into the operational discussions that the president and the prime minister had," he said, referring to a phone call between Biden and Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. "That is important for them to be able to keep in his discreet channel between them."
White House National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby called on Hamas to release the hostages.
"They belong to be freed. We call on Hamas to release them now," Kirby told CNN's Wolf Blitzer. "Short of that, we're going to do everything we can to get them back with their families."
Kirby said the US doesn't have much information about the hostages right now, noting that an active war zone makes recovering them much more difficult.
The first step is communicating with the Israelis, he said.
"They're on the ground, they're closer to it, they have contacts that we probably could benefit from," he said. "We're having active conversations with the Israelis about what they're seeing, what they possibly know."
Kirby acknowledged the Israelis are very good at hostage recovery but confirmed the US has offered members of the US military, law enforcement and intelligence community to help with the hostage situation.
Earlier, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that the US has military special operators who “are going to help” the Israeli military “with intelligence and planning” for potential operations regarding hostages taken by Hamas.