National Security

After hostage rescue fails, no-negotiation policy is questioned

This image made from militant video posted online by militants on Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows Luke Somers, an American photojournalist born in Britain held hostage by al-Qaida's affiliate in Yemen.  Somers has been killed in a failed rescue attempt, his sister said Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014. Lucy Somers told The Associated Press that she and her father learned of her 33-year-old brother Luke Somers' death from FBI agents at 0500 GMT (12 a.m. EST) Saturday.
This image made from militant video posted online by militants on Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows Luke Somers, an American photojournalist born in Britain held hostage by al-Qaida's affiliate in Yemen. Somers has been killed in a failed rescue attempt, his sister said Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014. Lucy Somers told The Associated Press that she and her father learned of her 33-year-old brother Luke Somers' death from FBI agents at 0500 GMT (12 a.m. EST) Saturday. AP

Two days after an American hostage was killed during a failed rescue mission in Yemen, a member of Congress questioned on Monday the U.S. policy of not negotiating with terrorists, saying that approach leaves highly risky military operations as the only means to bring an American back alive.

In a letter obtained by McClatchy, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who’s pushed the administration to reconsider its approach to hostages, wrote that a lack of communication among the various government agencies involved when Americans are kidnapped overseas – the FBI, the State Department, the National Security Council and the intelligence community – means important information that could improve the chances of an American surviving captivity diminish.

“Presently, there is a growing disconnect between government organizations that deal with American captives in hostile areas, thereby limiting recovery options to a kinetic rescue, possible escape or defection,” Hunter wrote in the letter, which was addressed to President Barack Obama.

Pentagon officials confirmed Monday that they didn’t know that a South Africa group had been negotiating to secure the release of a South African hostage, Pierre Korkie, who died in the failed Yemeni rescue mission along with American photographer Luke Somers. The Pentagon has said both hostages were shot by their captors when the presence of the American rescue team was revealed before it had launched its attack. Korkie was to have been released Sunday, said the group, Gift of the Givers.

“Someone presumably knew, but the problem is that none of the information got to the right people. In the end, the people who made the final decision to rescue Somers did not know,” an official who’d been briefed on the attempted rescue told McClatchy. He spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he hadn’t been authorized to discuss the mission publicly.

The official said the Pentagon also didn’t know that Somers and Korkie were being held together when it planned and carried out its raid at around 4 a.m. Yemeni time Saturday. As about 40 special operators approached the building where the two were being held, their seven captors shot the hostages. U.S. forces killed the captors, recovered Somers and Korkie, who reportedly were still alive, and returned to the vertical takeoff V-22 Ospreys that had brought the would-be rescuers near the village where the two were being held. Both hostages were pronounced dead aboard the USS Makin Island, which was stationed in the Gulf of Aden off the Yemeni coast.

U.S. policy prohibits paying ransom as a means of getting an American back, and American law may penalize anyone who pays a ransom for funding a terrorist group.

Hunter said the policy had gone beyond ransom payments to effectively cutting off any contact with the groups holding American hostages. By not talking, the U.S. may inadvertently signal that it doesn’t care about the captive, raising the chances that person might be killed, Hunter wrote.

“Of course, it is sound policy not to pay ransoms, but we must also acknowledge that incentives are regularly offered that do not coincide with the formal definition of a ransom and communications do often occur – and must continue – through the captor network. However, without the right coordination or authority, opportunities are regularly lost,” his letter said.

After the release of a video Aug. 19 showing the beheading of James Foley, an American journalist who’d been held in Syria by the Islamic State, the administration said it was reviewing its hostage policy. In a letter, it said that among the areas the review would focus on was “family engagement.” But the families of hostages, as well as former hostages themselves, told McClatchy they haven’t been contacted about participating in the review.

“Family engagement by the administration has been abysmal,” Hunter wrote. “As part of your review, it is absolutely necessary that you involve the families and seriously consider their experiences and recommendations. They should be a cornerstone of your review, especially when they often receive conflicting guidance on information they receive – including demands for proof of life or various types of contact from individuals associated with captors.”

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