Overnight Defense: Obama rolls out new hostage policy

THE TOPLINE. President Obama on Wednesday announced a policy shift in dealing with hostages, allowing families of American hostages to offer ransom payments to their captors without the threat of prosecution, reports The Hill's Jordan Fabian.

The government will be able to help families communicate with terrorist groups and other organizations to help secure the release of hostages held overseas, but will not make concessions or ransom payments itself.

Obama's shift came 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 how they can help their relatives.

"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."

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

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

There are more than 30 Americans still being held hostage abroad, the president's top counterterrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco, said 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 provide further incentive for terror groups to kidnap American citizens.

"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."


GOP BRACES FOR IRAN DEAL. As the final deadline nears for a nuclear deal with Iran, Republicans appear to be setting up for a vote on the agreement.

The Hill's Jordain Carney reports that Republican senators are raising their rhetoric against the deal on Iran's nuclear program with just days for negotiators to finalize a long-term agreement.

Republicans slammed the Obama administration for backsliding on demands over the course of negotiations.

"It seems to me that using the term 'negotiation' is a stretch," Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntSkepticism grows over Friday deadline for coronavirus deal GOP expects Senate to be in session next week without coronavirus deal House Republicans introduce legislation to give states 0 million for elections MORE (R-Mo.), the vice chairman of the Senate Republican conference, said Wednesday from the Senate floor.

"Two years ago, we said things that we would insist on. Two years later, none of those things appear to be things that are still being discussed in these Iranian so-called negotiations," he added.

And Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonDemocrats try to force Trump to boost medical supplies production GOP chairmen hit back at accusation they are spreading disinformation with Biden probe Unemployment debate sparks GOP divisions MORE (R-Wis.) cast doubt on the deal, citing Iran's opposition to allowing any military sites to be inspected, "I think we're being played.

"I think a deal at this point would be very destabilizing. It would not be a good deal," he said.

The administration is required to submit the deal to Congress by July 9 for review, under legislation passed earlier this year. Under the bill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCoronavirus talks collapse as negotiators fail to reach deal Pelosi, Schumer say White House declined T coronavirus deal COVID-19 bill limiting liability would strike the wrong balance MORE (R-Ky.) can either bring up a resolution of approval, disapproval or do nothing.

There was plenty of skepticism in the House over the nearing Iran deal, as well.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) is questioned whether the White House was making too many concessions to Iran.

"The Obama Administration is dropping its bottom-line by the day," Royce said in a statement Wednesday, citing media reports that Iran will use its underground nuclear reactor in Fordo for isotope production.

"While we once demanded that this hardened mountain-top facility be shut, we are now on the verge of accepting technology there that can quickly be re-engineered for bomb-making fuel," according to Royce.


DOD: NO CHANGES FOR BASES WITH CONFEDERATE NAMES. The Defense Department said there has been "no discussion" on renaming U.S. military bases that honor Confederate officers.

"As of now, there's no discussion of adjusting our current naming policies," said Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.

Some lawmakers and government officials have called for Confederate flags and other symbols to be removed from government properties in the wake of a mass shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C.

The outcry has prompted questions over whether the Army should rename several of its military installations named after Confederate generals and a colonel.

The installations include some of the most well known Army installations: Fort Benning in Georgia, Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Fort Hood in Texas.

Warren said the naming of military installations is up to the individual services.

"The services are ultimately responsible for naming their own military installations, and as of now, there are no current plans to change policies regarding how installations are named."

The Army issued a statement later on Wednesday explaining the use of the names, but did not indicate whether any changes would be coming.

"Every Army installation is named for a soldier who holds a place in our military history," according to Army Chief of Public Affairs Brig. Gen. Malcolm B. Frost.


BENGHAZI DEMS WANT VOTE ON DEPOSITION. Democratic members of the House panel investigating the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, called for a vote on releasing the deposition of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocratic convention lineup to include Ocasio-Cortez, Clinton, Warren: reports Trump brushes off view that Russia denigrating Biden: 'Nobody's been tougher on Russia than I have' Kanye West 'not denying' his campaign seeks to damage Biden MORE confidant Sidney Blumenthal.

In a letter to House Select Committee on Benghazi Chairman Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdySenate GOP set to ramp up Obama-era probes More than two dozen former prosecutors, judges, active trial lawyers support DOJ decision to dismiss Michael Flynn case Sunday shows preview: As states loosen social distancing restrictions, lawmakers address dwindling state budgets MORE (R-S.C.), the panel's five Democrats invoked the procedures that were adopted by the House when the panel was established last year to demand a vote.

"The chair and the ranking minority member shall consult regarding the release of depositions," the Democrats wrote. "If either objects in writing to a proposed release of a deposition or a portion thereof, the matter shall be promptly referred to the Select Committee for resolution."

"It appears that all of these prerequisites have been fulfilled," they said.

In their letter, Democrats charge that Gowdy and his fellow Republicans have already treated Blumenthal differently because he was brought in under subpoena and the select committee has already released his emails to and from Clinton.

"Chairman Gowdy attempted to schedule a meeting so Members could discuss this matter but the Democrats chose to send out a press release instead. They remain uniquely focused on anything other than substantively advancing the Benghazi investigation," committee spokesman Jamal Ware said in a statement.



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