OTR Interviews

Parents of murdered journalist James Foley: We were told we'd go to jail for ransom bid, learned about his execution from a crying reporter

This is a rush transcript from "On the Record," September 12, 2014. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS HOST: You will only see it here, ON THE RECORD. The parents of beheaded American journalist, James Foley, in their first joint interview. Diane and John Foley talk candidly about finding out their son was executed by ISIS. Plus they tell us how the U.S. government threatened them with possible prosecution if they paid ransom to bring their son home, and how they are turning their deep grief into a project to help others. You will hear it all straight from the Foleys. Today, we spoke with them at their New Hampshire home.


VAN SUSTEREN: Thank you very much for letting me come here.


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DIANE FOLEY, MOTHER OF JAMES FOLEY: Thank you for coming here, Greta.

VAN SUSTEREN: It's so hard to talk to grieving parents. It's part of what we do in our work, regrettably. So I want to start sort of like talking about your son. What was he like? If I just met you for the first time in the grocery store and I said, what's your son, James, like?

DIANE FOLEY: Well, that's quite a question, Greta. James was always a child full of joy, full of adventure. Loved to read, loved to play. He was always a very friendly person. He had many friends from the time he was real youngster. He had a very privileged childhood in the sense we were a middle class American family. He grew up with his four siblings, lot of love.

JOHN FOLEY: Small town.

DIANE FOLEY: Small town.

JOHN FOLEY: New Hampshire.

DIANE FOLEY: A lot of people cared for him. However, I think as he grew up, and particularly when he went to Marquette and worked in the inner city there, he started to see that there was another side of humanity, that there were a lot of kids who grew up without parents and in poverty. That's where he started to really develop in terms of the person he became. The more suffering he saw, the bigger his heart grew. He became really compelled to make a difference, whether it was in Teach for America or later when he chose to become a journalist.

JOHN FOLEY: The only person in the world who could get a parking ticket with a scooter.


He just could light up a room. And he was a very, very active listener.

DIANE FOLEY: Journalism seemed to merge his desire to give voice to those who don't have a voice, if you will and, at the same time, be able to write, at the same time travel, really learn about other cultures and other places in the world. It kind of merged all his interests, Greta.

VAN SUSTEREN: What do you think he would say about the fact that you have now formed a foundation to help young journalists in light of what happened to James?

DIANE FOLEY: We hope to carry on his legacy. That's our biggest desire. We hope this foundation can be a voice for people who have no voice, be they poor children, freelance journalists like he was or kidnapped Americans around the world. We feel -- we hope this foundation can be part of the solution to some of those issues in a small way.

VAN SUSTEREN: What are you calling it?

JOHN FOLEY: James Foley Legacy Fund. And we believe he has a lot to continue. He was a kind soul and cared for everyone, both in prison and outside. And in we feel if he had survived, we believe he would want to do anything he possibly could to support current hostages, hostage families, so this will be our major effort to work on this issue.

VAN SUSTEREN: When he was overseas, he was also captured in Libya. And when he came back, did he talk to you about the people there? Was this sort of -- was his mission to sort of help people or was it journalism? What was it about him?

DIANE FOLEY: When he came back, he just told us how beautiful the Libyan people were. I remember when he called from prison in Libya and telling me how good they were to him.


DIANE FOLEY: Yeah, that he they were treating him -- yeah. Like they were treating him like a guest in the prison, the fellow prisoners were.



DIANE FOLEY: In Libya. This is Libya. They were political prisoners when he was in prison at that time. So Jim -- and even in Syria, I think he was compelled to be there and see what was happening, give voice to the people struggling for freedom, give voice to the civilians in the middle of the war.

JOHN FOLEY: He loved the Syrian people. He really loved them. They fed him, they housed him.

DIANE FOLEY: Exactly. He raised money for an ambulance in Aleppo because he was so struck by children being, you know, wounded people.

JOHN FOLEY: Arriving to the hospital in taxis and the back of trucks.

DIANE FOLEY: Right. Yes.

JOHN FOLEY: So he wanted to be part of the solution, not just describing the problem. He was a humanitarian as well as a journalist or videographer.

VAN SUSTEREN: The issue of ransom, it's a very controversial issue.

