Talking to terrorists: Can it bring American hostages home?

Story highlights

  • The Obama administration amended U.S. policy regarding hostages on Wednesday
  • For the first time, U.S. officials can engage in direct talks with groups with hostages
  • Reaction to the new policy has been mixed

Washington (CNN)For the more than 30 Americans currently being held abroad, Gary Noesner's assessment is grim.

"It's the most lethal time to be a hostage," the former head of the FBI's hostage negotiation unit said, speaking before the White House's announcement this week of its new approach to dealing with American hostages.
But Noesner and other experts on retrieving hostages think that could change with the reforms the White House is embracing, and that some lives might even be saved.
    The reforms loosen the restrictions on negotiating with terrorists and paying ransoms, and are aimed at making a clean break from the most recent iteration of U.S. hostage policy -- one described by families of U.S. hostages as ineffective, inflexible and unwieldy.
    That policy was brought into focus last summer as ISIS beheaded three Americans -- while freeing 15 Europeans whose governments surreptitiously paid, facilitated or allowed ransom transfers to the brutal group.
    With the changes outlined Wednesday, families of American hostages will have more latitude and assistance to take the kinds of steps the Europeans did. And they'll also benefit from a U.S. government ready to engage more with terrorist captors.
    After 9/11, the United States developed a policy of not communicating, let alone negotiating, with terrorist groups such as ISIS that have held Americans captive. Now, U.S. officials can engage in direct talks with those groups and actively help the families of hostages, including as they work out ransom payments. The families no longer have to fear prosecution if they make ransom payments.
    "We have faith that the changes announced today will lead to increased success in bringing our citizens home," the families of Kayla Mueller, Peter Kassig and Steven Sotloff, hostages killed at the hands of ISIS, said Wednesday in a statement.

    Risks of negotiating with terrorists

    But critics charge that condoning negotiations and opening the gates to ransom payments -- even by tacit endorsement -- could give incentive to terrorists looking to cash in on kidnappings.
    House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, warned on Wednesday that the United States "could be endangering more Americans here and overseas."
    Even some members of Congress who have been leading hostage policy reform efforts echo his concerns.
    Rep. John Delaney, a Maryland Democrat who worked closely with the family of U.S. hostage Warren Weinstein, said in an interview before Wednesday's announcement that he didn't support changing the U.S. policy of not negotiating with terrorists.
    "The fundamental premise of the no-negotiation strategy is that if you start doing those things, you will lead to more hostages being taken. And I think that's a very valid concern," Delaney said.
    He said instead the United States should carry out military missions to secure hostages' release.
    Those efforts, though, are fraught with risk. In one such mission last year, a U.S. raid to free an American and a South African hostage in Yemen left both dead.
    White House officials stressed Wednesday that the United States would not be paying ransoms to terror groups and officials have made the case themselves that doing so could be counterproductive.
    Treasury official David Cohen reported in 2012 that "kidnapping for ransom has become today's most significant source of terrorist financing."
    But the Obama administration will now negotiate and help families communicate with captors -- even if those families are intent on paying for their relatives' release.

    Does ransoming spur kidnappings?

    Former FBI hostage negotiator Chuck Regini said there's no evidence that prohibiting families from paying ransoms helps stave off kidnappings.
    "It's not the payment of ransoms that perpetuates kidnappings; it's the lack of consequences for the kidnappers," Regini said. Referring to the first U.S. hostage killed by ISIS, he added, "It didn't stop Jim Foley from being kidnapped, did it?"
    Noesner agreed.
    "Kidnappers don't give a damn what the policy is," he said. "They're going to get the ransom or they're going to kill the hostage."
    Obama's directive that the government can open a dialogue with terror groups holding Americans hostage isn't so much a fresh take as it is a return to the government's pre-9/11 policy.
    As the United States went to war with al Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist organizations in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks, the prospect of communicating or negotiating with the enemy seemed unsavory, at best. And as the list of U.S. enemies in the war on terror grew, politicians also amplified their rhetoric on confronting the new terror threat.
    So, the U.S. approach post-9/11 gradually morphed to match politicians' rhetoric that the United States "does not negotiate with terrorists."
    In fact, before the September 11 attacks, the FBI helped families communicate with captors and whittle down exorbitant ransom demands. In several cases, for instance, the FBI negotiated the release of Americans held by Colombian rebels known as FARC even though the United States considered it a terrorist organization.
    In those days, the policy wasn't "no negotiations," but "no substantive concessions" -- such as paying ransoms, caving to policy demands or releasing prisoners. Those prohibitions remain in place.

    Returning to the pre-9/11 policy

    Regini said he is hopeful that by putting everyone back "on the same sheet of music" -- allowing for the use of negotiations in hostage cases -- will make for a more effective government approach to kidnappings abroad.
    The FBI will lead the new, sleeker U.S. operation to free American hostages, serving as the hub of the new interagency Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell.
    Several of the families of hostages greeted the creation of that cell and other aspects of the reforms on Wednesday with cautious optimism.
    The parents of James Foley said in their statement that "perhaps his horrific death was necessary to awaken the American public and our government" and commended the review group's "in-depth" re-evaluation of the hostage policy.
    The families of U.S. hostages in recent years faced a government that seemed to them withdrawn, unfocused and unwilling to keep all options on the table -- least of all direct talks -- to rescue their loved ones.
    In particular there was ineffective, or completely lacking, communication between the different government entities, families said in interviews.
    "The communication was deplorable," said Diane Foley, James Foley's mother.

    Families seek private help

    The families didn't sit idly by, though, and private efforts filled the chasm to do what the U.S. government would not.
    In the first year after Foley went missing, the Foley family and Global Post CEO Philip Balboni, who employed Foley as a freelancer, said they worked to find him with little to no help from the government.
    "That first year was a very difficult time. The government was providing absolutely no assistance whatsoever," Balboni said.
    Instead, they relied on one of several consulting firms that help families of hostages, known as kidnap and ransom companies, and the private efforts of Atlantic Media owner David Bradley.
    Bradley mounted a private operation to help the families of the Americans held by ISIS, al Qaeda and other terror groups abroad, personally financing efforts to gather intelligence on the hostages' whereabouts and leveraging his top-flight connections to help free those Americans.
    The families said government officials were reluctant to collaborate with those private efforts. They maintain that FBI and State Department officials would download information the families had obtained but scarcely shared new information, saying the intelligence was classified.
    Obama pledged to change that, too.
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    Diane Foley was glad to see the U.S. government open the lines of communication with terrorist groups holding Americans hostage, telling CNN that not talking to people holding Americans was "foolish."
    But she was also cautious about U.S. policy changes coming in the form of a presidential directive, as they did on Wednesday, noting that it "could be ignored by the next president."
    Balboni said the United States' willingness to negotiate with captors was reassuring. But he warned that without U.S. government help in funding six- and seven-figure ransom payments, not much would change.
    "There is really no pragmatic way for families, most families, to raise the enormous sums required to pay a ransom," Balboni said, noting the Foleys had worked until days before their son's death to raise funds for his ransom and "still had a long way to go."
    Yet Balboni didn't advocate having the government publicly make ransom payments.
    European governments that have helped with ransoms don't openly admit to paying ransoms, either. But they have managed, sometimes through third parties, to bankroll their citizens' release.
    Even when the funds are raised, ransom payments are never a guaranteed ticket to freedom for the hostages.
    The family of American contractor Warren Weinstein funneled a ransom to his captors in 2012 but Weinstein was never released. In January, he was accidentally killed in a U.S. drone strike.