As US reviews hostage policy, input from families proves invaluable

Washington (CNN)The White House is relying heavily on voices of former hostages and the families of hostages killed or still being held to provide input that a senior administration official describes as "integral" to the ongoing review of U.S. hostage policy.

The contributions come after the Obama administration has been criticized by some victims' loved ones who say that outreach from the government during their ordeals was inconsistent and, at times, insensitive.
"We understand this is incredibly difficult and painful for the families and we appreciate their feedback," the official said. "(Their feedback) has been invaluable and helped us examine ways to improve our processes and communicate with the families most effectively to achieve our shared objective of ensuring the safe return of a loved one."
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More than 22 former hostages and families of hostages have been interviewed by the White House, either in their hometowns or in Washington as part of the review, which is being led by Lisa Monaco, the chief counterterrorism adviser to the President.
    Monaco has sent letters to 82 families and former hostages dating back to 2001, inviting them to be part of the review process and to provide their views based on their personal experiences. The National Counterterrorism Center has a team dedicated to interact with the families and conduct interviews.
    Some families, like that of James Foley, the American journalist beheaded by ISIS last August, have been critical of administration's handling of hostage situations. His mother, Diane Foley, told CNN's Anderson Cooper in September that she was "embarrassed and appalled" by how the U.S. government dealt with her son's case.
    "I think our efforts to get Jim freed were an annoyance" to the U.S. government, Foley said. "It didn't seem to be in (U.S.) strategic interest."
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    The Weinstein family had similar criticism, praising specific officials from the FBI but saying the assistance they received "from other elements of the U.S. government was inconsistent and disappointing."
    In part due to the criticism, President Barack Obama this past summer directed the Defense and State departments, the FBI and the intelligence community to conduct a comprehensive review of how the U.S. government addresses these matters.
    That review was mentioned by the President in the aftermath of the failed rescue mission of American hostage Luke Somers in November, and this past week after a U.S. drone strike accidentally killed American hostage Warren Weinstein.
    Meanwhile, some lawmakers on Capitol Hill have called for the White House to appoint a hostage "czar." In response, the White House is considering establishing what it calls a hostage recovery "fusion cell," a group that would include experts from the FBI, the Defense and State departments and the intelligence community in an effort to streamline information.
    The "fusion cell" could include a separate team that would engage with families of hostages so it could ensure that they have "full-time and direct access to professionals who can provide timely information and other necessary support during and after a hostage crisis," the administration official said. That team would aim to develop partnerships with private organizations that would help provide specialized support services to families in such crises.
    "Because family engagement is critical during and after the recovery process, any government personnel who work with families will be given additional training on the dynamics of hostage-taking, the impact on families, and the types of assistance and support services," the official said.
    The Obama administration also is reaching out to other experts, including think tanks and representatives of foreign countries, as part of the review.
    White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest has said the review, as well as potential recommendations for change in policy, could be completed soon.