Obama orders review of US hostage policy

Obama orders review of US hostage policy
While publicly maintaining a long-standing US policy of not negotiating with terrorists or paying ransoms, the White House has quietly ordered a review of relevant policies following a series of executions of US citizens by Islamic State militants.

“This summer President Obama directed relevant departments and agencies, including the Departments of Defence and the State, the FBI, and the Intelligence Community, to conduct a comprehensive review of how the US government addresses these matters,” White House National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey confirmed in a statement.

Stating that White House’s goal is to use “every appropriate resource within the bounds of the law”, Washington plans to concentrate efforts on bringing hostages home “in light of the increasing number of US citizens taken hostage by terrorist groups overseas and the extraordinary nature of recent hostage cases.”

The administration vowed to deploy “all appropriate military, intelligence, law enforcement and diplomatic capabilities” to aid the effort of hostage recovery, Baskey said.

Meanwhile, White House press secretary Josh Earnest stressed that the review will not include Washington's longstanding policy of refusing to negotiate ransom.

“The President continues to believe as previous presidents have concluded that it's not in the best interest of American citizens to pay ransoms to any organization, let alone a terrorist organization," Earnest said. “And the reason for that is simple — we don't want to put other American citizens at even greater risk when they're around the world.

Reuters/Stringer

Earnest did not provide a timeline for when the president expects the review to be finalized. Last week Christine Wormuth, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy hinted that the review is focused on engagement with hostages’ families, intelligence collection and diplomatic efforts.

Also on Tuesday, the State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke announced that a “small number” of American citizens are still being held hostage by ISIS.

Capitol Hill in the meantime continues to pressure President Obama to better act in hostage situations, as militants released a video on Sunday claiming Peter Kassig’s execution. Kassig was the third US national beheaded by the Islamic State following the deaths of James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

Peter Kassig (AFP Photo/Kassig Family handout)

California Rep. Duncan Hunter in a letter to President Obama Tuesday, wrote that “it is my firm belief that we are not exhausting the full range of options,” to free US citizens from captivity.

While the US considers paying ransoms akin to funding terrorism, Hunter pointed at a case when the US tried to pay ransom through intermediary to free Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from Taliban captivity. After the money was stolen by an Afghan negotiator, the Pentagon apparently resorted to an exchange of Bergdahl for five Taliban inmates from Guantanamo Bay.

“There are a lot of ways the issue on monetary incentives could be handled, including options that don't require paying captors. But we need to make sure there is a better understanding on this front, specifically for the people who are tasked with recovering Americans in hostile areas,” Hunter spokesman Joe Kasper said.

On Monday, US Secretary of State John Kerry defended the US hostage policy that under the Patriot Act prohibits any payment or assistance to terror groups.

“And as for kidnapping, the United States has set a heart-rending but absolutely necessary example by refusing to pay ransom for captured Americans,” Kerry said during a 3rd Annual Transformational Trends Policy conference in the US capital.

“Last year, the UN Security Council and the G-8 firmly endorsed an identical policy, and all of the evidence shows that where and if a country is paid a ransom, there are many more people who are taken hostage,” Kerry said.