FBI has exemption to arrange payments to hostage-takers: U.S. sources

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(Reuters) - While U.S. policy bans federal officials from doing business with kidnappers, the FBI for years has used a secret exemption to government rules to communicate with hostage-takers and sometimes send money to them, U.S. government sources said.

Under a directive issued by President George W. Bush in 2002, the FBI can engage with suspected kidnappers, including on financial transactions, when the bureau has reason to believe it would be useful for an investigation or intelligence gathering.

The rules apply to both criminal situations inside the United States and international incidents such as kidnappings, two sources familiar with the rules said.

The issue has become contentious following a series of kidnappings of Americans by Middle East groups, including Islamic State militants in Syria, and amid anger among some family members about a strict U.S. policy against paying ransoms.

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FBI has exemption to arrange payments to hostage-takers: U.S. sources
This image made from video released anonymously to reporters in Pakistan, including the Associated Press on Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013, which is consistent with other AP reporting, shows Warren Weinstein, a 72-year-old American development worker who was kidnapped in Pakistan by al-Qaida more than two years ago, appealing to President Obama to negotiate his release. The video of Weinstein was the first since two videos released in September 2012. Weinstein, the country director in Pakistan for J.E. Austin Associates, a U.S.-based firm that advises a range of Pakistani business and government sectors, was abducted from his house in the eastern city of Lahore in August 2011.(AP Photo via AP video)
This frame grab taken from a video message carrying the logo of al-Qaida's production house as-Sahab and provided by IntelCenter, a U.S. government contractor monitoring al-Qaida messaging, purports to show Adam Gadahn, a Californian also known as Azzan al-Amriki. In the video made available Sunday, Aug. 5, 2007 Gadahn threatened foreign diplomats and embassies across the Islamic world saying they would be targeted as "spy dens." (AP Photo/IntelCenter)
US President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House on April 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. The White House admitted Thursday that a January US operation against an Al Qaeda compound near the Afghan-Pakistan border killed one American and one Italian hostage, along with an American member of the jihadist group. The White House identified the hostages killed in the operation against the border compound as US contractor Warren Weinstein and Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto. (Photo by Mandel Ngan via AFP/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, April 23, 2015. The president took full responsibility for the deaths of the American and Italian hostages, and expressed apologies. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
US President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House on April 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. The White House admitted Thursday that a January US operation against an Al Qaeda compound near the Afghan-Pakistan border killed one American and one Italian hostage, along with an American member of the jihadist group. The White House identified the hostages killed in the operation against the border compound as US contractor Warren Weinstein and Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto. (Photo by Mandel Ngan via AFP/Getty Images)
In this Oct. 11, 2006 file photo, a wanted poster of Adam Yahiye Gadahn is displayed at the Justice Department in Washington. Pakistani officials say Adam Gadahn, the American-born spokesman for al-Qaida, has been arrested Sunday March 7, 2010. (AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson)
A man identified as Adam Yehiye Gadahn, an American who the FBI believes attended al-Qaida training camps in Pakistan and served as an al-Qaida translator, speaks during part of a 41-minute video posted on an Islamic militant Web site Saturday, Sept. 2, 2006 - nine days before the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Gadahn is also known as "Azzam the American." The video also showed Al-Qaida's deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahri. (AP Photo)
A Pakistani cyclist rides pass the house of a kidnapped American development expert Warren Weinstein on Thursday, Aug 25, 2011 in Lahore, Pakistan. A Pakistani police chief claimed Thursday that officers had freed a kidnapped American development expert but then he swiftly retracted the statement. The U.S. also said it could not confirm that Warren Weinstein, 70, had been released. Weinstein was kidnapped almost two weeks ago from the eastern city of Lahore. (AP Photo/K.M.Chaudary)
A Pakistani police officer stands guard at the house of kidnapped American development expert Warren Weinstein in Lahore, Pakistan, on Sunday, Aug. 14, 2011. A senior police official says investigators still don't know who kidnapped Weinstein from his home on Saturday night, in eastern Pakistan at gunpoint. Kidnappings for ransom are common in Pakistan, with foreigners being occasional targets.(AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)
Elaine Weinstein, left, wife of American aid worker Warren Weinstein who was kidnapped in Pakistan, is joined by their daughter Jennifer Coakley, right, during an interview with The Associated Press at the family home in Rockville, Md., just north of Washington, Friday, Aug. 8, 2014. In the three years since Weinstein was kidnapped by militants in Pakistan, his family has been in a strange, sad limbo. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Elaine Weinstein, left, wife of American aid worker Warren Weinstein who was kidnapped in Pakistan, speaks with The Associated Press at the family home in Rockville, Md., Friday, Aug. 8, 2014. In the three years since Weinstein was kidnapped by militants in Pakistan, his family has been in a strange, sad limbo. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Flowers and ribbons adorn a tree outside the Weinstein familyhouse in Rockville, Md., Thursday, April 23, 2015. Earlier, President Barack Obama took full responsibility for the counterterror missions and offered his "grief and condolences" to the families of the hostages, Warren Weinstein of Rockville, Maryland, and Giovanni Lo Porto who were inadvertently killed by CIA drone strikes early this year. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
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The government sources said one reason the exemption was inserted in the rules was to enable the Federal Bureau of Investigation, where appropriate, to use money as a "lure" during an investigation intended to catch hostage-takers.

But one of the sources said over the years the FBI had used the exemption so regularly that it has widened to the point where "you could drive a truck through it."

None of the government sources would discuss specific cases where ransoms were paid with the FBI's involvement.

The Wall Street Journal said on Wednesday that the FBI in 2012 helped the family of American hostage Warren Weinstein vet a Pakistani middleman who transported a ransom to al Qaeda in an unsuccessful attempt to get him released. Weinstein was killed inadvertently in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan in January.

After beheadings of a number of western hostages in Syria were posted on social media last summer, the U.S. government initiated a review of its policies for dealing with hostage incidents and hostage families.

It was unclear whether the exception for FBI engagement, including in financial transactions, was part of the review, which is being led by the National Counterterrorism Center.

Sources close to hostage families said that the FBI had been involved in negotiations to free hostages for "decades," and that the bureau had been involved in helping families to arrange and transmit ransom payments to kidnappers.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Wednesday that the government's "no ransom" policy was unchanged but added: "Speaking generally, helping with a ransom payment, to use your word, is not tantamount to paying a ransom."

A spokesman for Obama's National Security Council declined to comment on the policy exception. Spokespeople for the FBI, Justice Department and National Counterterrorism Center had no immediate comment.

Some families of U.S. hostages killed in Syria say a White House official threatened them with possible prosecution if they paid ransoms to militants who the U.S. regards as terrorists. The official has now left the White House, U.S. officials said.

In the future, they said, government officials will try to ensure that while the anti-ransom policy remains, no threats of prosecution would be directed at families.

(Reporting by Mark Hosenball; Additional reporting by David Rohde; Editing by David Storey and Howard Goller)

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