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White House Gaffe Outs American Held by the Islamic State

The White House routinely asks journalists to refrain from publishing the names of American hostages. A top Obama administration official broke that rule this morning.


U.S. officials routinely ask media outlets to keep the identity of the 26-year-old American woman held hostage by Islamic State a secret. White House chief of staff Denis McDonough mistakenly ignored the administration’s own policy Sunday morning when he mentioned her first name on national television.

Speaking on ABC News’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos following the beheading of Haruna Yukawa, one of the two Japanese hostages held by the Islamic State, McDonough used her first name while outlining efforts to get her home.

“And as it relates to our hostages, we are obviously continuing to work those matters very, very aggressively. We are sparing no expense, and sparing no effort, both in trying to make sure that we know where they are and make sure that we’re prepared to do anything we must to try to get them home.”

Then, in what administration officials conceded was a gaffe, McDonough used the woman’s first name before adding that her “family knows how strongly the president feels about this. And we will continue to work this.”

This is the first time that any part of the aid worker’s name was revealed by the administration. U.S. officials and the hostage’s family maintain the release of her identity draws more attention to the case, making it harder to negotiate her release. Foreign Policy will not publish her name.

In an email to Foreign Policy, the White House said it would not address McDonough’s misstatement.

“We won’t discuss ongoing cases out of concern for the safety of the victims. The U.S. Government will spare no effort to recover U.S. hostages and hold those who take them hostage accountable,” National Security Council spokesperson Alistair Baskey wrote.

The woman was taken hostage while doing humanitarian work in Syria in 2013. She is the fourth American to be held hostage by the Islamic State. The other three — aid worker Peter Kassig and journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff — were beheaded last year. There are fears she could meet the same fate.

Those deaths, and the continuing saga of the last known American hostage, have raised questions about the effectiveness of the administration’s policy not to negotiate with terrorists. The families of Foley and Sotloff said they were threatened with prosecution if they attempted to barter their son’s fate, though the administration has quietly denied that characterization.

In some cases, the prohibition on naming hostages works. For years many reporters knew Somali pirates had taken American journalist Scott Moore captive in 2012 but decided against publishing his name. He was eventually freed after nearly three years in captivity.

However, it’s not clear whether a ransom was paid. Moore had written frequently for the German magazine Der Spiegel and lived in Berlin. After he was released, the German government would not comment on Somali pirate claims of a $1.6 million payment in exchange for the prisoner.

Photo Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

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