How the White House Abandoned American Hostages

I was an advisor to the families of U.S. hostages held by the Islamic State. And the Obama administration failed them, repeatedly.


In the last 10 months, the Islamic State has brutally executed four American hostages. As Americans died, their government was powerless to stop the slaying. For while European governments tirelessly toiled to secure the release of European hostages, President Barack Obama’s administration’s passive approach doomed their American cellmates.

I had a connection to three of the four hostages and their families. The parents of aid worker Kayla Mueller, who died in an airstrike in February, frequently consulted with me. Peter Kassig, another aid worker who was beheaded last November, slept on my couch two weeks before his abduction. And journalist Steve Sotloff was my best friend. I spoke to him moments before his abduction after he entered Syria. In letters smuggled out of captivity, Steve wrote that he was counting on me to get him out. I failed him.

But more egregious was this administration’s failure. The White House did not do enough to rescue the four Americans. During Steve’s imprisonment, it rarely worked with the hostages’ families, kept them in the dark, and was essentially passive, rather than discussing ways to secure their release. And though the White House finally authorized an extraction attempt in late June 2014, it waited far too long to do so.

It was left to civilians like me to gather information and debrief the released European hostages. Because of my experience in the Middle East, I became the principal advisor to Steve’s family, directly handling their communication with the Islamic State.

The U.S. government’s principal channels with the four families largely consisted of mid-level officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. The FBI was useless. Its tasks were alternately to extract information and to comfort the family. It never shared intelligence. One European hostage, who was incarcerated with the Americans and subsequently released, told me he was shocked that the FBI seemed more interested in gathering evidence to prosecute the hostage-takers than it was in locating the Americans. Our lead agent misled me on several occasions, employing convoluted legalisms that would have impressed the greatest Talmudic scholars. His tactics so frustrated the Sotloffs that they finally asked him to address all queries to me. Though Steve is dead, our nightmare with the FBI continues. The bureau still refuses to give the Sotloffs the original letters he smuggled out of prison, claiming it is studying them for clues.

The FBI could have helped most when the Islamic State initiated contact with each of the families. Instead, it relied on hostage training manuals designed for dealing with psychopaths. That was the wrong approach. The hostage-takers did not have fractured egos that needed soothing. This was a pure money racket. Its ringleaders were not driven by ideology and displayed no psychological disorders.

The State Department was no better. When the mother of one of the hostages requested a senior point of contact at the White House, a State Department official rebuked her for going over her head. When Steve’s father asked that I attend a government meeting, a consular official claimed the room was too small. When Steve’s father offered to give up his seat, the official demurred. The decision to prohibit family representatives from government meetings was made at the administration’s highest levels. The White House knew that some representatives, like the one retained by the family of James Foley, one of the four slain hostages, had intelligence and political experience. Banning them allowed the administration to manage expectations and control the tempo of consultations. Indeed, some families were so confused on secure conference calls that they could not identify the government officials on the other end of the line.

The president and his advisors have pushed back by noting that they ordered an extraction, endangering the lives of U.S. Army Special Forces to rescue American hostages. But the greatest tragedy of this march of folly is that the White House was a passive rather than an active player. We have no evidence that it aggressively gathered intelligence that could have saved the Americans who were incarcerated in the same prison for five months. Instead, that task was left to civilians: I assembled an intelligence outfit that debriefed released European hostages. By early May 2014, we narrowed down the Americans’ location to a 30-40 mile radius.

If the administration had employed its vast intelligence network, it likely could have saved the Americans. We knew that in war-ravaged Syria — where 83 percent of the country’s lights operating before the civil war are no longer visible from space — the prison where the four hostages were all held had power more than 65 percent of the time. We were told that the prison had satellite Internet. Only a few vehicles entered the compound daily. Dedicating satellites and drones, employing signals intelligence, and cultivating local assets likely could have identified the prison and saved the Americans. But when the hostages were moved after five months, the administration’s neglect meant that no one knew they were gone. Its passive strategy was thwarted by a slightly less passive Islamic State.

Meanwhile, my team continued to pore over maps. By early June, we identified the exact location of their incarceration in Raqqa, Syria. When the FBI debriefed released Europeans, it showed them the maps that we had made. And when the intelligence community leaked maps of the prison to the media, it was our maps it leaked.

During Steve’s imprisonment, the administration refused to give the American families more than token attention. White House officials only met with all the hostages’ families on two occasions in May 2014. Other issues received far more attention. When the Islamic State imperiled Iraqi Christians last summer, the White House welcomed local Chaldean leaders at the highest levels to help them secure visas for Iraqi brethren. But when the hostages’ families gave Lisa Monaco, the president’s counterterrorism advisor, a letter asking Obama several questions, he never even responded. Monaco refused the Sotloffs’ last request, days before their son died, that she meet with me when Steve’s fate was exposed to the world. When one family asked Monaco to give them a waiver from prosecution so that they could raise money to secure their child’s release, they were rebuffed. An administration that only responds to public pressure felt no imminent need to respond to American families who largely remained silent during their children’s ordeals. Now, finally, the Obama administration is reviewing these policies and will reportedly backtrack on allowing families to negotiate private ransoms.

Sadly, it is too late. I will carry the burden of Steve’s death for the rest of my life. The empty seat next to mine at Detroit Lions games will remind me of that. But the president and his administration will equally never be able to cleanse themselves of the miasma that taints them for largely abandoning four Americans in need of their government’s help.

Photo credit: Rick Friedman-Pool/Getty Images; photoillustration by FP

Barak Barfi is a research fellow at the New America Foundation.