U. S. adopts new pol­icy on hostages

Fam­i­lies will no longer face the threat of pros­e­cu­tion for try­ing to ne­go­ti­ate ran­som.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Christi Par­sons and Brian Ben­nett christi.par­sons@latimes.com brian.ben­nett@latimes.com

WASHINGTON — Rel­a­tives who try to pay ran­som to free a fam­ily mem­ber be­ing held hostage by ter­ror­ists will no longer face the threat of pros­e­cu­tion un­der a new pol­icy from the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion that seeks to stream­line U. S. res­cue ef­forts af­ter sev­eral high- pro­file deaths.

Pres­i­dent Obama plans to an­nounce the new pol­icy Wed­nes­day as part of a broader set of guide­lines on hostage crises, the re­sult of a lengthy pol­icy re­view. The goal is to co­or­di­nate the wide- rang­ing re­sources of the gov­ern­ment to try to se­cure the re­turn of Amer­i­can hostages, of­fi­cials said.

The re­view is also an ef­fort to deal more hu­manely with the panic- stricken fam­i­lies of ab­ducted Amer­i­cans, whose com­plaints about U. S. gov­ern­ment han­dling of their cases have be­set the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion dur­ing a painful year that has seen no­to­ri­ous cases of ab­duc­tion, threats and video­taped killings.

Fam­i­lies say they have re­ceived con­fus­ing mes­sages from the gov­ern­ment. One agency would threaten rel­a­tives with pros­e­cu­tion for talk­ing about ran­soms while another of­fered to fa­cil­i­tate such pay­ments, for ex­am­ple.

The new pol­icy also will keep the FBI in charge of man­ag­ing hostage crises, de­spite the re­quests of fam­i­lies who be­lieve the cur­rent struc­ture fails to give ne­go­tia­tors enough power to op­er­ate.

The U. S. gov­ern­ment will con­tinue its long- stand­ing pol­icy of re­fus­ing to pay ran­soms, se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials said, or to ne­go­ti­ate with ter­ror­ists, as some Euro­pean coun­tries do.

“The re­sources of the United States gov­ern­ment are not go­ing to be used to make con­ces­sions to ter­ror­ists,” White House Press Sec­re­tary Josh Earnest said Tues­day, in the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s only public com­ments about the forth­com­ing pol­icy. “We do not want to open the door to even more Amer­i­cans be­ing vul­ner­a­ble to a hostage- tak­ing.”

Crit­ics charged that the changes don’t go far enough to solve long- run­ning prob­lems in the ef­forts to free Amer­i­cans from cap­tiv­ity, in­clud­ing two dozen now held around the world.

“Whole­sale changes are needed, but what’s be­ing put for­ward is noth­ing more than win­dow dress­ing, I fear,” said Rep. Dun­can Hunter ( R- Alpine), a Marine vet­eran and mem­ber of the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee. “It’s 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.”

Some rel­a­tives of past and cur­rent hostages ex­pressed con­cern about the plan to con­tinue hous­ing the bu­reau­cracy at the FBI. Many asked that the pres­i­dent ap­point a hostage “czar” who re­ported to Obama and would have the au­thor­ity to di­rect the Pen­tagon, State Depart­ment, FBI and in­tel­li­gence net­works to co­or­di­nate res­cue ef­forts.

Elaine Weinstein, whose hus­band, War­ren, was a gov­ern­ment con­trac­tor ac­ci­den­tally killed by a U. S. drone strike in Pak­istan this year while be­ing held hostage by Al Qaeda, said Tues­day that the in­for­ma­tion she and her fam­ily re­ceived in their 3 1⁄2- year or­deal was “in­con­sis­tent at best and ut­terly dis­ap­point­ing.”

She ex­pressed con­cern about the de­ci­sion to keep hous­ing the hostage- res­cue unit at the FBI. She said a bet­ter home would have been the pres­i­dent’s Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, both to im­prove co­or­di­na­tion and to “en­sure that those de­bat­ing counter- ter­ror­ism ac­tiv­i­ties and hostage re­cov­ery ef­forts were sit­ting in the same room.”

“We hope to be the last fam­ily that fails to re­ceive the level of co­or­di­nated gov­ern­ment sup­port that those who serve abroad de­serve when trou­ble f inds them,” she said.

Hunter said another is­sue with FBI lead­er­ship is that the bureau is not set up to res­cue hostages in hos­tile ar­eas. Even though the FBI of­fi­cial lead­ing res­cue ef­forts will have deputies from the Pen­tagon and State Depart­ment, he or she won’t have real au­thor­ity to com­mand them, he said.

The pres­i­dent’s team de­cided to keep the hostage re­cov­ery ef­fort at the FBI be­cause the in­fra­struc­ture was al­ready in place at the bureau, said a U. S. of­fi­cial, who agreed to dis­cuss the de­tails of the changes on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause the re­sults of the White House re­view had not been pub­licly re­leased.

Obama or­dered an ex­ten­sive re­view of the hostage re­cov­ery prac­tices last fall, look­ing into how the gov­ern­ment deals with the threats and with the fam­i­lies of hostages. It fol­lowed the sear­ing im­ages of the ex­e­cu­tions last sum­mer of Amer­i­can jour­nal­ists James Fo­ley and Steve Sot­loff, car­ried out and broad­cast by Is­lamic State ex­trem­ists.

Since then, the White House has slowly moved from staunch op­po­si­tion to con­ver­sa­tions about ran­som be­tween hostages’ fam­i­lies and kid­nap­pers to a po­si­tion that one ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial de­scribed as more hu­mane.

As a re­sult of the pol­icy changes, fam­i­lies will not be dis­cour­aged from com­mu­ni­cat­ing di­rectly with hostage­tak­ers — a new f lex­i­bil­ity that an­a­lysts said could have op­er­a­tional ben­e­fits.

“If you are open to com­mu­ni­ca­tions, by def­i­ni­tion you’re go­ing to know more about what it is the hostage­tak­ers want and what their bot­tom lines might be,” said Bruce Riedel, a for­mer CIA of­fi­cial now at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion.

Also, if the new pol­icy is seen as a clear White House di­rec­tive, he said, that will give more power to the FBI of­fi­cial over­see­ing hostage res­cue ef­forts.

The Of­fice of the Di­rec­tor of Na­tional In­tel­li­gence will ap­point a so- called is­sue man­ager for hostage af­fairs, charged with com­pil­ing in­for­ma­tion from dif­fer­ent in­tel­li­gence agen­cies and work­ing to quickly de­clas­sify rel­e­vant de­tails to pro­vide fam­ily mem­bers and law­mak­ers with new in­for­ma­tion con­cern­ing a hostage, the U. S. of­fi­cial said.

Earnest ac­knowl­edged that im­prov­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions with rel­a­tives was a high pri­or­ity.

The changes do not come easily at the White House. Some ad­vi­sors cau­tioned against giv­ing fam­i­lies more lat­i­tude to dis­cuss and pay ran­soms out of fear that it would make Amer­i­cans over­seas more at­trac­tive to kid­nap­pers.

As­so­ci­ated Press

THE WIDOW of late U. S. con­trac­tor War­ren Weinstein is skep­ti­cal of the pol­icy change.

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