Obama: US government has let down hostages' familes

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Obama Orders Changes to Hostage Policy

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama conceded Wednesday that the U.S. government had let down the families of Americans held hostage by terrorists and promised they would not face criminal prosecution for paying ransoms to their loved ones' captors.

"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 president said for the first time that U.S. government officials can communicate directly with terrorists and help families negotiate for the release of hostages. More than 30 Americans are being held hostage abroad, White House officials said.

Recent American hostages taken overseas:

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Obama: US government has let down hostages' familes
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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The review was sparked by sharp criticism of the Obama administration from families of Americans kidnapped by the Islamic State, al-Qaida and other groups. Families have complained about receiving confusing and contradictory information from the government and bristled at threats of prosecution for considering paying terrorists to secure the release of hostages.

By clearing the way for payment of ransom without fear of criminal charges, Obama is essentially allowing families to take actions the U.S. government has long said put Americans at risk. While the government will continue to abide by prohibitions on paying ransoms or making other concessions to terrorists, the Justice Department indicated it would ignore the law in situations involving families.

European governments routinely pay ransom to win the release of hostages. However, Obama and his predecessors have argued that policy provides terrorists with funds to fuel dangerous activities and puts Americans at greater risk of kidnapping.

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."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he, too, worries that paying ransom could encourage terrorism. But McCain, who met Wednesday with the family of Kayla Mueller, an Arizona woman killed after being kidnapped by the Islamic State, added that "to tell a family member - as this administration did - that they could go to jail is unconscionable."

White House officials drew a distinction between the concessions private individuals could make to terrorists, which are largely financial, and the more wide-ranging deals the U.S. government could strike, including military activity and other foreign policy priorities.

Still, officials acknowledged that allowing some concessions and banning others could be perceived as a contradictory policy.

"There's no doubt that the payment of ransoms fuels the very activity that we are trying to stop," said Lisa Monaco, the president's top counterterrorism adviser. "At the same time we've got a responsibility to stand with families as they make the most difficult decisions we could ever imagine."

Ahead of his public comments, Obama held an emotional private meeting with former hostages, as well as families of Americans currently being held and those who have been freed or killed in captivity.

"I acknowledged to them in private what I want to say publicly, that it is true that there have been times where our government, regardless of good intentions, has let them down," he said. "I promised them that we can do better."

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.

Four other Americans have been killed by the Islamic State since last summer: journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid workers Peter Kassig and 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 journalist kidnapped in Yemen, was also killed during a failed U.S. rescue attempt. Warren Weinstein, an American held by al-Qaida, was accidentally killed by a U.S. drone strike against a terrorist compound in Pakistan.

The families of some of these hostages have been among the most vocal in pushing for changes in U.S. government policy. In a statement Tuesday, Weinstein's wife, Elaine, said she hoped her family would be the last "that fails to receive the level of coordinated government support that those who serve abroad deserve when trouble finds them."

The Mueller, Kassig and Sotloff families issued a joint statement saying they "have faith that the changes announced today will lead to increased success in bringing our citizens home."

"The changes are a step in the right direction; we're hopeful they will make a difference for families and their friends and loved ones facing this horror currently and in the future," they said.

Foley's parents released a statement Wednesday night saying: "We want to commend the hostage review team for their in-depth evaluation of the American hostage issue. We applaud their willingness to examine the previously inadequate response to the kidnapping of American citizens abroad."

In a step aimed at streamlining communications with families, Obama 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.

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