Obama softens hostage policy to ease families’ pain

Terri Crippes, left, and Lori Lyon, maternal aunts of Kayla Mueller, speak in February. Her family is among those who have criticized U.S. policy on hostages.
Terri Crippes, left, and Lori Lyon, maternal aunts of Kayla Mueller, speak in February. Her family is among those who have criticized U.S. policy on hostages. The Arizona Republic

We don’t make concessions to terrorists, or pay ransoms for hostages. That’s the long-standing policy of the U.S. government – one that President Barack Obama should continue to stand behind.

But it’s understandable why he’s expected to announce Wednesday that the government will no longer threaten criminal charges against families who offer ransoms to try to rescue Americans captured by militants abroad. That was cruel, given the heartache they were facing.

Obama’s executive order and presidential directive will make clear that the government can communicate with those holding Americans and help family members seeking to do so, The New York Times reported Tuesday. While there won’t be a hostage “czar” to coordinate efforts, a new hostage recovery center will be headquartered at the FBI that includes a “family engagement” coordinator.

These changes are supposed to fix a policy on captives that was confusing and frustrating to family members. Last year, U.S. officials freed Bowe Bergdahl, a soldier captured in Afghanistan, by swapping him for five Taliban detainees at Guantánamo Bay. At the same time, officials told relatives that U.S. policy prevented them from even discussing terms of release and subjected them to potential prosecution if they paid ransoms.

Obama ordered the review last year after complaints from relatives of hostages killed by the Islamic State and others who had been taken captive. The family of aid worker Kayla Mueller – killed in February while being held by the Islamic State – also said government policy was contradictory and prevented her rescue. The parents of Austin Tice, a journalist who has reported for McClatchy and who has been missing in Syria since 2012, called for a “flexible and pragmatic” policy.

Pressure on this issue grew in April after Obama disclosed that a U.S. drone strike along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border had inadvertently killed two aid workers, an American and an Italian, being held by al-Qaida.

The very fact that this policy had to be revisited and clarified at all is another testament to how terrorism is shaping our world.

Al-Qaida has made hostage-taking into a global business by extracting sizable ransoms from several European governments. The terrorist group and its direct affiliates generated at least $125 million from kidnappings since 2008, The New York Times reported a year ago.

The brutal Islamic State turned hostage-taking into a recruiting and propaganda tool by beheading captives and posting the videos online.

U.S. officials are right that paying ransoms to terrorist groups helps bankroll their deadly operations and will only put more Americans in danger of being taken hostage. But they’ve correctly realized that prosecuting family members who are only trying to get their loved ones back is unnecessary.