US Changes Hostage Policy

The families of hostages taken abroad will no longer face criminal prosecution if they pay ransom to kidnappers, according to a new presidential directive issued June 24 by the Obama administration.

Under the new policy, the U.S. government will also share classified information with families when necessary and will negotiate directly with captors to secure the release of hostages. In addition, President Obama’s directive sets up a Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, which includes a group of officials from the FBI, State Department and the Pentagon, who will coordinate responses in hostage situations.

What won’t change is the government’s refusal to pay ransom. Doing so, the government believes, encourages more hostage-taking and could fund other terrorist activities.

“It is United States policy to deny hostage-takers the benefits of ransom, prisoner releases, policy changes, or other acts of concession,” the directive said. “However, this policy does not preclude engaging in communications with hostage-takers.”

Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, applauded the new policy.

“For too long, American journalists have been doubly victimized — first by the kidnapping itself, and then by the poorly coordinated U.S. response to the tragic incidents,” he said. “This new hostage policy directive should lessen the anguish of the families and improve the likelihood of a successful outcome by providing a central point of contact, removing the threat of the prosecution for families that choose to pay ransom, and allowing U.S. government officials to communicate with hostage takers or their intermediaries.”

The new directive came after months of presidential review and public criticism by families of journalists held hostage or killed who claimed they were excluded from the negotiation process, forced into media blackouts and not shown much sympathy. Inconsistencies in the policy, where the FBI gave some families advice on how to make private payments, were also criticized.

Diane Foley, mother of slain photojournalist James Foley, told a Newseum audience in February that her family negotiated with his captors through email because no one in the government would talk to them. Foley and her husband, John, expressed gratitude for the new policy.

“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.”

The Foleys, along with the family of freelance journalist Austin Tice, who is missing in Syria, were among 24 families that participated in the policy review.

Since 2014, terrorists in Syria and Yemen have executed four journalists. More than 90 journalists have been kidnapped in Syria since the country’s civil war began in 2011, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

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