New White House Hostage Rescue Strategy MIA

The Obama administration promised to overhaul how it brought captives home—and dealt with their parents. Five months in, and those interactions still ‘suck.’

01.30.15 10:55 PM ET

Five months after the White House began a top-to-bottom review of its policy for rescuing hostages overseas, the congressman who spurred it and some of the families of hostages who were promised a voice in the process say they’re being left in the dark.

The White House had pledged that families of Americans captured or killed by terrorists would be “integral” to discussions on how to bring those Americans home safely. But the administration’s interactions with the family members “sucks. It’s been horrible,” Rep. Duncan Hunter told The Daily Beast in an interview.

The California Republican has been a frequent critic of the administration’s hostage-rescue policies and urged an overhaul after the beheading of journalist James Foley by ISIS in August. Since then, he said, “We haven’t been told anything on how the review is going.”

The Daily Beast spoke to several families whose relatives have been taken hostage and who’ve been dealing with the government for several months. Most of them asked to speak on the condition of anonymity when discussing their interactions with U.S. officials, so that they could speak candidly without potentially jeopardizing the cases of Americans who are still alive and haven’t been rescued.

Some of the hostages’ families said they still don’t understand which policies on hostage rescue are actually being examined. Some families said they are being told not to air their concerns publicly.

“The administration has asked us not to speak to the media about this,” said Barak Barfi, the spokesman for the family of journalist Steven Sotloff, who was beheaded by ISIS last September. “We want to give the president and his staff the opportunity to repair the damage they caused by refusing to create proper channels during Steve’s incarceration. For this reason, we are honoring the request.”

Hostages’ families have complained that the administration didn’t do enough to both keep them informed about their loved ones’ cases or to work with them on rescue efforts. Following Foley’s death, his parents said they had been ignored by U.S. officials, including at the White House, the State Department, and the FBI, when they tried to share information on their son’s whereabouts.

Another individual, who asked not to be identified, said he had given information to U.S. officials on one hostage’s possible whereabouts, based on leads he’d gathered from non-governmental sources. But to his knowledge, no one in the government followed up on the information, this person said.

Families have been frustrated that they’ve had to communicate with different government agencies, each with its own priorities, and that there is no single point of contact that coordinates the entire government’s rescue efforts, from law enforcement to diplomacy to intelligence and the military.

It was the administration’s treatment of hostage families, including a warning to the parents of Foley and Sotloff that they could be prosecuted if they attempted to pay ransoms, that helped launch the review, which was first reported by The Daily Beast last November.

The administration reached out to the families in December with a generic form letter sent through the mail and addressed to “Dear Families,” rather than to individuals whose children were either dead or still in captivity. The letter, signed by Lisa Monaco, the White House counterterrorism adviser, stressed that the review would stay within the bounds of the law. But officials haven’t made clear what laws apply to civilian hostages, families said, apart from warning that the families can’t pay ransoms, even though the government has never prosecuted an American for making a ransom payment.

The administration has urged families to trust the outcome of the review, which officials say they hope to finish in the spring, and has told families that any further details are classified.

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Some families have met with officials at the White House or in their homes. Others said they are still ironing out the logistics for such a meeting.

“We are involved in this review because we are committed to ensuring that [it] is comprehensive, legitimate, and truly beneficial to any family that finds itself in this horrible situation,” said Debra Tice, whose son Austin will have been missing for 900 days as of this Friday.

The White House has not met with the family members as a group, leading to concerns, some families say, that the administration is pursuing a “divide and conquer” approach and trying to keep them from speaking as a single bloc, which could give them more influence over the hostage-review process.

Some family members, particularly those whose loved ones are still believed to be alive, have said they’re reluctant to criticize the government publicly for fear of losing whatever limited access they have to information on their cases.

The families have said they want access to more information in the hostages’ official files, some of which has been classified, so they can see what efforts the government is making to win their release. The government is close to granting some family members security clearances to see the information, a bureaucratic process that can take months and involve background checks.