JOHN FOLEY: Yeah, the issue of ransom -- well, in our mind is a pivotal concern. It's a difficult decision. It's not just something one country can decide. We hope that, in time, there will be a multi-national, international dialogue. It will help us address the inconsistency of one country paying, others not. It was difficult for Jimmy to see the European hostages be released. They knew, as Americans and Brits, that they would be the last because of their country's policy. But there must be a better way to deal with this. I mean, I don't want to pay money to jihadist groups or other terrorists that continue their existence, but I sure do want my son home. Maybe there are other alternatives. Some negotiation may be better than none. And there might be other valuable assets that could be traded.

DIANE FOLEY: We really want to be part of the solution, Greta. We feel that there has to be some way, and that American citizens should be valuable. And I would hope the James W. Foley Foundation can hopefully stimulate that dialogue with our government and internationally so that we can protect our citizens and so that hostage families can have resources, can be supported, can know what can be done, what can not. We felt like we were starting from scratch. We had no idea what we were doing, Greta.

JOHN FOLEY: I will be very honest, if Jim hadn't been in Syria, I might not have been as pro-ransom/negotiation, et cetera. But when it's your own son and you have not been told that other activities were going on that might mitigate the situation, what do we as family have left? We had no other alternatives. And we began to race raise ransom.



DIANE FOLEY: In hopes of negotiating, yeah.

JOHN FOLEY: In terms of pledges. We didn't actually handle any money but we asked for people to pledge us donations, if, in fact, we got to a situation where money was asked for. We were told that we might be prosecuted. Big deal. I would rather be in prison here than my son being in prison over there. Nobody has ever been prosecuted for doing that. We were under a great deal of duress. At that point, we really had no misgivings. If that was only avenue open to us, we were going to take it.

DIANE FOLEY: But that's where it was difficult, because we would like, through the foundation, for there to be a better support and dialogue between kidnapped American families and their government. We needed help. People were very sympathetic, Greta. It's not that. People were very kind, listened to us, all that. And they got a lot of information from us. Constantly wanted information from us. We never got any back. So we never had any idea what was being done. We were told they couldn't do prisoner exchange. We were told very clearly we could not raise ransom. That we would go to jail. We would be prosecuted.


JOHN FOLEY: And that they would not negotiate with other countries.


JOHN FOLEY: And the sense was, if we can't do it -- if we won't do it for you, if it's illegal for us to do it for you, we won't change the policy with other countries.

I don't want to say that we weren't being helped --


DIANE FOLEY: Because we were.

JOHN FOLEY: We were.

DIANE FOLEY: Supported.

JOHN FOLEY: But we had no understanding of what level. So one of the things that was missing was a trust, a trust in the FBI, the State Department, with us as hostage families. All I guess we were looking for is some indication other than we can't tell you what was going on. I don't think we would be great leaks. Our goal was to bring our son home, not to make it more difficult for others or ourselves. I just think we need a little more information and a little more trust. We felt outsiders asking favors. I believe in my heart the government was doing the best they could, the best they --


DIANE FOLEY: Well, they thought they were. And I guess that's the thing that concerns me. As I hope they are willing to listen to what the experience was like for our family. And I realize Jim wasn't an important American. To me, he was best of America. But he was not a celebrity. He didn't work for any of the big networks. I understand that. But I would hope all Americans, particularly Americans of courage and compassion, the best of who we are as Americans, would be of value in the sense that I hope our government would work with us so that --

JOHN FOLEY: Going forward.

DIANE FOLEY: Going forward. That's our hope, Greta. We don't want any American family to go through what the Sotloffs that we have. And there's still hostages there. We hope we can begin dialogue. We want to hopefully bring together other former hostage families to see what they think, too. We can't do this alone. We want to be part of the solution.

JOHN FOLEY: It's not a one-family issue. It's not a one-family issue at all.

DIANE FOLEY: It could happen to anybody. It could happen to you, Greta, if you went on assignment. It's awful.

JOHN FOLEY: All we are trying to do is gain trust so we can work as a group to move foreword on this issue, so that other people are not left behind in terms of not getting home or even worse.

DIANE FOLEY: I think -- you know, Greta, it was poignant because the European freed hostages said Jim never gave up hope. He believed our country would enable his freedom in some way, that he was valuable enough just as an American citizen. He believed until the end. And when others were despairing or whatever, Jim insisted that they had to be hopeful. He insisted that our government was doing everything possible and that his family and friends were. He really believed.

JOHN FOLEY: He even told one of the released hostages, you know, I can do another year. I can do another year.

