President Obama will announce Wednesday that his administration will no longer threaten prosecution against families of hostages who want to pay ransom, after appearing helpless to stop grisly terrorist beheadings of American captives and facing criticism from their loved ones.
Aides said Mr. Obama will issue an executive order and other directives aimed at providing better communication between government agencies such as the FBI and the families of captives of terrorist groups. Although White House officials said the administration still will follow a longtime U.S. policy of not making concessions to terrorists, the government won’t use such a heavy hand with the families of kidnap victims abroad.
A critic of the administration’s handling of hostage rescues, Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, called the new policy “window dressing” that will lead to more kidnappings. He said the administration shouldn’t have “scuttled” an early recommendation to put the Pentagon in charge of finding hostages abroad.
“It’s a pathetic response to a serious problem that has plagued the ability of the U.S. to successfully recover Americans held captive in the post-9/11 era,” Mr. Hunter said in a statement. “It’s a sure bet that more Americans and westerners will be captured given the threat of [the Islamic State] and others.”
U.S. law makes it a crime to provide money or other material support to terrorist organizations, and that won’t change. But the Justice Department has never prosecuted anyone for paying ransom, and the government often looks the other way when families of hostages contact terrorist groups.
The policy was announced after a series of tragic episodes in which Islamic State terrorists kidnapped and beheaded Americans, then disseminated videos of the gruesome executions. On another occasion, Mr. Obama apologized this spring for a U.S. drone strike that inadvertently killed American aid worker Warren Weinstein and an Italian man who were being held hostage by al Qaeda members at a compound in Pakistan.
The goal of a six-month government review was to better coordinate “the wide variety of U.S. government assets that are used to try to safely recover U.S. citizens who are being held hostage,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest.
“We also wanted to improve the process of communicating with families who have loved ones who are going through this terrible situation,” he said.
Family members have complained bitterly about the lack of communication from the administration during their ordeals. Some of them heard no word for months about their loved ones until the painful execution videos appeared online. They also expressed frustration that some governments in Europe routinely paid ransom to win the release of hostages.
Administration officials met with families of hostages Tuesday ahead of the official announcement to explain the new policy. Mr. Weinstein’s widow, Elaine, said she hoped the hostage review “was conducted fully and frankly so the U.S. government can have an honest conversation about the areas where it falls short.”
“Our benchmark for this review’s success will be the actions arising from it more than its specific findings,” she said in a statement.
Of the 82 Americans held hostage abroad since 2001, the families of 24 kidnap victims participated in the administration’s policy review.
Mr. Earnest said the president still insists that the government cannot bargain with terrorist groups. The official U.S. policy remains that the government won’t pay ransom for hostages on the grounds that doing so would encourage more kidnappings and provide money for terrorist groups to carry out attacks.
“The president does continue to believe that it’s important for the United States of America to adhere to a no-concessions policy,” Mr. Earnest said.
Critics noted that Mr. Obama agreed last year to swap five top Taliban commanders being held by the U.S. in exchange for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was a captive in Afghanistan. White House officials said Mr. Obama made that deal because of the U.S. policy of not leaving troops behind, but Mrs. Weinstein said the president shouldn’t make such distinctions between service members and civilians.
“The people who take American citizens working abroad as hostages do not discriminate based on their job or employer, and neither should our government,” she said.
Mr. Hunter, who revealed details this year of a Pentagon unit that was devising strategies for hostage rescues, said the administration hasn’t learned the right lessons. He noted as an example the administration’s plans to put the FBI in the lead of a “fusion cell” to coordinate the cases.
“The fact that the FBI has retained the leadership role within the fusion cell ignores the long list of mistakes and grievances presented over the duration of the review,” Mr. Hunter said. “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.”
The president is creating a “fusion cell” to coordinate the multiple government agencies involved in hostage cases. The administration hopes this single point of contact will address families’ frustrations about getting conflicting information from different agencies.
Some families of hostages, including the Weinsteins, urged the administration to house the fusion cell in the White House National Security Council. Instead, the office will be at the FBI.
Mr. Hunter said of the organizational decision: “Bottom line: The controversy regarding U.S. hostage policy started with the FBI and will likely continue with the FBI.”
Mr. Hunter also said he has been told of “numerous reports of infighting during the progression of the hostage policy review, with both the FBI and the State Department arguing for the leadership role, while discrediting the other.” He said the Defense Department is better suited to take the lead in hostage cases because of its intelligence-gathering capabilities and its global reach.
“This is all very unfortunate — and while I have hope we can be successful, which we are sure to be from time to time, what’s needed is a hostage recovery policy that works for every American held captive in hostile areas,” Mr. Hunter said. “The changes put forward show that there’s still a lot of work to do.”
Since last summer, Islamic State terrorists have killed four Americans: journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller. After the release of videos showing the beheadings of some hostages, Mr. Obama approved an airstrike campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and has beefed up a contingent of military advisers in Iraq.