Fixing the US hostage rescue program

Ever since the recent deaths of two hostages – one of whom was American – in a drone strike, the complaints regarding how our government deals with these situations have been renewed. When you get down to the specifics of any particular hostage situation, the issue becomes far too complex for standardized approaches or easy answers. Questions of who they are, what they were doing when they were taken, where they are being held and who is doing the holding seem to make each case unique, doubtless requiring an equally unique solution. But that doesn’t mean that a general approach, at least as a starting point, couldn’t be crafted which is superior to what we have now. The President’s spokesperson addressed the issue this week. (LA Times)

The White House is considering revamping its overseas hostage-rescue program after CIA drone strikes that mistakenly killed an American and an Italian held captive by terrorists in Pakistan, the latest incident to reveal gaps in U.S. counter-terrorism efforts.

A key proposal would create an interagency task force to better coordinate efforts by the FBI, the Pentagon, State Department and intelligence agencies to find and free abduction victims, including a Pennsylvania woman who is believed to be a Taliban captive in Afghanistan.

Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said Friday that the proposed task force also would seek to streamline communication with hostages’ families. A recurrent and bitter complaint by parents and spouses has been that the government moves too slowly and shares too little information…

Earnest said the White House aims to work more closely with hostages’ families and is seeking their input on how to do so. Officials have sent letters to 82 families and former hostages, dating to 2001, and have spoken with 22 so far, officials said.

There is obviously room for improvement as to how we handle these situations but I believe it needs to come in three separate areas simultaneously, rather than looking for one silver bullet to serve as a panacea for All Things Evil in this world. The first, and easiest question to tackle deals with how the government communicates with and supports the families of hostages. Our track record of late has been nothing short of dismal given how those families have responded after the fact. We don’t need a “czar” for hostages… that’s just insulting. But we clearly need a more fully formed policy which includes assigning responsibility for communicating with them regularly, explaining all the options on the table and generally making them feel less alone and out in the cold as they deal with one of the worst disasters a family can face. Families will understandably be eager to strike a deal – any deal – to get their loved ones back home safely. Unfortunately, not all deals can be on the table and it’s always going to be rough explaining that. You need the right people for that sort of job and we should make sure we find the best ones.

Beyond just dealing with the feelings of the families, there is the question of actually doing the work required to find and (hopefully safely) recover the hostages themselves. Who is investigating these questions currently? The White House makes it sound as if it’s a mishmash of bureaucracies including the CIA, the State Department, the FBI and the Keystone Cops. I’m really not sure why the FBI is involved at all but even if they have to be, they should be on the same page with everyone else. It just seems to me that a rescue operation is nearly always going to require a lot more Mission Impossible and less Big Red One. Obviously you need the military to execute the plan in most cases, but building the plan in the first place is the larger issue.

And finally, couldn’t we be looking at ways to both reduce the risk of having hostages taken in the first place and holding countries accountable where such abductions are happening? It’s not that tough to figure out where all the seriously dangerous hotspots are in the world today. Unless you are there on military / government assignment, we may want to put more severe travel restrictions on Americans heading into places like Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan and similar traps. And for countries with at least a rough semblance of a functional government, they should be made aware that we expect a lot more participation in terms of keeping our people safe if they expect our help. There should be consequences when they fail in that responsibility.

Again, this is all extremely complex and I understand that the approach I’m pondering here is more general in nature than specific, but we do need a starting point. We’re falling down on this job and it should be an embarrassment to the White House that we’re doing so poorly.