President Barack Obama, saying the government has sometimes let down the families of Americans held hostage by terrorists, ordered creation of a multi-agency team to coordinate rescue efforts and communication.
The U.S. shouldn’t threaten to prosecute relatives or friends of hostages who pay ransoms to secure their return, Obama also said.
“No family of an American hostage has ever been prosecuted for paying a ransom for the return of their loved one,” Obama said Wednesday at the White House. “The last thing that we should ever do is to add to a family’s pain with threats like that.”
More than 30 Americans are currently held hostage overseas, Lisa Monaco, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, told reporters at a briefing. She and the president reaffirmed official U.S. policy against offering concessions or payments to their captors. That won’t preclude the government from assisting families of captives in communications with terrorists.
“My messages to these families were simple,” Obama said after meeting with family members of hostages at the White House and acknowledging shortfalls by the government. “We’re not going to abandon you. We will stand by you.”
The U.S. government refuses to offer concessions such as ransom to terrorists and other hostage-takers in order to dissuade kidnappings in the first place. By tacitly permitting families to pay ransoms or make other concessions, the Obama administration may encourage captures, House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, told reporters on Wednesday.
“We have had a policy in the United States for over 200 years of not paying ransom and not negotiating with terrorists,” Boehner said. “And the concern that I have is that by lifting that long-held principle, you could be endangering more Americans here and overseas.”
Monaco said she understood Boehner’s criticism and explained that the U.S. is grappling with competing pressures: the government seeks to maintain its no-concessions policy and also be sensitive to families dealing with “extremely complex” situations.
“There’s no doubt that the payment of ransoms fuels the very activity that we are trying to stop,” she said. “At the same time, we’ve got a responsibility to stand with families as they make the most difficult decisions they could possibly imagine.”
Obama signed an executive order Wednesday creating the multi-agency team, a hostage response group and a special presidential envoy to coordinate rescue efforts.
The policy changes were based on recommendations from the National Counterterrorism Center, which conducted a review after American journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley were beheaded by Islamic State militants last year. Since then, the deaths of several other Americans, including aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller in Syria, have raised questions about U.S. hostage policy.
Family members of several slain hostages have criticized U.S. officials for preventing them from making their own attempts to negotiate with kidnappers and for failing to fully inform them about rescue efforts.
Foley’s mother, Diane Foley, told ABC News last year that government officials warned her she might be prosecuted for paying a ransom to secure the release of her son.
Relatives of captives could conceivably face charges for paying ransoms, under statutes banning the financial support of terrorist organizations. In a separate statement, the Justice Department said it would not prosecute families who seek to pay ransoms or threaten them with charges.
Obama said input from Foley and other family members influenced the new policy.
“When appropriate the United States may assist private efforts to communicate with hostage-takers, whether directly or through public or private intermediaries, and the United States Government may itself communicate with hostage-takers, their intermediaries, interested governments, and local communities to attempt to secure the safe recovery of the hostage,” a policy directive the White House released Wednesday said.
Under the new policy, the government will continue to “make no concessions” to hostage-takers, according to the directive. The government will encourage other nations to adopt no-concession policies as well.
The hostage coordination team will include officials from the State Department, the Treasury Department, the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation the Central Intelligence Agency and other agencies. It will be run by a director attached to the FBI.