Obama orders shift in hostage policy

Obama orders shift in hostage policy

President Obama on Wednesday rolled out new policies allowing families of American hostages to offer ransom payments to their captors without the threat of prosecution. 

The government will be able to communicate with terrorist groups and other organizations to help secure the release of hostages held overseas, but will still refuse to make concessions or ransom payments.

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Obama’s announcement is the culmination of a seven-month review that began after a wave of executions of American hostages by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), including journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid worker Kayla Mueller. 

Victims’ families have long accused the government of treating them poorly or giving them conflicting information about what they are able to do to rescue their relatives.

Obama on Wednesday morning spoke with about 40 family members and former hostages in what he called a “very emotional meeting” at the White House.

“Many of the families told us that they at times felt like an afterthought or a distraction,” Obama said. “That ends today. I’m making it clear that these families are to be treated like what they are — our trusted partners and active partners in the recovery of their loved ones.”

Obama issued an executive order and a presidential directive that include two-dozen steps to reform the nation’s treatment of hostage situations.

The policy changes include the creation of a new office, known as a hostage recovery fusion cell, to better coordinate response efforts with the families of American captives.

The office will include officials from various federal agencies, including the State Department, the Pentagon, and the CIA, but will be housed in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Although it primarily works on the domestic front, the FBI has been closely involved in overseas hostage cases, including Foley’s.

The State Department will also name a special presidential envoy for hostage affairs who will help communicate with foreign governments involved in freeing U.S. hostages.

Obama highlighted the government’s successful efforts to free hostages being held abroad, noting more than half of the 80 American taken captive after 9/11 have come home. He said the U.S. has launched risky rescue operations to recover several of them.

But he acknowledged, “there have been times where our government, regardless of good intentions, has let them down.” 

“I promised them that we can do better,” Obama said of the families. 

There are more than 30 Americans still being held hostage abroad, the president’s top counterterrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco, told reporters Wednesday. She said the policy changes were intended to create a “partnered approach” with families to rescue their loved ones. 

Critics in Congress said giving families tacit approval to make private ransom payments could further incentivize extremists groups to kidnap Americans.

“I’ve been very concerned that the president's posture has not only encouraged negotiation with terrorists but has had the United States negotiating with terrorists,” Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), a member of the House Armed Services and Intelligence committees, told The Hill. “It's bad precedent."

Asked if the payments put more Americans at risk, Monaco said ransom “fuels the very activity that we are trying to stop.” But she added the administration has a “responsibility to stand with families as they make the most difficult decisions they can possibly imagine.”

Lawmakers in both political parties are pushing for more sweeping reforms to how the U.S. frees Americans captives being held overseas. Some said the White House’s policy changes do not go far enough.  

A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House and Senate is introducing legislation that would create an independent director to oversee a new hostage-rescue task force.  

That’s different than the White House’s plan, which tasks an FBI official with overseeing the new interagency “fusion cell.” The concern is the office will not have enough authority to untangle the bureaucratic morass that has plagued hostage-response efforts.

Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinPro-Israel organizations should finally seek payback against Iran deal Dems Cardin wins reelection in Maryland Election Day: An hour-by-hour viewer’s guide MORE (D-Md.), who co-authored the bill with Sen. John CornynJohn CornynTrump throws support behind criminal justice bill McConnell reelected as leader, Thune promoted to whip This week: Congress starts lame-duck with leadership fight MORE (R-Texas), praised the president’s moves but said his measure “goes one step further.”

“There should be a single point person in the executive branch that coordinates the efforts and the family has access to that individual so they can get the best information,” he said Wednesday on MSNBC.

Cardin helped the family of Maryland resident Warren Weinstein, an al Qaeda captive inadvertently killed in a drone strike earlier this year, coordinate their rescue efforts with the federal government. 

Many families of hostages, including Weinstein's, have urged the Obama administration to create an independent hostage "czar." 

Elaine Weinstein, the wife of Warren, called the creation of a fusion cell "a good idea," but said, “our benchmark for this review’s success will be the actions arising from it.”

“It is our most sincere hope that it was conducted fully and frankly so the U.S. government can have an honest conversation about the areas where it falls short," she said in a statement to ABC News.

Obama said that families “are right to be skeptical,” but he said he is “setting up mechanisms to ensure accountability.”

“When it comes to how our government works to recover Americans held hostage and how we work with their families, we are changing how we do business,” Obama said.

Martin Matishak contributed.

— This story was updated at 4:36 p.m.