DIANE FOLEY: He can -- he --

JOHN FOLEY: He said, "If that's what it takes, I can do it."

DIANE FOLEY: And because he was American, he was the whipping boy. He was beaten and tortured and starved. We are only finding this out now. Horrible. He endured horrible things in captivity. And the answer we got from our government was just trust. We're working on this. This is going -- you know, Greta? It was hard.

And that's why, as a frantic mother, I did my best, but not enough. But I did my best to -- I just tried. I just tried to be annoying so they wouldn't forget him. I just tried, but I failed. We didn't get the attention until the very end, and it was too late.

JOHN FOLEY: Again, attention is relative. We know the world is very complex. So the country -- our U.S. government had to deal with ISIS, had to deal with other hostages. There were conflicting issues. Bombing to save lives. Many, many lives. Bombing that would affect in a very negative way our son's life and the other hostages. So we are very understanding of all of that. Our questions are, could we have done something earlier before this all came to this point.

DIANE FOLEY: If we could have been part of the dialogue. You know, we weren't. We just weren't, ever.

JOHN FOLEY: And want to be. Please, let's leave this room with a positive altitude. What we want to do is go forward. We don't want to blame our government. They are not the enemy. ISIS is the enemy. What we need to try to do is try figure out some better way so our kids with be released with the Europeans. That's all we want. We want the kids home. You know?

VAN SUSTEREN: When -- you've said you heard from your son -- not your son, but some communication about a week before his death. How did that come? It that an email?

DIANE FOLEY: A horrible email. A horrible email. Again, directed at our government.

VAN SUSTEREN: Top the website?

DIANE FOLEY: The email-- at that point, no. That email came to us, actually.

Didn't it, honey?

JOHN FOLEY: Yeah. We had set up an open email channel so if there was a communication.

DIANE FOLEY: We were just besieging them. We kept sending emails and telling --


JOHN FOLEY: Begging them to contact us.

VAN SUSTEREN: Every day would you send an email?

DIANE FOLEY: No, not that often.

JOHN FOLEY: Every couple weeks. Every two weeks.

DIANE FOLEY: Yeah. Especially toward the end because we were trying -- we finally at that point said, whatever, if we go to jail, we will go to jail, but we will try to raise money, try to negotiate on a humanitarian basis as a family. So we started sending more frequent emails. So we established this other email just for that purpose. And a week before his death, they sent us an email saying that since -- that we had been given many chances to negotiate, to pay, to engage with them. Obviously, our stupid government wasn't going to. It was a degrading letter. And we are the stupid sheep that follow our government and, therefore, James Foley will be the first American to be executed. Oh, and the other thing they mentioned was the bombing, you are bombing our --

JOHN FOLEY: Innocent people.

DIANE FOLEY: -- innocent people.

JOHN FOLEY: So we are going to execute James.

DIANE FOLEY: Right. And --

JOHN FOLEY: Quite honestly, we didn't take it seriously.

DIANE FOLEY: Well, we hoped they were --

JOHN FOLEY: Just beginning. Willing again to start a negotiation.

DIANE FOLEY: We were foolish though. So naive. So naive. We really thought, oh, at least they are reaching out to us. We had raised a bit of money and so we sent an email right back and --

JOHN FOLEY: And we did pass this email on.

VAN SUSTEREN: Who got the email? This --


VAN SUSTEREN: And who read it? Who got it first?


VAN SUSTEREN: You saw it?


VAN SUSTEREN: You told your wife --



VAN SUSTEREN: Family brought into this? Your other children brought into this or just you two?

JOHN FOLEY: Not right away, no.

VAN SUSTEREN: Just you two?

JOHN FOLEY: Just the two of us.

VAN SUSTEREN: What did you do with the email?

DIANE FOLEY: Immediately sent it to FBI. Immediately let them know.

JOHN FOLEY: Which we had always done.

DIANE FOLEY: Which we had always done.

VAN SUSTEREN: Did they immediately respond?

DIANE FOLEY: They got it and, you know --

JOHN FOLEY: I mean, they got it and they helped us --

DIANE FOLEY: They helped us.

JOHN FOLEY: -- construct the response, which --

DIANE FOLEY: Well, we wrote the response.


