WASHINGTON — When President Obama met recently with the mother of James Foley, the American hostage beheaded last August by the Islamic State, she said, he told her that freeing her son and the other American hostages held with him had been his top priority.
“With all due respect,” Diane Foley said she answered, “that may have been the intention, but in practice, it certainly wasn’t.”
Mr. Obama, she said, also conceded that his administration had failed her. “That was the least he could do,” Mrs. Foley said in an interview this week. “That was hopeful. I recognize that the administration feels badly it was not handled well and it was not given the priority it should have had.”
That encounter in the West Wing in April came as Mrs. Foley visited Washington to take part in a White House-ordered review of the government’s policy on American hostages held overseas by terrorists, which will result in several proposed changes to be announced in the next month, said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the review had not been completed.
Graphic | ISIS Finances Are Strong ISIS has more than enough in its coffers despite expectations that airstrikes and falling oil prices would hurt the group.
The review is likely to recommend the creation of an interdepartmental “fusion cell” for recovering American captives, which would include a “family engagement coordinator” to support relatives and keep them informed, the official said. Also under consideration is a group to be based at the White House to settle conflicts in hostage cases, and the designation of a senior State Department official to oversee the government’s contacts with foreign nations on hostage issues.
The administration has said publicly that it would not change the government’s longstanding policy against offering ransoms to terrorists, which Mr. Obama and senior officials argue is essential to discouraging future hostage takings. But family members are pushing the administration to at least say explicitly that private citizens and companies will not face criminal charges for negotiating or raising money for ransoms on their own. The Foleys and other families say that when they tried to do so, government officials threatened them with prosecution.
It appears unlikely that the review will publicly recommend whether the government should pursue criminal charges for private ransom payments.
The review, which is Mr. Obama’s attempt to grapple with the hostage takings that have prompted anger from families who say his administration has botched their cases and treated them shabbily, began last year. It is being coordinated by Lt. Gen. Bennet S. Sacolick of the Army, the director of strategic operational planning at the National Counterterrorism Center. In a December letter, Lisa O. Monaco, Mr. Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, invited 82 families of hostages and former hostages to provide information to the review team. Two dozen of the families agreed.
One by one, they have traveled to the office complex in McLean, Va., that houses the counterterrorism center to meet with General Sacolick. They have told him, the family members said, of a hostage policy that has often left them feeling powerless, trapped in a bureaucratic morass and victimized by officials who have threatened them with prosecution if they negotiated with terrorist groups for the release of their relatives.
“The State Department said to us, ‘Oh, well, you could be subject to prosecution if you pay a ransom,’ and then the F.B.I. says, ‘When you try to negotiate a ransom, we will help you do it,’ ” said Nancy Curtis, the mother of Theo Padnos, who was held by the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda for nearly two years before his release last summer. “They’re not playing straight with the families.”
The gruesome videotaped slaying of Mr. Foley last summer laid bare the plight of American hostages held by terror groups overseas, a problem that has only grown with the rise of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. The Islamic State has raised tens of millions of dollars in ransoms — at least $20 million last year alone, according to American officials — to finance its operations.
“It took the death of those kids and the public embarrassment to change the attitude on this at the White House, and we have now seen a change,” said Marc Allen Tice, the father of Austin Tice, an American freelance journalist who disappeared in Syria in 2012.
Elaine Weinstein, the wife of Warren Weinstein, who was accidentally killed in an American drone strike in January while being held captive by Al Qaeda in Pakistan, said in a statement last month that she hoped his death and other similar tragedies would “finally prompt the U.S. government to take its responsibilities seriously and establish a coordinated and consistent approach to supporting hostages and their families.”
Gary Noesner, who retired in 2003 as chief of the F.B.I.’s Crisis Negotiation Unit, said that since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, American officials had grown less willing to negotiate with terrorist hostage takers or to help families in doing so.
“Now everyone is so self-conscious about being perceived as giving in to terrorists or being weak that I don’t think they explore the possibilities,” said Mr. Noesner, the author of “Stalling for Time,” which recounts his 23-year career as a hostage negotiator. “There’s been a march toward inflexibility, and that’s what the families are complaining about.”
While many families have refrained from participating in the review, some have high hopes for its recommendations. The Tices arrived at General Sacolick’s office with stacks of composition books they had filled with notes and leads on their son’s case, and spent nearly three hours listing their many concerns and suggestions about how the government handles families like theirs and hostage cases like their son’s.
Like other families, the Tices said they wanted a single government official as the point person for handling hostage cases, and better coordination and sharing of information among the agencies working on the cases. They also called for more transparency for family members, who often are starved for information about their loved ones. In many cases, government officials have told the families that they cannot share the information because the families do not have classified clearances and so are not allowed to hear it.
Congress is also trying to force Mr. Obama’s hand. The House this month passed a defense bill that included a provision by Representative Duncan Hunter, Republican of California, and Representative John Delaney, Democrat of Maryland, to create an “interagency hostage recovery coordinator” similar to what the review team is considering.
But skepticism remains about whether such changes will make a difference, given that Mr. Obama is determined to keep the no-concessions policy.
“The scope of the review is limited to how can we be nicer to families, in which case they should have just hired Emily Post,” Mr. Padnos said in an interview. “They have narrowed the question to a field that is not going to affect the safety of anybody, it’s not going to affect the outcome of anybody.”
For Mrs. Foley, the answer is simple. “We’re just asking our government to be truthful with American families, and to work with American families in whatever way they can to get their loved ones home,” she said.
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(via NY Times)