Exclusive: Obama Orders Hostage Policy Review

The Obama administration is finally looking to fix its disjointed efforts to handle U.S. hostages. But that comes too late for the family of an American aid worker killed by ISIS.

11.17.14 11:15 PM ET

President Obama has ordered a top-to-bottom review of how the U.S. government tries to win the release of Americans held hostage by terrorist groups overseas, The Daily Beast has learned. The review, which will include a specific emphasis on how the U.S. treats hostages’ family members, follows criticism that current hostage-negotiation operations are plagued by bureaucratic infighting and a lack of leadership, particularly by the White House.

The review was prompted “as a result of the increased frequency of hostage-taking of Americans overseas,” Christine Wormuth, the undersecretary of Defense for policy and one of the Pentagon’s most senior officials, informed Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) in a letter last week (PDF). Hunter sits on the House Armed Services Committee and has been pressing the administration to do more to free Americans held by ISIS and other terrorist groups. Wormuth said the president had ordered the review “recently,” but she didn’t specify when.

On Sunday, ISIS released its latest video showing the beheading of one of its American captives, Peter Kassig. The group is holding one more American, a 26-year-old woman who was kidnapped in Syria last year while delivering aid to Syrians affected by the country’s civil war. The brutal series of beheading videos has been a persistent reminder that the U.S. faces an implacable enemy, even as it steps up airstrikes on ISIS positions in Syria and Iraq. President Obama took heat for playing a round of golf on Martha’s Vineyard after the first video showing the beheading of journalist James Foley aired in August.

Wormuth said the review will include a “specific emphasis on examining family engagement, intelligence collection, and diplomatic engagement policies.” The emphasis on the families of hostages is particularly noteworthy; the parents of Americans murdered by ISIS have criticized the White House for threatening them with potential criminal prosecution if they were to pay a ransom.

Family members have also complained that the administration didn’t follow up on leads that they provided about where ISIS might be holding the Americans. Several groups of parents have banded together in efforts to locate their children but say they’ve run up against a wall at the White House. Foley’s parents reportedly told Obama in a phone call after their son was shown murdered that the government had “failed” him by not trying harder to win his freedom. It was during that phone call that Obama told the Foleys an earlier mission by the military had failed to extract the hostages from Syria.

While not overtly acknowledging the complaints of family members and critics of the U.S. bureaucracy, Wormuth said the review would seek to “improve interagency coordination and strengthen the whole of government approach,” code for putting a stop to turf wars and getting the various corners of the government on the same page. Recent efforts to free ISIS prisoners have put the White House and the State Department at odds with the FBI, which has long sought more creative ways for getting Americans out of terrorists’ clutches, including facilitating ransom payments.

Wormuth replied to Hunter after an earlier letter in which he urged the president to put someone in charge of all the government’s efforts to free Americans. In the letter, sent after the video of Foley’s beheading appeared, Hunter said he was “very concerned” that the government is not “adequately pursuing and exhausting opportunities” to bring Americans home.

“The administration’s goal has always been to use every appropriate resource within the bounds of the law to assist families to bring their loved ones home. In light of the increasing number of U.S. citizens taken hostage by terrorist groups overseas and the extraordinary nature of recent hostage cases, this summer President Obama directed relevant departments and agencies, including the Departments of Defense and State, the FBI, and the intelligence community, to conduct a comprehensive review of how the U.S. government addresses these matters,” said Alistair Baskey, a spokesman for the National Security Council. “While we are not in a position to detail every effort or every tool we are using to try to bring American hostages home, we will continue to bring all appropriate military, intelligence, law enforcement, and diplomatic capabilities to bear to recover American hostages. Those efforts continue every day.”