JOHN FOLEY: Yeah, we wrote --


DIANE FOLEY: And he they would critique it and tweak it a little with wording. They were very good about that. Talked to us. But ISIS had already made --


JOHN FOLEY: our emails missed the mark. They didn't want --

DIANE FOLEY: There was no strategy there. It was just as a family trying to --


JOHN FOLEY: They wanted the government, out U.S. government --

DIANE FOLEY: They wanted the government.

JOHN FOLEY: -- to negotiate with them.

DIANE FOLEY: Right. And we wouldn't.


VAN SUSTEREN: And our conversation with Diane and John Foley continues. How did they find out their son had been executed? And did they watch that horrific video? The Foleys answer those difficult questions and more, next.


VAN SUSTEREN: More of our interview with the parents of beheaded American journalist, James Foley, going ON THE RECORD. Diane and John Foley describing the awful moments when they learned that ISIS had executed their son.


VAN SUSTEREN: How did you learn the bad news?

DIANE FOLEY: Not the greatest way, Greta. We learned by one journalist calling us and crying on the phone. Have you seen the news? And then that was followed up with my brother-in-law, saying, "Oh, Diane" -- and then we turned on the news. It was the news. Yeah, that's how we found out, Greta.

VAN SUSTEREN: You have seen the video?

DIANE FOLEY: Not all of it. We don't want to see that. That's their propaganda. They want to frighten us. And that's their brutal propaganda. We don't need to see that.

We want to remember how Jim lived, Greta. Jim was a beautiful young man. He was the best of America. Of course, I'm prejudiced as a mother. But anyone who met him loved him. It's because he was a man of compassion and courage and fun. And he had a joy about him.

JOHN FOLEY: Yeah. And his colleagues would say, in Aleppo, they would both go into a room 00

DIANE FOLEY: Among Syrians, you know.

JOHN FOLEY: Among Syrians. A room full of them. They would say, I don't know what to do. Jim would pass out a few cigarettes and sit down with everybody else. Everyone would start to smile and tell them their story as if they were lifelong friends.


DIANE FOLEY: Jim had a beautiful way with people.

JOHN FOLEY: He could just light up a room.

DIANE FOLEY: That's the way we want to remember Jim. That's the way we want the legacy foundation to, also.

So we --

JOHN FOLEY: And that's the way we want to move forward with anybody who can help us. We want Jimmy to be a light, not a crime committed against us -- not a crime committed -- so that we are for answers in terms of placing blame. We want James' life and death to be a reason to move forward, to improve the situation.

DIANE FOLEY: Right. We just don't want to him to have died in vain, Greta. I mean --


DIANE FOLEY: -- the horrific death. For such a good person, it was like the antithesis of his life, the way he died. So we just -- we feel compelled, as a family, to go forward and to promote the compassion, to have the courage to help his spirit to live on in the best way.

JOHN FOLEY: We ask for help only.

VAN SUSTEREN: His death, without any doubt, has changed things. You know? The world is now focused on ISIS and all the people who he was over there reporting on are now -- there is a lot of attention in the world to try to something about ISIS persecuting others. Without any doubt, his life has certainly had an impact. You know? And I don't mean to spend a lot of time but a lot of Americans have seen that video.

DIANE FOLEY: But, yes, I'm sure that's true. But I hope -- I think it's important that Americans realize that, you know, we need to protect our citizens when we go abroad to do our jobs. Jim was doing his job just like a firefighter going into a fire.

I've received some criticism, why what was he doing there. Well, he was there because we comfortable Americans have no clue about what is going on in other parts of the world.

VAN SUSTEREN: There aren't going to be so many journalists there now any more. You understand that?

JOHN FOLEY: That's absolutely true.

DIANE FOLEY: That's absolutely true.

VAN SUSTEREN: There's going to be fewer.

DIANE FOLEY: But that's part of the problem. Then, when that happens, they win. So we need courageous journalists. We need courageous humanitarian workers. We need to not to be afraid. And, yet, if -- you know, the world is becoming a dangerous place, Greta. And I guess I hope that through our foundation that we can work on a dialogue with our government and internationally to increase protection from people who dare do these things in the world.


VAN SUSTEREN: And we will bring you the rest of our interview with Diane and John Foley Monday night right here ON THE RECORD. The Foleys will talk about the chilling email they got from ISIS a week before their son's murder. Plus, their reaction to President Obama playing golf right after making a statement about their son's execution. Be sure to join us Monday night at 7:00 p.m. eastern.