The Cable

Obama Opts Against Creating ‘Hostage Czar’

Obama removed the threat of prosecution for families of American hostages who try to pay ransoms. But he didn't create a NSC-level position to coordinate efforts.

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President Barack Obama’s long-awaited changes to U.S. hostage policy will allow families of Americans held by terror groups to pay ransoms without fear of prosecution. But what the administration hasn’t done is just as important as what it has.

Despite pressure from Capitol Hill and the families of many hostages, the White House chose not to create a so-called “hostage czar” at the National Security Council to serve as the point person leading efforts to free their loved ones.

The presidential directive does create a new government-wide hostage recovery fusion center at the FBI. But that isn’t likely to be enough to placate the families of hostages killed while in militant custody, many of whom believe there needs to be a high-level official at the National Security Council charged with ensuring that all branches of the government are working together to bring captives home safely and with breaking through any bureaucratic roadblocks that arise. Without such an official at the very top of the pyramid, many families and lawmakers worry that infighting among could hamper the recovery process.

At a Wednesday afternoon press conference, Obama said his experiences dealing with grieving families prompted him to remove the threat of prosecution.

“Some families feel like they have been threatened for exploring options for bringing their loved ones home,” Obama said. “That’s totally unacceptable.”

Obama devoted the bulk of his remarks to acknowledging that the government repeatedly fell short in its dealings with the families of captive Americans. Last September, the family of murdered journalist James Foley 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.”

Those types of threats should now be off of the table, but the administration opted against making the other change most fervently sought by many families.

In a statement released after Foreign Policy first reported on the contents of the review, Elaine Weinstein, wife of Warren Weinstein, an aid worker killed on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, called the government’s response “inconsistent at best, and utterly disappointing.”

“We believe the creation of a fusion cell is a good idea, but we believe establishing a sole individual with overall policy responsibilities for safe hostage recovery would have been best positioned at the National Security Council, since that would not only give the position more inter-agency coordinating authority but also ensure that those debating counter-terrorism activities and hostage recovery efforts were sitting in the same room,” Weinstein said.

Others, including Rep. Duncan Hunter, were much more critical of lack of a National Security Council-level position to coordinate hostage recovery efforts.

“There needs to be a single person situated above the fusion cell, with the authority necessary to direct certain activities, isolate turf battles, and streamline the bureaucracy.  The FBI is not organized or developed for hostage recovery in hostile areas, yet they are leading the fusion cell,” Hunter said.

The White House initiated the review after withering criticism from the families of Foley, journalist, Steven Sotloff, and aid worker Peter Kassig. All three were beheaded by the Islamic State. Three other Americans — journalist Luke Somers in Yemen, aid workers Kayla Mueller in Syria, and Weinstein — have also died while in the custody of militants. Their families have also been critical of administration efforts to bring their loved ones home.

Foreign Policy has previously reported that only 24 of the 82 families the administration reached out to chose to participate in the review process, a clear sign of frustration with Obama’s efforts to get loved ones home.

No American had ever been prosecuted for paying a ransom to a terror group, but U.S. attorneys have threatened to take legal action against families of hostages suggested it. Wednesday’s directive brings the United States in line with European countries like Germany. Last year, Berlin paid Somali pirates an unspecified amount to free Michael Scott Moore, a German-American, who had been held captive in East Africa for three years.

The Obama administration, as well as previous administrations, had long maintained that paying terror groups to release prisoners would encourage the groups to take more.

And while the federal government will not seek legal action against families who pay ransoms, it will not directly negotiate with terror groups. In the past, the White House has used proxy governments like Qatar to reach out to terrorists holding American citizens.

The directive also allows third-party intermediaries like the International Committee of the Red Cross and private hostage recovery companies to negotiate for the release of Americans.

Photo Credit: Saul Loeb/Getty Images

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

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