White House to announce new hostage ransom policy

After the disastrous deaths of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and Peter Kassig, the White House was forced to go back and take a fresh look at not only how they deal with potential hostage rescue scenarios, but how they interact with the families of hostages as well. That review is now complete and Foreign Policy reports that there will be some changes being announced this week.

President Barack Obama’s administration will reassure the families of Americans held by groups like the Islamic State that they can pay ransoms without fear of prosecution, the first tangible policy change to result from the deaths of an array of U.S. captives in recent months.

The shift, which has not previously been reported, will be detailed Wednesday as part of the administration’s long-awaited review of U.S. hostage policy, according to two government officials and others familiar with the matter. The White House launched the probe last year after coming under fierce criticism for failing to do more to bring back missing American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and aid worker Peter Kassig, all three of whom were beheaded by the Islamic State. Three other Americans — journalist Luke Somers in Yemen, and aid workers Kayla Mueller in Syria and Warren Weinstein on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan — have since been killed while in militant custody.

It’s far from clear if the changes — which will also include the creation of a new government-wide hostage recovery fusion center at the FBI — will be enough to mollify the simmering anger many hostage families continue to feel towards the White House. People familiar with the matter said that only 24 of the 82 families the administration reached out to chose to participate in the review process, a clear sign of the lack of trust between the two sides. A spokesman for the Weinstein family said Monday that “hostage families are understandably skeptical about this review.”

Some of the detailed proposals covered in the article seem like solid and long overdue measures. Communications with the families have been beyond dismal at times and that needed to change. Assigning some point person with up to date, detailed knowledge of all intelligence which can be safely released and having them be available to the families at all times is a great start. That doesn’t get you any closer to having your loved one safely back home, but there is some comfort in being kept in the loop. Additionally, if the families are contacted and happen to get any information which could prove useful in effecting a rescue, they should be able to feed that up the chain without delay.

The question of ransom is a more complicated one. We’re still maintaining a policy of never negotiating with terrorists, but apparently we’re hinting, if not stating, that if families want to pay the terrorists a ransom, they won’t get in trouble. Sort of.

A second senior administration official said the White House wouldn’t seek to change the current laws, which explicitly say that anyone who “knowingly provides material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization, or attempts or conspires to do so, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 15 years, or both, and, if the death of any person results, shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life.”

Instead, the official said the White House would publicly and privately point out that the Justice Department has never gone after families who paid ransoms to win the release of their relatives — and almost certainly wouldn’t do so in the future.

“There has been confusion in the past by family members of hostages about potential prosecutions,” the official said. “[The Justice Department] has never used the material support statute to prosecute a family member for paying a ransom for the safe return of their loved ones.”

Call me naive, but I somehow don’t think that ISIS much cares if their million dollars comes directly from the coffers of the government or from the private bank accounts of families of hostages. Similarly, one of the chief reasons given for this standing policy is that if you pay off the terrorists for one hostage you provide a huge incentive for them to take more. Is there really a difference between making it legal to pay ransoms or saying that it’s illegal but nobody will be pestered over it?

This is the toughest part of the whole question. If it’s your family member being held and tortured and threatened with beheading on the sand, you would likely do pretty much anything to get them back home safely. And being the government representative that says you’re not allowed to take those steps and try to get them home alive is almost unimaginable. I honestly don’t have an answer for that part, but clearly the White House seems to think they do.