President Obama said all the right things Wednesday about revamping the U.S. hostage policy, according to families and supporters of past and current hostages. But many have spent months hearing false promises from the government. If the Obama administration is serious about changing an approach that even the president called “unacceptable,” the U.S. can demonstrate it by redoubling its efforts to save the roughly 30 Americans currently held abroad.
After all, at least six Americans have died in captivity since the Obama hostage policy review began nearly a year ago. Will U.S. government agencies actually start sharing information with one another about the hostages that remain? Will they coordinate better, once that information is in hand? And will that coordination lead to the better treatment of parents, spouses, and other supporters of hostages—supporters too often bullied by the Obama administration before?
“We hope this policy will instill in our government a clear focus on the soonest, safe return of all current and future hostages,” Debra and Marc Tice—whose son, Austin, disappeared nearly three years ago in Syria while working as a freelance reporter—said in a statement. “We continue to have concerns about several issues, including the leadership structure described in the policy, and the lack of specific mention of the protection of the identity and assets of hostages. Nevertheless, we think this is a strong start, and we appreciate the President’s commitment to periodically reviewing and improving this policy.”
Reporters Without Borders, which was consulted during the policy review, said in a statement: “U.S. authorities must now demonstrate that they are equal to the hopes raised by the announcement.”
As the president made his 10-minute announcement from the White House about the new executive order, Tice remained captive in Syria after more than three years. Robert Levinson, an American contractor, has been held captive since March 2007 after disappearing from Iran’s Kish Island. And Caitlin Coleman and her young child remain captive in Afghanistan. They are just the publicized cases. According to the White House, about 30 Americans are being held captive overseas.
Those cases, which now straddle the line between the old and new proposed policies, are the metric for whether Obama’s new plan will succeed.
Critics—including California Republican Representative Duncan Hunter—are skeptical.
“Wholesale changes are needed, but what’s being put forward is nothing more than window dressing, I fear,” Hunter said.
Family members of past and current hostages have said they struggled to get information about their loved ones. Sometimes they felt as if they were being treated as a nuisance or a security risk by the government, they said. While the FBI leads such cases, the White House, intelligence community, and the State Department often are involved as well. And yet the agencies seldom communicate among themselves. Often each agency has its own agenda. The State Department, for example, wants to protect diplomatic relations with relevant governments. The White House’s priority is national security. The FBI focuses on building a case for prosecution.
Lost in all this bureaucratic myopia was a focus on the safe return of hostages, family members said.
That, along with scarce communication, led to bad blood between families and the government. Diane Foley, whose son James was held in Syria before the self-proclaimed Islamic State released a video of his beheading last year, has said she learned about the video showing her son’s death from a reporter—not the government. The FBI agent assigned to her son’s case did not call at all the day the video was released, she added. She didn’t realize that U.S. government officials believed the video to be authentic until the president announced it on TV. She met with the group reviewing the hostage policy.
The president met with several families of other hostages—as well as some former hostages—before making his announcement on Wednesday.
“I acknowledged to them in private what I want to say publicly: that it is true that there have been times where our government, regardless of good intentions, has let them down,” Obama said. “I promised them that we can do better.”
The president said the U.S. government would form a “fusion group,” led by the FBI and made up of representatives from seven government agencies, to deal with hostage cases. The U.S. government would also allow families to negotiate ransoms with their loved ones’ hostage takers without fear of prosecution. Previously, U.S. officials warned families that paying to release hostages was a violation of U.S. law and could put them in peril of being arrested and charged by the Justice Department.
The president also promised to appoint a new special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, an intelligence community issue manager for hostage affairs, a hostage response group to meet weekly to discuss ongoing cases, and a family engagement team to work with hostages’ loved ones.
“The proposals, as I understand them … are significant,” added Atlantic Media Chairman and CEO David Bradley, who has helped in five hostages cases in Syria. “They present the possibility that, going forward, the U.S. government will deploy three, five, ten times the coordinated effort it has been able to rally in the past,” Bradley said in a statement. “Instead of 5 percent of the time of Washington’s 20 busiest people, there will be senior talent dedicated, 24/7, to hostage rescue.”
Critics say the president’s new policy of not being prosecuting Americans for paying ransoms could lead to more Americans being taken hostage. Under the new policy, the U.S. government still will not pay ransoms.
Still others said the president spelled out adjustments that should have been made when the administration was dealing with other hostage cases. It was the release of a video showing Foley’s death in August that spurred the administration to conduct a review of its policies. In the months after Foley’s death, ISIS beheaded Americans Steven Sotloff and Peter Kassig. American aid worker Kayla Mueller was killed in Syria while being held by ISIS. Journalist Luke Somers, a hostage of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was killed during an attempted American military rescue in Yemen. Warren Weinstein, a contractor and al Qaeda hostage, was accidently killed in a U.S. drone strike.
“After a long, drawn-out review of U.S. hostage policy, the changes offered up by the White House prove that neither the right questions were asked nor were any lessons learned,” Hunter said in a statement. The California Republican has been a leading critic of the administration’s hostage policy and had called for the creation of a position to oversee all the government’s recovery efforts.
Hunter specifically criticized the decision to establish a new “fusion cell” for information on hostages under the control of the FBI, which Hunters said “is not organized or developed for hostage recovery in hostile areas…” The bureau will have “no chance” of giving orders that the two deputy directors of the cell, representing the Defense and State departments, would follow, Hunter said. The congressman had advocated for the Defense Department and the military to take a more active role in recovery operations.
Still others noted that the decision to allow families to pay hostages was not as major a change as it appeared, citing a 2002 executive order.
“I don’t see any groundbreaking stuff or surprises…with the possible enhancement of clearly stating the U.S. government will not prosecute or sanction private ransom efforts,” Chuck Regini, a former senior FBI hostage negotiator who participated in the development of the previous U.S hostage policy, told The Daily Beast. Regini said the administration’s direction “seems largely consistent” with what was already spelled out in a classified national security presidential directive, known as NSPD-12, signed by President George W. Bush in 2002.
That document had long been the guidebook for how U.S. government agencies were supposed to work together to help rescue American hostages. And it did allow ransom payments under particular circumstances.
“NSPD-12 does allow ransom payments facilitated through a private entity or directly paid by the U.S. government, as long as the ransom operation contributes evidence or intelligence that can be used to prosecute or otherwise dismantle the kidnap group,” Regini said. Ransoms can’t be paid as a quid pro quo, but rather must be used as a lure.
However, there had been a “great reluctance” to use all the tools that NSPD-12 created, Regini said. “U.S. private entities (families or companies) have never been prosecuted or sanctioned for ransom payments, but I think it’s good to clearly state that so that all U.S. government agencies consistently know how to advise victims’ families.”