Obama clears the way for hostages' families to pay ransom

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Obama Orders Changes to Hostage Policy

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.

Recent American hostages taken overseas:

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All recent American hostages, ISIS/Syria
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Obama clears the way for hostages' families to pay ransom
FILE - In this Friday, May 27, 2011, file photo, journalist James Foley responds to questions during an interview with The Associated Press, in Boston. A video by Islamic State militants that purports to show the killing of Foley by the militant group was released Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014. Foley, from Rochester, N.H., went missing in 2012 in northern Syria while on assignment for Agence France-Press and the Boston-based media company GlobalPost. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)
John and Diane Foley talk to reporters after speaking with U.S. President Barack Obama Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014 outside their home in Rochester, N.H. Their son, James Foley was abducted in November 2012 while covering the Syrian conflict. Islamic militants posted a video showing his murder on Tuesday and said they killed him because the U.S. had launched airstrikes in northern Iraq. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
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. Family members of the American development expert kidnapped in Pakistan by al-Qaida more than two years ago say a recently released video and letter haven't convinced them he's alive. (AP Photo via AP video)
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)

Kayla Jean Mueller. Photo courtesy: Mueller Family

An unidentified woman kneels near a makeshift memorial for Kayla Mueller, Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015, in Prescott, Ariz. Mueller, a 26-year-old American woman held by Islamic State militants, was confirmed dead, her parents and the Obama administration said Tuesday. (AP Photo/Brian Skoloff)
FILE - In this undated file photo provided by his family, Peter Kassig stands in front of a truck filled with supplies for Syrian refugees. The Indianapolis, Indiana, aid worker being held by the Islamic State group told family and teachers that he’d found his calling in 2012 when he decided to stay in the Middle East instead of returning to college, according to an email released Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014 by his family. (AP Photo/Courtesy Kassig Family, File)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - OCTOBER 8: Ed and Paula Kassig attend a vigil for their son, aid worker Peter Kassig at Butler University October 8, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Kassig has been held by ISIS since being captured in Syria in October of 2013. (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)
MISRATA, LIBYA - JUNE 02: In this handout image made available by the photographer American journalist Steven Sotloff (Center with black helmet) talks to Libyan rebels on the Al Dafniya front line, 25 km west of Misrata on June 02, 2011 in Misrata, Libya. Sotloff was kidnapped in August 2013 near Aleppo, Syria and was recently shown on a jihadist video in which fellow US journalist James Foley was executed. In the video the militant form the Islamic State (IS) threatens to kill Sotloff next if the US continues its aerial campaign against the insurgency. (Photo by Etienne de Malglaive via Getty Images)
Students and supporters take part in a candle light vigil at the University of Central Florida, Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014, in Orlando, Fla., to honor Steven Sotloff, the second American journalist to be beheaded by the Islamic State group in two weeks. Sotloff attended University of Central Florida between 2002 and 2004. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
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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."

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