White House

U.S. reviewing how it deals with families of American hostages

The Obama administration is reviewing its policies for helping the families of Americans held hostage overseas, following criticism from Congress and families of captives later executed by the Islamic State.

Obama directed the review over the summer, given the “extraordinary nature of some of the hostage takings,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday.

Obama “felt it was warranted to direct the relevant departments and agencies who have traditionally been involved in assisting families as they try to recover the safe return of their family members,” Earnest said.

The Department of Defense, the State Department, the FBI and the intelligence community are involved in the review.

The review, however, will not change the administration’s opposition to paying ransom to terrorist organizations to get detainees back, Earnest said.

News that the review is ongoing comes days after the Islamic State said it had beheaded a third U.S. hostage, Peter Kassig, an American aid worker and former Army Ranger.

The review was prompted by “the increased frequency of hostage-taking of Americans overseas and the recognition of the dynamic threat posed by specific terrorist groups,” Christine Wormuth, the undersecretary of defense for policy, wrote last week in a letter to Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., that was first reported Monday by The Daily Beast.

The “comprehensive review” will look at U.S. government policy on overseas terrorist-related hostage cases, with “specific emphasis on examining family engagement, intelligence collection, and diplomatic engagement policies,” Wormuth wrote.

The Islamic State has executed three U.S. hostages, including two journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

Families of some of the hostages have been critical of the administration for not doing enough to secure their release. Foley’s mother and brother complained after his death in August that Obama administration officials threatened that they would face prosecution if they raised money to pay Islamic State militants a ransom for Foley’s release.

Earnest said the administration’s dealings with families would be part of the review, but the White House would not say if any families are participating in the review.

Hunter, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, had written to Obama in August after Foley’s execution, saying he was concerned the administration was not “exhausting opportunities” to potentially bring back hostages. He urged the administration to direct a Pentagon official to oversee release efforts.

He repeated that call Tuesday, writing to Obama to ask for a point person at the Pentagon to lead recovery efforts.

“While I commend the FBI and State Department for their efforts, it is my firm belief that we are not exhausting the full range of options,” he wrote.

Earnest said “significant resources” have been spent to recover U.S. hostages, noting that Obama had ordered a team of several dozen U.S. special forces operators into Syria earlier this summer in an attempt to rescue several American captives, including Foley. Once on the ground, the operators found that the hostages had been moved.

The administration will not reconsider its opposition to paying ransom because it believes that Americans would be at greater risk if terrorist organizations believed they could secure dollars by kidnapping Americans, Earnest said.

He said ransom payments – including from some countries that pay for their citizens’ release – is believed to be a “very important source” of financing for the Islamic State.

U.S. officials have estimated that the militants held a few Americans, but recent news reports have said one American hostage is left. State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke would not confirm how many hostages are still believed to be in captivity.

Nancy A. Youssef of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

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