On Wednesday, the White House will release an executive order that will significantly alter the longstanding practice of not only refusing to negotiate with terrorists for the release of hostages, but threatening American citizens with prosecution if they attempt to do so.
CNN reports the new policy comes after months of deliberation and meetings with the families of former hostages. Among the best-known critics of the old policy was the family of ISIS beheading victim James Foley, who complained about receiving threats from President Obama’s National Security Council that they would be prosecuted if they tried paying a ransom for Foley’s release.
The new White House directive will “explicitly indicate that families should not fear criminal prosecution if they choose to make ransom payments,” CNN writes. “The new directive will not include a formal change to existing laws. But administration officials will indicate publicly, for the first time, that ransom payments will be tolerated.”
The Administration will also “offer clear internal guidance to federal agencies on how to discuss the ransom issue with families to avoid confusion or mixed signals from the government.” Officials are directed to be “empathetic, patient, and able to handle the expression of intense emotions” when dealing with hostage families, and told to deliver “difficult news” with “clarity and honesty.”
The fact that such instructions must be delivered in a new presidential directive casts the Administration’s previous handling of hostage families in a poor light. They weren’t empathetic, patient, clear, and honest before?
The government’s own policy against making “substantive concessions” to terrorists for the release of hostages is said to remain unchanged. However, the White House intends to form a “Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell,” an inter-agency body to coordinate the government’s handling of hostage situations, including “the appointment of a director responsible for overseeing hostage recovery strategies” – initially a senior FBI official, according to what CNN was told by an Administration source, although future directors could come from the State Department or Pentagon.
There be other new managerial positions created, including “a family engagement coordinator to act as a single point of contact for families of hostages, and the designation of a senior representative from the State Department for diplomatic outreach abroad.” Was anyone expecting a White House directive that didn’t create new high-level bureaucratic positions?
CNN quotes Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) expressing skepticism of the new White House orders as “nothing more than window dressing,” a “pathetic response to a serious problem that has plagued the ability of the U.S. to successfully recover Americans held captive in the post-9/11 era.” Among other criticisms, Hunter pointed out that the FBI, a domestic law enforcement agency, was not well-suited to handling foreign hostage crises.
The pressure for reform was considerable, especially since the Obama Administration dealt so harshly with families that contemplated paying ransom to recover loved ones. The New Yorker offers a lengthy article about five hostage families that began working together behind the scenes because they “felt that U.S. officials had abandoned them.” They spoke of dealing with tremendous bottled-up pressure because they weren’t even supposed to discuss what was going on with their missing children.
The Foleys are among the families profiled in the piece, with James Foley’s mother Diane becoming a leader in the battle against unfeeling bureaucracy. “They kept telling us to do nothing,” she said of the FBI, “and telling us that our kid is their highest priority. Which we didn’t believe.”
But the business of hostage recovery is complex — that’s one reason the forces of evil delight in grabbing hostages. They love how hostage crises twist civilized people and governments into knots. The most obvious problem with tacitly encouraging families to bargain with terrorists is that it turns American citizens into a revenue stream for our enemies… a problem that will become painfully acute if families of modest means turn to crowdfunding to raise money for hefty ransom payments.
Ransom has long been a major revenue stream for ISIS, with many other nations quietly forking over millions of dollars to recover captives. It was taken, apparently incorrectly, as a sign of the Islamic State’s desperation when they stooped to openly demanding a $200 million ransom from the Japanese government for hostages Kenji Goto Jogo and Haruna Yukawa. They don’t usually have to make such public threats against foreign governments — most of their ransom loot flows in without fanfare. (In the case of the atrocity against Japan, it is clear that ISIS made the public demand more as a means of insulting the Japanese government, which had given an equivalent sum to support the anti-ISIS effort, than as a sign of the Islamic State running out of money.)
In addition to capturing them themselves, ISIS buys some of its hostages from third-party suppliers. Many of the high-profile victims from Syria were taken by other groups, sometimes groups betraying the Westerners who were trying to help them, and passed along to the Islamic State savages who beheaded them. Pumping more ransom money into that twisted economy is dangerous. A few successful headline hostage recoveries effected by ransom payments would blow that market wide open.
The calculations made by desperate families contemplating last-ditch efforts to save loved ones from murderous terrorists may understandably differ from long-term strategies for national security. These are not easy matters to settle, especially when battling an utterly ruthless enemy that knows how to turn the compassion of better people against them.