The execution of American captives by the Islamic State has driven the U.S. government to overhaul its handling of hostage cases, with President Barack Obama acknowledging Wednesday that longstanding policy was inadequate as “the terrorist threat is evolving.”
In somber remarks at the White House, Obama gave his most extensive public statement of contrition on the issue, acknowledging that his administration had let down the families of American hostages and pledging landmark reforms to make recovery efforts nimble enough to face increasingly sophisticated militant groups that use hostage-taking for profit and propaganda value.
The changes come after intense lobbying by the families and friends of American hostages, three of whom were beheaded in Syria by the Islamic State, including journalists Steven Sotloff, who grew up in Miami, and James Foley, the first of the hostages to be murdered.
“These families have already suffered enough, and they should never feel ignored or victimized by their own government,” Obama said. “We must do better.”
Under a new set of policies, the U.S. government still won’t pay ransoms. But it will no longer be considered a crime for families to do so.
The new policies also no longer will prohibit government officials from talking to terrorist groups in an effort to win a hostage’s release.
Reaction to the announcement from hostage families and their supporters was mixed.
David Bradley, chairman and CEO of Atlantic Media, who led and bankrolled an independent hostage-recovery effort on behalf of five hostage families, said in a statement that he welcomed the changes to a policy that had been “uneven, uncoordinated and slow out of the gate.”
The administration’s announcement, he continued, indicates that U.S. officials are now dedicated to a more streamlined, 24/7 hostage rescue effort.
“I don’t know how often the throw weight of a determined bureaucracy can outwit the speed and fury of stateless terrorists like ISIS,” Bradley said, referring to the Islamic State by an acronym. “But, the chances should move in our favor.”
Marc and Debra Tice, the parents of missing McClatchy journalist Austin Tice, said they are “cautiously optimistic” the changes would help bring their son home.
But they, like others, voiced concern in a statement that Obama had not created a position that would oversee all government agencies with responsibilities for resolving the kidnapping of an American overseas. “Nevertheless, we think this is a strong start, and we appreciate the president’s commitment to periodically reviewing and improving this policy,” the Tices said in a statement.
Some members of Congress were adamantly opposed to the changed policies.
“We have had a policy in the United States for over 200 years of not paying ransom and not negotiating with terrorists,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “The concern that I have is that by lifting that long-held principle you could be endangering more Americans here and overseas.”
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who has played a key role on the issue in Congress, also criticized the new policies changes because they placed the FBI in charge of a newly created “fusion cell” that would coordinate government efforts on behalf of hostages. He said the FBI is structured to handle domestic law enforcement, has little presence overseas and lacks the ability and experience to coordinate military and intelligence assets, such as spy satellites, needed to track hostages.
Hunter cited as an example of his criticism the fact that the FBI agent in charge of the case of Warren Weinstein, a 73-year-old American aid worker who was kidnapped in Pakistan in 2011, never visited the South Asian country. Weinstein was accidentally killed in a CIA drone strike on an al Qaida hideout in April.
Lucie Morillon, of the journalist advocacy group Reporters Without Borders, also was restrained in her assessment of the fusion cell. “This mechanism will have to prove that it is capable of overcoming the differences between the various agencies and instituting rapid and effective procedures,” she said.
The Obama administration’s review of U.S. government policies toward hostages began in response to the cases of five journalists and aid workers who were captured while working in Syria: Foley, Sotloff, Peter Kassig, Kayla Mueller and Theo Padnos.
The first four were all held by the Islamic State; the men were beheaded and Mueller died, apparently when the building in which she was being held was bombed by a Jordanian aircraft.
Padnos was held by the Nusra Front, al Qaida’s Syrian franchise, which released him after nearly two years, largely through the involvement of Qatar.
Throughout their captivities, the families complained to friends that the government often withheld information and seemed uninformed about what other government agencies were doing and provided little to no assistance when their loved ones’ captors reached out to negotiate.
Barak Barfi, a Middle East analyst who was best friends with Sotloff and who worked closely with his and other hostages’ families in an independent search campaign, wrote a blistering critique of the administration’s handling of the cases and said that the backtracking is “too late.”
In an essay published this week in Foreign Policy, Barfi wrote that the changes only came because of public pressure and that U.S. officials will “never be able to cleanse themselves of the miasma that taints them for largely abandoning four Americans in need of their government’s help.”
Before announcing the policy changes, Obama met with the families of American hostages. Family members were told of the change in policy Tuesday.
“Needless to say it was a very emotional meeting,” Obama said. “Some are still grieving.”
More than 80 Americans have been taken hostage since 9/11, Obama said. More than half have come home.
One of those was Michael Scott Moore, a journalist and novelist who was seized by a gang of pirates while on a research trip to Somalia in 2012 and who was among about 50 former hostages and family members who met with Obama Wednesday.
Days after his capture, a Navy SEAL operation freed two other Western hostages held by Somali pirates. Moore, however, would spend the next two and a half years in captivity before being released in exchange for a $1.6 million ransom that had been raised by his family as well as American and German institutions.
Because his case involve pirates and not jihadists, FBI agents were able to pass information more freely to his mother.
“In a terrorist case, a lot more information tends to be classified,” Moore said.
“As far as I understand, the government just seized up last year when it comes to kidnapping cases,” he said. “Nobody knew how to handle them, the government’s policy wasn’t clear in how to handle them and word went around to officials that families paying a ransom was tantamount to material support for a terrorist group, and it just wasn’t true.”
Frank Holder, an expert on security investigations for the Berkeley Research Group, said Obama’s actions were only in part a response to the anguish of the families and that the change in policies might well be seen as a victory by the Islamic State.
“I think their interpretation will be ‘We got the powerful world Satan of the United States to change long-standing policy,’ ” Holder said.
Jonathan Landay in Washington contributed to this report.