Hostage Review Will Make It Easier for Families to Pay Ransoms

The White House is about to change how Washington tries to save captured Americans, but the moves won't go as far as many relatives of U.S. hostages want them to.


President Barack Obama’s administration will reassure the families of Americans held by groups like the Islamic State that they can pay ransoms without fear of prosecution, the first tangible policy change to result from the deaths of an array of U.S. captives in recent months.

The shift, which was first reported Monday by Foreign Policy, will be detailed Wednesday as part of the administration’s long-awaited review of U.S. hostage policy, according to two government officials and others familiar with the matter. The White House launched the probe last year after coming under fierce criticism for failing to do more to bring back missing American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and aid worker Peter Kassig, all three of whom were beheaded by the Islamic State. Three other Americans — journalist Luke Somers in Yemen, and aid workers Kayla Mueller in Syria and Warren Weinstein on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan — have since been killed while in militant custody.

It’s far from clear if the changes — which will also include the creation of a new government-wide hostage recovery fusion center at the FBI — will be enough to mollify the simmering anger many hostage families continue to feel towards the White House. People familiar with the matter said that only 24 of the 82 families the administration reached out to chose to participate in the review process, a clear sign of the lack of trust between the two sides. The families will be briefed privately on the review Tuesday.

In a statement Tuesday, Warren Weinstein’s widow called her family’s interaction with the government “inconsistent at best, and utterly disappointing” during more than three years of his captivity. Elaine Weinstein offered lukewarm praise for the creation of a fusion center but said the White House should have more oversight of the process.

“We hope to be the last family that fails to receive the level of coordinated government support that those who serve abroad deserve when trouble finds them,” Elaine Weinstein said.

When it publicly releases the results Wednesday, the administration will reiterate that the U.S. government itself will not negotiate with, or pay ransoms to, terrorist groups. The so-called “no concessions” policy has been in place for decades and is a key difference between how Washington and its European allies deal with captured citizens. Many key American allies, including Germany, Italy, and Spain, freely admit to paying money to militants to bring back their hostages. The United States, by contrast, believes that ransom payments would encourage kidnappers to grab more Americans.

Other parts of how Washington responds to future hostage cases will change significantly, however. The new fusion center at the FBI will include officials from the Treasury Department, State Department, and intelligence community and is meant, in the words of a senior administration official, to be “the locus, the node” of future recovery efforts. It will also include a team charged with maintaining contact with the families of missing Americans, who have long complained about being kept in the dark on efforts to free their loved ones and not knowing who to turn to for updates.

In the most far-reaching shift, the White House will also reassure families of American hostages that they shouldn’t fear prosecution under federal terrorist financing laws if they pay ransoms to the Islamic State or other militant groups to win the release of their loved ones. That’s been a hot-button issue politically since last September, when the Foley family publicly accused the administration of sending senior officials to threaten them with possible criminal charges if they raised and relayed money to their son’s captors.

“I was surprised there was so little compassion,” Diane Foley told ABC News at the time. “We were told we could do nothing … meanwhile our son was being beaten and tortured every day.”

A second senior administration official said the White House wouldn’t seek to change the current laws, which explicitly say that anyone who “knowingly provides material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization, or attempts or conspires to do so, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 15 years, or both, and, if the death of any person results, shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life.”

Instead, the official said the White House would publicly and privately point out that the Justice Department has never gone after families who paid ransoms to win the release of their relatives — and almost certainly wouldn’t do so in the future.

“There has been confusion in the past by family members of hostages about potential prosecutions,” the official said. “[The Justice Department] has never used the material support statute to prosecute a family member for paying a ransom for the safe return of their loved ones.”

Maryland Democratic Rep. John Delaney, a close ally of the Weinstein family, said that providing that type of reassurance to the families of hostages was long overdue.

“My view is that the government shouldn’t be paying for hostages, but, as it relates to families, our process has been a little inflexible,” he said in an interview with Foreign Policy.

The review will also make clear that the government welcomes input from third-party intermediaries like the International Committee of the Red Cross and the private hostage recovery companies some families hire to handle negotiations with kidnappers. “The families often count on these people,” the first senior administration official said, and the process will ensure “that they feel part of any strategy that is being developed, because I know in the past that’s been an issue.”

Too often, relatives of hostages have been given conflicting information from the government, and the new plan seeks to let them “know they are getting a consistent set of advice, which has been an issue in the past; [it] very clearly has been [an issue],” the official said. “And that’s something we recognize and wanted to improve upon.”

In its public rollout Wednesday, the White House is likely to trumpet the creation of the new fusion center and a series of other bureaucratic changes designed to better coordinate the government’s hostage recovery efforts. The State Department, for instance, will name a new special presidential envoy for hostage affairs to lead all diplomatic efforts with foreign governments tied to freeing American captives and detainees who are held overseas. Administration officials said neither the envoy nor the head of the fusion center have yet been selected. Neither will require Senate confirmation.

Those changes, though, far well-short of what many families have long demanded: the appointment of a senior official on the National Security Council whose sole responsibility would be overseeing hostage recovery efforts. The administration will appoint a new official to the NSC, but he or she will mostly be involved to settle any disagreements among the other branches of government that are involved in the efforts to free the missing Americans. The post will have a “policy oversight role” but won’t be directing things on a day-to-day basis or making specific decisions about individual cases, officials said.

“It’s suboptimal to the hostage czar, but it’s better than what we have now,” Delaney said in the interview.

A military officer who follows the hostage issue closely was far less sanguine.

“If they put the person at any of the agencies — like the State Department or whatever — then it won’t do anything. [He or she] won’t have any teeth, and nobody will listen, period. That’s just the reality of it,” he said. “The agencies do not order each other around. They never will. So if they do it that way, it’s dead on arrival.”

John Hudson and Seán D. Naylor contributed to this report.

This report was updated Tuesday afternoon with Elaine Weinstein’s statement.

Photo credit: screen shot of Islamic State video.