More Bureaucracy Won't Help Hostages

Still not negotiating.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Terrorism can't be defeated by a new organizational chart. But give President Barack Obama credit for his long-overdue reform of U.S. hostage policy, which preserves the cardinal principle of not offering concessions to terrorists while potentially providing more support and comfort to hostages and their families.

Families of several American hostages who have been murdered in captivity have justifiably complained about the U.S. government's indifference, incompetence and outright hostility during their time of need. Those complaints prompted the policy review that the administration has just completed.

It was the first comprehensive reassessment of hostage policy in 13 years. And in that time, hostage-takers have proliferated and kidnapping for ransom has become the most significant source of terrorist financing. A whole universe of security companies, do-gooder groups and private intelligence services now exists to help victims and their families.

Yet even as the U.S. government has struggled to free American citizens, it has discouraged families from communicating with terrorists and working with third-party groups. Some families have been threatened with prosecution for attempting to pay ransoms.

The U.S. government is right to stand by its policy "to deny hostage-takers the benefits of ransom, prisoner releases, policy changes, or other acts of concession." Every dollar paid to free a hostage -- and the U.S. says that radical Islamist groups have collected more than $200 million in such payments since 2008 -- helps support the taking, or killing, of another captive. The world would be a better, safer place if other governments honored the no-ransoms pledges they made at the United Nations and through the Group of Eight.

At the same time, Obama was right, on compassionate grounds, to all but pledge that no family would ever be prosecuted for paying a ransom for the return of their loved ones. He also clarified that "no concessions" does not mean "no communication" with hostage-takers or third parties. "When appropriate," he said, "our government may assist these families and private efforts in those communications." And he promised a slew of changes to improve the government's response to hostage-takings, provide families with more information and support, and press foreign governments for greater cooperation.

Some legislators are already arguing that these changes aren't enough -- that what the U.S. needs is a hostage policy czar. But that's wrong. The last thing the bureaucracy needs is more bureaucracy, and every czar is inevitably accompanied by multiple minions. Even the president's decision to appoint a "special envoy for hostage affairs" seems silly and redundant: Hasn't the State Department been in the business of hostage diplomacy since the days of Thomas Jefferson?

By all means, do more to help families get back their loved ones and provide them with comfort and support. But if the U.S. wants to make hostage-taking less rewarding, it shouldn't flatter hostage-takers with more of the high-profile attention they crave.  

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.