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The Obama administration was accused Wednesday of giving terrorists an incentive to kidnap as it unveiled a hostage policy overhaul allowing families of U.S. hostages to pay ransom — and allowing the U.S. government to help families communicate with captors. “This doesn’t fix anything,” Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a leading critic of the administration’s hostage policy, told Fox News. “The money that we’re going to be paying ISIS is going to be used to buy arms and to buy equipment to fight Americans and to fight the Iraqis.”
But the White House said the changes are being unveiled with the families and victims in mind. “We’re not going to abandon you. We’re going to stand by you,” Obama said of hostages’ families, speaking at the White House on Wednesday. The policy review was formally released shortly before noon, and includes a host of changes beyond the clarifications on ransom discussions — notably, the creation of a new bureaucratic structure for handling hostage cases. The White House plans to establish a Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell responsible for coordinating the recovery of hostages; a Hostage Response Group responsible for coordinating hostage policies; and the position of “special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.” Obama said this is being done to sync up various efforts, citing past coordination problems.
This framework is also being met with mixed reviews, but much of the attention is on the newly clarified policies for communicating with terrorists. The White House sought the policy review last fall after the deaths of Americans held hostage by Islamic State militants. The families of some of those killed complained about their dealings with the administration, saying they were threatened with criminal prosecution if they pursued paying ransom in exchange for their loved ones’ release.
In response, the administration made clear Wednesday that officials will no longer threaten hostages’ families with prosecution for dealing with and paying ransoms to terrorist captors. The Justice Department said in a written statement: “The department does not intend to add to families’ pain in such cases by suggesting that they could face criminal prosecution.” There is not expected to be any formal change to the law. However, the administration made clear that the Justice Department has never prosecuted anyone for paying ransom and that will continue to be the case. The White House said in a statement that the government still takes a “no concessions” approach, and it continues to be U.S. policy to “deny hostage-takers the benefits of ransom.” But the same statement says this policy does not “preclude engaging in communications with hostage-takers.”
The White House made clear the U.S. government may, then, help facilitate communications with terrorists on behalf of the families. The directive said the U.S. “may assist private efforts” to communicate with hostage-takers, and may even “itself communicate with hostage-takers” to try to rescue hostages. White House counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco said the U.S. government, though, would not specifically facilitate ransom payments.
The announcements still amount to a shift in the U.S. approach to hostages. It was considered a major break from past practice last year when the Obama administration traded five Taliban leaders for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. The latest policy changes could open the door to more deals, even if they are only struck with families of hostages.
Critics worry they could also encourage more kidnappings, while effectively aiding the enemy.
“The concern that I have is that by lifting that long-held principle [of not paying ransoms], you could be endangering more Americans here and overseas,” House Speaker John Boehner said. “You’re going to have to have the government now facilitating payments from the families here to the terrorists there while at the same time we have troops on the ground … fighting the same people that we’re paying money to,” Hunter said Wednesday. “You’re worth more captured now than you would be otherwise.” Former House intelligence committee chairman Mike Rogers also voiced concern on a local talk radio station Tuesday evening that this would encourage more hostage-taking and ransom demands.
Obama, though, stressed Wednesday that the U.S. government itself would not be paying ransoms.
Four Americans have been killed by the Islamic State since last summer: journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller. After the release of gruesome videos showing the beheadings of some hostages, Obama approved an airstrike campaign against the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria.
The families’ anguish has been deepened by the fact that European governments routinely pay ransom for hostages and win their release. The U.S. says its prohibitions against the government and private individuals making any concessions to terrorist demands are aimed both at preventing more kidnappings and blocking more income for terror groups. However, the Obama administration did negotiate with the Taliban last year to win the release of Bergdahl. White House officials say those negotiations were permissible because Obama sees a special responsibility to leave no American service member behind on the battlefield.
Elaine Weinstein, whose husband Warren Weinstein was accidentally killed by a U.S. drone strike in April while being held hostage by Al Qaeda, argued Tuesday against the government making such distinctions between U.S. citizens. “The people who take American citizens working abroad as hostages do not discriminate based on their job or employer, and neither should our government,” Weinstein said in a statement.
The White House invited the families of 82 Americans held hostage since 2001 to participate in the review, and 24 agreed to do so. The National Counterterrorism Center, which oversaw the review, also consulted with hostage experts from the U.S. and other countries. As part of the review’s findings, the White House announced the creation of a hostage recovery “fusion cell” that will coordinate the multiple government agencies involved in such issues. The new office aims to address family frustrations about getting contradictory information from different agencies by creating a single point of contact.
The administration is not acquiescing to the requests of some families to house the fusion cell in the White House’s National Security Council. Instead, the office will be at the FBI, and the director will be affiliated with the FBI. The cell will include representatives from the State Department, Treasury Department, CIA and other key agencies.
Obama also announced the creation of a State Department special envoy post that will head the administration’s dealings with foreign governments on hostage matters.
Fox News’ James Rosen and Doug McKelway and The Associated Press contributed to this report.