White House: Helping families pay ransom not same as paying ransom

White House: Helping families pay ransom not same as paying ransom
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Helping the families of U.S. hostages pay ransoms is not the same as paying one, the White House insisted on Thursday.

Spokesman Josh Earnest offered that response amid a wide-ranging debate over the Obama administration’s efforts to free American hostages held by terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. 

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The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that the FBI helped the family of Warren Weinstein make a ransom payment to his al-Qaeda captors by vetting a Pakistani middleman who helped deliver the money. 

The ransom payment did not result in Weinstein’s release; he was mistakenly killed in a U.S. counterterrorism strike on an al-Qaeda compound where he was being held near the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

Earnest declined to comment on the claims made in the Wall Street Journal story. 

“Speaking generally, helping with a ransom payment … is not tantamount to paying a ransom,” he told reporters.

Earnest said that the U.S. longstanding policy against paying ransoms for hostages “is not going to change.”

A veteran FBI hostage negotiator told The Daily Beast that it’s routine for the agency to offer families that type of assistance. 

“The FBI has always supported and assisted families with ransom payments. That has never changed,” said former FBI agent Charles Regini. He added that the FBI has been doing that since the 1990s. 

Five months ago, the White House initiated a review of its policies on handling U.S. hostages being held abroad in the wake of ISIS beheading its American captives.

The White House has said it is mulling the creation of a “fusion cell” to improve coordination between the government and the families of U.S. hostages, who have complained about poor communication.

Earnest said the review would not result in changes to the no-ransom policy, arguing that paying money to free hostages lines the pockets of terrorist groups and makes Americans bigger targets to be kidnapped.

But he acknowledged it can be difficult to reassure families of hostages that U.S. officials they are doing all they can to rescue captives while maintaining a no-ransom policy.

“These are the kind of policy dilemmas that creep up on a daily basis here,” he said. “In this case, we are talking about a particularly challenging one, given the emotions that are involved.”