Blood Money

04.30.15 12:00 AM ET

U.S. Pays Off Hostage Takers

The Obama administration may claim it doesn’t pay ransoms to terrorists. But that’s just not so, according to a veteran FBI hostage negotiator.

The White House has sworn, over and over again, that the U.S. government will not pay ransoms. Those statements are, at best, half-truths, veteran hostage negotiators and top U.S. lawmakers told The Daily Beast. In fact, the American government has both paid money to hostage takers and helped hostages’ families do the same, and that practice is likely to continue.

“The FBI has always supported and assisted families with ransom payments. That has never changed,” Charles Regini, a former 21-year FBI veteran and one of the lead international kidnapping negotiators for the U.S. government, told The Daily Beast. “In fact, the FBI regularly assists and supports families and companies in payment of ransoms. FBI negotiators are trained in kidnap negotiations techniques, including payment of ransoms to support private efforts. The FBI has been doing that since the 1990s and that practice continues today.”

The question of ransom payments has been brought back into the center of an ongoing debate over government efforts to free hostages, and how far the U.S. should go in helping families bring their loved ones home. On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the FBI helped the family of al Qaeda hostage Warren Weinstein to pay a $250,000 ransom by vetting a Pakistani middleman that the family used to transport the money. The FBI also provided intelligence “to enable an exchange,” the newspaper reported.

The ransom payment didn’t free Weinstein, who was killed this year in a drone strike on an al Qaeda compound in Pakistan. The White House has said it will pay financial compensation to Weinstein’s family.

The fact that the FBI was willing to assist the Weinsteins underscores what current and former U.S. officials describe as a long-standing policy of law enforcement being willing to help families retrieve their loved ones even if it means going against the Obama administration’s public declarations that ransoms should never be paid and only encourage more hostage-taking.

(In one example among many, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters in February that the “impact of paying ransom to secure the release of American hostages is it only makes Americans an even greater target than they already are.”)

“[The FBI] would help any families engaged in kidnap negotiations, including the ISIS hostages’ families, if it had come to that,” Regini added, referring to the families of Americans who were killed by the militant group in Syria or who died while in their custody. The White House infuriated some of those family members when a senior official on the National Security Council told them, on several occasions, that paying ransoms to terrorist groups was forbidden under U.S. law and that the families could be prosecuted for doing so.

Regini said that position points out “a huge disconnect within the U.S. government on this. It’s confusing and extremely concerning for families to hear the White House say the U.S. government will not negotiate with terrorist groups. We always did, and I am confident they still do, as they should.”

The use of ransom in that way is permitted under a classified presidential directive, known as NSPD-12, which was signed by George W. Bush in February 2002 and remains in effect.

A leading congressional critic of the Obama administration’s hostage policy accused the Obama administration of paying a ransom in another high-profile hostage case—that of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was released by a Taliban-aligned group in May 2014 as part of a trade for five high-level Taliban detainees.

In December 2014, Representative Duncan Hunter, a member of the House Armed Services Committee and a combat veteran, asked the Defense Department’s inspector general to investigate an alleged ransom payment for Bergdahl, which he said was “led by” the Joint Special Operations Command. Hunter said the elite group was also forming plans for a possible rescue mission for Bergdahl.

According to Hunter, sources have told him that the FBI was aware of the ransom payment and sent agents to the border with Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2014, where they waited in anticipation of Bergdahl being handed over by his captors, Hunter’s spokesman told The Daily Beast. Bergdahl was eventually set free three months later in the prisoner swap.

A spokesman for the FBI didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“It is my understanding that there are different methods for initiating payments, without a formal declaration of a ransom,” Hunter wrote. “Therefore any payments that might have been made—even under the guise of obtaining information—must be thoroughly scrutinized.”

A few months after Bergdahl was released, hostage-takers attempted to broker another ransom payment for three individuals held by the Taliban, a U.S. official with direct knowledge of the matter told The Daily Beast. In September 2014, an individual who claimed to have access to a proof-of-life video of American hostage Caitlin Coleman and her family contacted an office in the Defense Department working on hostage policy issues and offered to sell the video for $150,000, according to the U.S. official. If the government bought the video, the individual said, the family would be released. Coleman and her husband Joshua Boyle, a Canadian citizen, are being held by the Taliban with their child, who was born in captivity, according to U.S. officails.

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The Defense Department didn’t take the offer for the video but said that if it were given for free it would be made available to senior government officials working on securing Coleman’s release, the U.S. official said.

The U.S. is also aware of a ransom payment made for another American hostage, journalist Peter Theo Curtis, who was freed by al Qaeda’s branch in Syria last year. Two sources familiar with efforts to free Curtis told The Daily Beast that Qatar arranged for money to be paid to the al Qaeda branch—effectively a ransom. A third source, who is a former U.S. law enforcement official, denied that the money was a direct ransom payment, but said that Qatari officials had helped negotiate with al Qaeda in Syria to win Curtis’s release. What the militants may have received in return, this person declined to say. But Curtis and his family specifically thanked Qatar for its efforts after he was released.

It’s that kind of willingness to use intermediaries, rather than trying to run hostage negotiations solely out of the U.S. government, that critics of the Obama administration’s hostage rescue policy have said they want to see brought to bear for Coleman and others still in captivity.

As part of its hostage policy review, the administration will “examine and seek to define best practices based on instances when working through intermediaries has proven successful,” Alistair Baskey, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, told The Daily Beast earlier this year, without mentioning any specific instance where an intermediary was used.

Baskey also pointed out that “the review does not include reconsideration of our no-concession policy.”

Notably, he didn’t use the word “ransom.” Obama administration officials have, on many occasions, used the words “concession” and “ransom” interchangeably. But hostage negotiation experts and former U.S. officials have stressed that ransoms used as a lure are not considered a “concession,” that is, a quid-pro-quo payment of cash in exchange for a hostage’s release.

White House officials haven’t publicly stated their position on ransoms as lure. But several current and former officials told The Daily Beast that while not saying it overtly, the White House appears to have acknowledged that ransoms can in fact be used to gain information.

That is a significant, if subtle, caveat to the White House’s public position that it will never pay ransom for hostages.

It’s also in keeping with earlier administrations’ policies. Regini said he was “part of FBI teams that either facilitated, supported, or directly paid ransoms to terrorist and criminal groups, including a ransom to the Abu Sayyaf in the Burnham case in 2002,” referring to two American missionaries, Martin and Gracia Burnham, who were held hostage by the Philippines-based terrorist group, which is linked to al Qaeda.

At the time, the FBI, U.S. intelligence agencies, and the military were trying to find the Burnhams in the Philippines’ dense jungle, and the ransom payment was seen as one way to gain some insights into how Abu Sayyaf moved its money and to potentially locate the hostages. Regini calls the payment of ransom in that case an attempt “to gain intelligence and evidence, as well as free the victim hostages.”