Cruel Bargain

Foley Family to White House: You Saved Bergdahl. Why Not Our Son?

After the Obama administration bargained for Bowe Bergdahl’s life, the family of ISIS hostage James Foley begged the White House for the same treatment—only to be denied.

10.24.14 9:55 AM ET

The parents of James Foley, the journalist ISIS beheaded in August, learned about the U.S. government’s attempt to rescue him about an hour before the rest of us did.

The grieving parents got word from President Obama himself.

“I told Obama that Jim worked hard to get him elected,” John Foley, James’s father, told The Daily Beast. “He believed till the end his country would come and get them.”

The president, according to John, responded, “Well I should tell you, we did try to save him.” Then Obama stunned John and his wife Diane, informing them of the failed special operations rescue mission from early July.

In the call, Obama explained that this information about the rescue mission was classified. But not for long, it would seem. Foley added, “An hour later he went and told the world.”

White House spokesmen have said that there was never any intention to share with the public details of the failed rescue mission in Syria. Word of the mission began to leak out on August 20, a day after James Foley was beheaded in a gruesome and slickly produced internet video narrated by a man with a thick British accent. White House officials briefed reporters that afternoon on the failed mission.

For the Foleys, it was a tragic ending to an awful ordeal. Since their son first went missing right before Thanksgiving in 2012, Diane Foley, in particular, began a mission to find any way she could to try to get her son back alive. She pressed the White House, the FBI and the State Department for any information she could find on James. Often, she and John would tell the FBI about what they learned from other European hostages who were released this year by ISIS. The response the Foleys received was, for the most part, beyond disappointing—little more than a “pat on the head,” John said.

Two months after the murder of James Foley, his parents are still frustrated with how they were treated by the White House—even as the Foley family works to establish a legacy fund for their son.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, John Foley explained that the President seemed upset during their phone call. Diane was unimpressed with Obama’s empathy. “In between golf games mind you,” she said. “He did stop to call us in the middle of his vacation,” she continued. “In the United Kingdom, the prime minister came home from his vacation.”

In September, the Foleys began to talk to the media about their frustrations with the Obama administration. At the time they said the White House threatened them with prosecution if they tried to raise private funds to purchase their son’s freedom. On Thursday they went into more detail.

They discussed a moment in May, right after the White House announced a prisoner exchange that released Army Private Bowe Bergdahl. Diane Foley said she and other families of ISIS hostages thought there was hope the Obama administration would reverse its longstanding policy against paying ransom or negotiating with ISIS.

But only a few days after Bergdahl’s release, the Foleys and other families of the hostages were on the phone with a senior White House official who informed them there was no chance at all for negotiations with ISIS. “It was out of the question,” Diane Foley remembers the official saying. (The Daily Beast is declining to name the official at the request of the White House).

John Foley remembered the White House official going even further than that, saying there was no chance third parties would pay ransom or trade hostages with ISIS either. “’We will not ask any of our allies to do something we ourselves wouldn’t do like pay ransom, or trade hostages,’” Foley recalled the official as saying.

Bernadette Meehan, the spokeswoman for the National Security Council, declined Thursday to discuss the details of the communications with the Foley family. She did, however, defend the policy of not negotiating with ISIS.

“The United States has a long-standing policy that we do not offer concessions to hostage takers because doing so would only put more Americans at risk of being taken captive,” she said. “Sergeant Bergdahl was not a hostage—he is a member of the U.S. military who was detained during the course of an armed conflict. His return was consistent with the longstanding practice of prisoner exchanges in war and, as such, is different from policy and practice relating to civilians held hostage.”

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While Meehan speaks for the White House, other parts of Obama’s government have pressed to change the U.S. policy of not paying ransoms to terrorists. Foreign Policy magazine’s Shane Harris reported this month that the White House and the State Department remain opposed to paying ransoms to terrorist groups, while the FBI and the Justice Department have asked for more flexibility.

Diane Foley detected a difference in tone and emphasis on ransom payments from the FBI, which “was very willing to walk us right up to that point,” she said. “They made it clear that an exchange of funds may be necessary, but they themselves could not do that.”

For the most part the Foleys had high praise for the FBI. Diane Foley said that the bureau gave them advice on how to craft a response to an email they received from ISIS at the end of 2013. “The FBI told us to write back a letter humanizing Jim,” she said. “They would look them over and tweak a word or two.”

As the summer dragged on, the Foleys began to seek out their own ways to get their son back. Towards the end of Foley’s captivity, John and Diane Foley began a pledge drive to raise money for a possible ransom, even though they say the White House informed them that any efforts to pay a ransom to ISIS would violate U.S. law.

“We had a million dollars in pledges at the end,” Diane Foley said. “Our hands were tied, we could not make it obvious, it had to be done under the guidance of pro bono attorneys… We didn’t want the money, we didn’t want to handle it, so we sought pledges. We didn’t want the money unless we needed it.”

European governments, for their part, have long agreed to pay groups like ISIS ransom money. And that has yielded tangible results. Foley was held in Syria at the same location as several European hostages. But the Europeans had been freed in the weeks before Obama ordered the rescue mission into Syria, the Foleys said.

In the end, the Foleys say they hope other families of hostages will be able to learn and benefit from their experience. They were in Washington this week to receive an award given posthumously to their son on behalf of the Oxi Day Foundation, a Greek American organization that celebrates Greek resistance to the Nazis.

“The enemy is ISIS, not our government,” Diane Foley said. “All we are saying is that our government can do better for our citizens. We hope the James Foley foundation can foster dialogue for a more consistent policy on this.”