“No family of an American hostage has ever been prosecuted” for attempting to pay a ransom to win them back, Barack Obama declared near the end of his address on changes in hostage policy. Obama had earlier announced that a new executive order would make clear that families in that position shall no longer be threatened by such prosecution, but defended the existing policy of refusing to offer “concessions” to hostage takers:
CNN lays out the changes announced by Obama in this speech:
–A Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell will coordinate all of the U.S. government’s response. Located at the FBI, it will be directed by a senior FBI official, but will have representatives from other key US agencies such as the State Department and the Pentagon. This will be a 24/7 operation and is modeled on Joint Terrorism Task Forces where officials from many agencies come together to work on a common set of problems.
–A “family engagement coordinator” will be the single point of contact for the families of hostages.
–A senior U.S. diplomat will be appointed to be the presidential envoy for hostage affairs at the State Department and will be responsible for the diplomatic component of any hostage negotiation.
–An intelligence official will be appointed who will be able to declassify information about the hostages so that it can be given to the hostage’s family. A big problem in the past has been the fact that the families were not “cleared” to receive the intelligence, often classified, about what was happening to their family members who had been taken hostage.
–Hostage families had in the past been threatened with prosecution if they paid ransom to terrorist organizations. They will no longer need to fear this outcome, as the U.S. government will not prosecute them if they communicate directly with the hostage takers and offer ransom payments.
–As per longstanding policy, the U.S. government won’t pay any ransom itself, nor will it alter its “no concessions” policy.
On this point, CNN’s Peter Bergen decided to insert a parenthetical editorial comment about the policy:
(This is predicated on the seemingly reasonable view that the U.S. government should not pay ransoms, as they will encourage hostages-taking. In fact, there is no empirical evidence for the claim that the United States’ policy of not paying for the release of its hostages–unlike certain Europe governments–makes Americans any safer in hostile areas overseas.)
There has actually been considerable evidence that the willingness of other Western nations to pay ransoms has escalated the market for kidnappings and especially ransom demands. The UK’s Guardian reported on this effect almost a year ago:
Those ransoms – frequently delivered in the form of cash-filled suitcases handed over in the desert – have had unintended but inevitable consequences. More nationals from those countries have been targeted for kidnap as they represent a guaranteed return, while the intervention of major European states willing to pay millions of euros has inflated the price for other captives, putting the cost beyond the reach of families or employers trying to negotiate privately.
“When states pay vast ransoms, it skews the market, and it’s simply not possible for families to pay that amount,” said David Rohde, a Reuters journalist who was kidnapped in Afghanistan by the Taliban and held for seven months. “The Foleys faced that harsh reality over and over again in this case.”
Government participation in this market makes it almost moot whether the US adopts a laissez-faire approach with the families of hostages. Unless those families are tech billionaires, it will be almost impossible to meet terrorist ransom demands anyway, thanks to the distortion those government interventions create. Furthermore, paying ransoms do two other things that make people less safe. They provide terrorists with propaganda for recruitment, and the ransoms go directly to funding other terrorist acts, including those against Americans in “hostile areas overseas.”
On top of that, the US is bound by treaty with the G-8 to refuse concessions. That may be routinely broken by other G-8 nations, but it is still a treaty in force here in the US (and the UK, which follows the same policy). That treaty doesn’t bar private individuals from negotiating ransoms for hostages — that’s covered by statutory law which Obama now says the Department of Justice will continue not to enforce — but it does bind official action by the US government.
Not everyone’s happy with the new approach to hostaging. NBC reports that several lawmakers on Capitol Hill are already blasting Obama’s approach:
“The brutal murders of innocent Americans held hostage by the Islamic State are tragic and sober reminders that the terrorist threat against the United States and its allies is real and ongoing,” Goodlatte, R-Virginia said in a statement. “Unfortunately, President Obama’s decision to change our nation’s longstanding policy against paying ransom demands to terrorists does more harm than good. In fact, it empowers, emboldens, and incentivizes these violent extremists to capture and hold more Americans hostage for ransom. I urge President Obama to reconsider the implications of this policy shift and ensure that our hostage policies will actually serve to protect American lives.”
There are certainly risks with this shift in approach, foreign policy experts said.
“The U.S. has for decades had a policy of not formally negotiating with terror groups or paying ransoms out of a fear that would just encourage them to grab more American hostages. That’s a real risk for this new policy as well,” Dreazen said. “The calculus the White House is probably making is that groups like the Islamic State are already super-motivated to nag Americans, so trying to make it easier to get them back outweighs the slim chance the group would somehow become even more anxious to grab more.”
Lawmakers such as Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, R-California, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, who has been a vocal advocate for rescuing American hostages held by terrorist groups are also frustrated that the changes don’t go further.
“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. “Wholesale changes are needed, but what’s being put forward is nothing more than window dressing, I fear. It’s a pathetic response to a serious problem that has plagued the ability of the U.S. to successfully recover Americans held captive in the post-9/11 era.”
What’s the real impact of these changes, though? Not much, on first blush, except for families of hostages who had to deal with empty bluster about prosecution in their desperation. The escalating demands of hostage-takers make it almost certain that there will be no way a ransom would succeed anyway, and the rest of this is reshuffling deck chairs around the rest of the near-futility of US defense against hostage-takers. Absent success in rescue-and-extraction missions, the US can’t have much impact on this unless we’re willing to take the field militarily and deny terrorists any ground to hold.
If these changes make the agony of the families any more tolerable, great. Just don’t expect that these changes will make Americans safer, either abroad or at home, except from overzealous bureaucrats.