WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama said Wednesday that the U.S. government had let down the families of Americans held hostage by terrorists, and he outlined new policies that could make it easier for those families to pay ransom to help free their loved ones.
“These families have already suffered enough and they should never feel ignored or victimized by their own government,” Obama said as he detailed the results of a six-month review of U.S. hostage policy.
The review’s conclusions aim to streamline and improve communications with families, who have sharply criticized the government for providing them with confusing and contradictory information. Some families have complained about threats of criminal prosecution if they seek to pay ransom to terrorists — threats Obama said would end.
“The last thing we should ever do is add to a family’s pain with threats like that,” Obama said.
The president’s pledge essentially clears the way for families to take actions the U.S. government has long said put Americans abroad at greater risk. While no formal changes were being made to a law prohibiting material support for terrorists, the Justice Department indicated it would essentially ignore the law in most situations involving families.
Obama expressed his concerns that paying ransoms makes Americans greater targets for kidnapping and increases funding for terrorists. He also said the U.S. government would continue to abide by the “no concessions” policy, but made clear that government officials can have contact with hostage-takers.
Critics of the White House review argue that allowing families to do what the government will not could lead to those same troubling consequences.
“We have had a policy in the United States for over 200 years of not paying ransom and not negotiating with terrorists,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “The concern that I have is that by lifting that long-held principle you could be endangering more Americans here and overseas.”
The president spoke shortly after meeting privately with several hostages’ families and some former hostages. While more than 80 Americans have been taken hostage since the Sept. 11 attacks, the issue has gained fresh attention in recent months following the deaths of several Americans held by the Islamic State group, al-Qaida and others.
Despite the ban on the U.S. government making concessions to terrorists, the Obama administration did negotiate with the Taliban last year to win the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured after walking away from this post in Afghanistan. Five Guantanamo Bay detainees were exchanged as a condition of his release.
White House officials say those negotiations were permissible because Obama sees a special responsibility to leave no American service member behind on the battlefield.
Elaine Weinstein, whose husband Warren Weinstein was accidentally killed by a U.S. drone strike in April while being held hostage by al-Qaida, argued against the government making such distinctions between U.S. citizens.
Four other Americans have been killed by IS since last summer: journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller. After the release of gruesome videos showing the beheadings of some hostages, Obama approved an airstrike campaign against IS in Iraq and Syria.
Luke Somers, an American held in Yemen, was also killed during a failed U.S. rescue attempt.
In a step aimed at streamlining communications with families, the White House also announced the creation of a “Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell” that will coordinate recovery efforts among various government agencies. Some families had pushed for the new office to be based at the White House, but it will be at the FBI.
The president said it was “totally unacceptable” that hostages’ families had felt lost in the bureaucracy and he said the fusion cell would be an important step in rectifying that problem.
White House invited the families of 82 Americans held hostage since 2001 to participate in the review, and 24 agreed to do so. The National Counterterrorism Center, which oversaw the review, also consulted with hostage experts from the U.S. and other countries.
Obama said that in the future, the U.S. would treat families of hostages held by terrorists as partners in the effort to secure their loved ones’ release.
“We’re not going to abandon you,” Obama said. “We’re going to stand by you.”
Associated Press writers Eric Tucker, Bradley Klapper and Erica Werner in Washington and David Dishneau in Hagerstown, Maryland, contributed to this report.