Tough Choices

12.06.14 3:48 PM ET

Did U.S. Policy Get Luke Somers Killed?

With a policy not to pay ransoms, the U.S. and U.K. are left with only risky military options for freeing their citizens held by militants. Is it time to change that?

The failed attempt by U.S. military forces on Friday to rescue Luke Somers, an American journalist who’d been held by Al Qaeda in Yemen, was at least the third such raid in recent months. And its woeful end is a reminder that the U.S. has few good options in its attempts to bring American prisoners home.

The most recent raid was actually the second attempt to free Somers, a journalist taken in Yemen 15 months ago. In November, American commandos acting on the direct orders of President Obama showed up at a site in Yemen where they believed Somers might be, but his captors had already moved him, according to administration officials.

Hostage rescue experts and military officials say these raids are extraordinarily difficult to pull off because they depend upon accurate intelligence and superb timing, two things that are difficult to come by in a war zone. In the most recent attempt to free Somers, it appears that that U.S. forces, who had the benefit of overhead surveillance from drones, once again had a fix on his likely location, at a still-unspecified location in central Yemen. But Somers and another hostage, a South African, were killed by their captors during the course of the rescue operation, Obama said in a statement early Saturday morning.

Despite the inherent risk, the president decided the mission was crucial. A video released earlier this week by Somer’s captors, in which they promised to kill him within 72 hours, as well as other unspecified information “indicated that Luke’s life was in imminent danger,” Obama said. “Based on this assessment, and as soon as there was reliable intelligence and an operational plan, I authorized a rescue attempt yesterday.”  

The raid, according to the Wall Street Journal, began at 1 a.m. Saturday in Yemen. A 40-man Special Operations team stealthily approached a walled compound on foot where militants associated with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula were holding Somers and South African Pierre Korkie. But about 100 yards from the compound, the Journal reports, a noise, “maybe a dog bark,” alerted the militants, costing the U.S. troops the element of surprise. The militants immediately began to fire and one ran into the building where Somers and Korkie were being held. That’s when the two men were shot, U.S. officials believe.

Less than 30 minutes after the firefight started, commandos entered the compound and found the mortally wounded hostages. Medics tried to treat their wounds and they were evacuated, under fire, on a V-22 Osprey aircraft to the USS Makin Island, an amphibious assault ship anchored off the coast of Yemen. One hostage died en route, the Journal reported, while the other died on the operating table.

In July, Obama also authorized a mission in Syria to rescue American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, who were held by ISIS. But that mission failed, some U.S. officials say, because of a lack of precise intelligence in Syria about the hostages’ location and dithering by the White House on when the plan should be given the greenlight.

In a separate article, the Journal reported that the Pentagon came up with a plan for surveillance flights in Syria, to help locate the hostages, but these were dropped after officials decided that the White House wouldn’t approve them. A senior administration official said that the only plans the White House received came just before the rescue mission began, the Journal reported.

However, according to an individual who was involved in efforts to locate Foley and Sotloff, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity, their families had independently come up with leads on where the men might be held, and they shared that information with the government. It’s not clear how much stock the White House put in those reports, but when news of the failed rescue attempt became public, the frustrated individual said the administration had been told the prisoners might be in another location. 

Obama only disclosed the failed mission after Foley was beheaded on camera by his ISIS captors in August. In a telephone call with Obama, Foley’s parents  told the president his administration had “failed” their son by not getting him home. That’s when Obama told the parents that, in fact, the military had attempted a rescue mission, but that they’d come up empty handed. ISIS later killed Sotloff, as well.

Rescue attempts are nothing new, and they’ve never been guaranteed to work. In 2010, Linda Norgrove, a British aid worker held in Afghanistan, was killed by a grenade thrown by a U.S. commando during a rescue operation. Initial statements from the military indicated that Norgrove was killed by her Taliban captors, but officials had to walk that claim back after it became clear the hostage was a casualty of the mission meant to free her.

Norgrove’s case raised the controversial question of whether governments should pay ransoms for hostages, and that debate has only taken on more urgency as ISIS has murdered a slew of other British and American prisoners on camera. Neither the U.S. nor the U.K. pay ransoms for hostages, as many European countries do. As a result, American and British prisoners are almost solely reliant on dangerous military efforts to free them.

The fact that Obama has been willing to mount three daring rescue missions in the past four months, none of which has succeeded, is a painful reminder that the U.S. is short on other options. Last month, The Daily Beast reported that the president ordered a top-to-bottom review of the U.S. government’s various efforts to release American hostages. The Defense Department had earlier appointed a senior official to take charge of efforts to win the release of Bowe Bergdahl, a then-private in the Army held by the Haqqani network, a Taliban-aligned group in Afghanistan. But there is no comparable official to oversee efforts for freeing civilian hostages.

In Bergdahl’s case, the administration also decided to swap him for five Taliban prisoners held by the U.S. in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But Obama has refused to release any prisoners for American civilians held overseas, even though groups, including ISIS, have demanded the freedom of particular individuals doing time in American prison on terrorism charges. Families of civilian hostages have been outraged by what they see as a double standard: The government is willing to bargain for military lives, but not their loved ones.

ISIS continues to hold one more American hostage, a 26-year-old female aid worker. The U.S. hasn’t mounted any known rescue operations in Syria since the failed attempt in July to free Foley and Sotloff.