- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 24, 2015

In a move that critics said will endanger more Americans, President Obama announced Wednesday that he will allow U.S. officials to negotiate directly with terrorist groups holding Americans hostage, saying the government “must do better” for families of captives who want to make ransom payments.

Mr. Obama said he was “clarifying” that federal policy allows U.S. officials to contact terrorists on behalf of families seeking the return of their loved ones. U.S. policy forbids the government itself from making ransom payments.

“Our policy does not prevent communication with hostage-takers by our government, by the families of hostages or third parties who help these families,” Mr. Obama said at the White House. “When appropriate, our government may assist these families and private efforts in those communications, in part to ensure the safety of family members and to make sure they’re not defrauded.”

Some congressional Republicans said the president’s executive action sends the wrong message to terrorists, and will encourage extremists to kidnap more Americans.

“We have had a policy in the United States for over 200 years of not paying ransom and not negotiating with terrorists,” said House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican. “The concern that I have is that by lifting that long-held principle, you could be endangering more Americans here and overseas.”

Rep. Roger Williams, Texas Republican, said the president’s announcement “rolls back decades of constant messaging that the U.S. does not negotiate with terrorists.”

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“From the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap to now this, there is inconsistency in our nation’s previous hard-lined stance, and Americans abroad are now at greater risk of being captured,” said Mr. Williams, a member of a House task force that investigates terrorism financing.

The administration last year swapped five Taliban leaders in U.S. custody for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was being held captive in Afghanistan. He faces an Article 32 military hearing next month on a charge of desertion.

Lisa Monaco, Mr. Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, defended the new policy that she had a big role in developing.

“The government will not facilitate the payment of a ransom,” she said. “What we will do, however, is work with families to try and advise them, to give them the benefit of our best advice. But we will not abandon them when they make very hard decisions.”

But the FBI reportedly helped to facilitate a ransom payment to al Qaeda in 2012 on behalf of the family of Warren Weinstein, an American aid worker being held captive. Mr. Weinstein and an Italian hostage were inadvertently killed by a U.S. drone strike earlier this year on a terrorist compound in Pakistan.

While some foreign governments such as France and Germany pay ransom demands to extremists, and families of some American hostages have pursued the same course, the president said he won’t change the government’s policy against ransom payments.

The announcement comes after a six-month review of U.S. policy prompted by episodes in which the Islamic State and other terrorist groups have executed American hostages and distributed horrifying videos of the atrocities. Families of the U.S. captives have complained that the administration has provided little if any information about rescue attempts, and sometimes officials have threatened prosecution of family members who want to pay ransom to obtain the freedom of their loved ones.

There are still more than 30 Americans being held abroad by extremists or imprisoned unjustly by foreign governments, Ms. Monaco said.

On Capitol Hill, analysts told the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities they don’t expect the Islamic State to try to cash in on the new policy, saying the terror groups thrive on video beheadings of hostages as propaganda,

“Those people are far more valuable to ISIL as propaganda tools than anything else,” said Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism research fellow in the international studies program at the New America Foundation.

Jacqueline Klimas contributed to this report.

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