“The FBI thinks by letting the families know the situation of their family members they’re somehow going to jeopardize a rescue,” Hunter said. “To make them get a security clearance to know the situation their son or daughter is in? That’s just stupid.”

The White House didn’t comment on the letter sent to families or the security clearances. But Alistair Baskey, a spokesman for the National Security Council, told The Daily Beast in a statement, “We have heard concerns expressed by some family members about their interaction and communication with U.S. government officials and the amount of information that can be shared about these efforts. We have therefore invited family members’ input as an integral part of the administration’s review of its response to hostage cases.”

Hunter said that the hostage-rescue process has been stymied largely by the FBI, which has the primary responsibility for managing civilian hostage cases. Hunter accused the bureau of failing to collaborate with other parts of the government that have expertise in hostage rescue, particularly within the Defense Department.

“When you’re talking about hostages held overseas, especially in Afghanistan, the FBI has a super-limited presence. Why in the world would they be in charge of trying to take care of the hostages?” Hunter said. “It’s a big turf war for them. Instead of worrying about the people we have to rescue, they’re worried about [the Defense Department] and others encroaching on their turf.”

An FBI spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment on Hunter’s criticism.

Hunter, a member of the Armed Services Committee and a reserve Marine Corps officer, argued that the decision of which agency is in charge of a hostage rescue should depend upon who has “the most information and is able to bring the most resources to bear.” In the case of hostages held by ISIS and al Qaeda, he said, that may be the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, or military Special Operations units that have years of experience on the ground with informants and “captor networks”—groups that can produce leads and open communications channels to the terrorists holding Americans.

Hunter has also argued for appointing a single individual to be in charge of coordinating all U.S. hostage policy. But the administration has already stated that at the end of the review, the FBI and the State Department will continue to play their current lead roles in hostage negotiations, so the review may not end up with dramatic changes.

Another controversial point in the hostage-policy review has been whether to pay ransoms to terrorist groups. Several of them have repeatedly made demands for money as well as prisoner swaps, most recently when ISIS said it would release a Japanese captive and a Jordanian pilot for a would-be suicide bomber now imprisoned in Jordan.

The administration has said it will not change its policy against ransom payments. But under an executive order signed by President George W. Bush in February 2002, which Obama hasn’t repealed, the government is allowed to pay ransoms if it could help generate information on the whereabouts of a hostage or lure captors into the open.

Former officials who’ve been directly involved in hostage negotiations said that provision has rarely been used, but the administration isn’t being completely honest when it says that under no circumstances will the government pay ransoms.

Indeed, other governments have facilitated ransoms in negotiations for American hostages, most notably when Qatar intervened to help free journalist Peter Theo Curtis. According to two individuals involved in Curtis’ case, Qatar arranged for a ransom payment to win his release from al Qaeda’s branch in Syria in last year.

Several families have also seen a double standard in the administration’s decision to trade five Taliban fighters who’d been held in Guantanamo Bay for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl last year. The White House says that the swap was part of a longstanding tradition of trading prisoners in time of war. But the administration has drawn a hard line against trading prisoners for civilians, arguing that’s a concession to terrorist groups.

The Defense Department is said to be close to a decision on whether to charge Bergdahl with desertion. He left his post in Afghanistan in 2009 and was subsequently captured. U.S. officials who were involved with the decision to trade Bergdahl said the five Taliban prisoners warned that many of them would likely return to militant activities again and try to plan attacks against U.S. interests. On Thursday, CNN reported that intelligence officials have concluded that at least one of the five attempted to return to militant activity. The five men are in Qatar, where they are supposed to remain under government supervision until May.

The administration has consistently maintained that the Bergdahl swap was not a deal worked out with terrorists and doesn’t affect its policy against ransoms and concessions.

“The review does not include reconsideration of our no-concession policy,” Baskey said, though it will “examine and seek to define best practices based on instances when working through intermediaries has proven successful.”

Asked to elaborate on what an “intermediary” is—an individual? a country?—Baskey didn’t offer further details.