U.S. hostage policy questioned

Japan deciding best strategy to free ISIS hostage
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Japan deciding best strategy to free ISIS hostage 02:06

(CNN)The Obama administration came under fire this week over allegations it sometimes ignores its own policies with regard to hostage exchanges.

At question is whether U.S. officials negotiated the release of terror suspects in exchange for American captives abroad, and whether these cases flaunt the long-stated policy of not negotiating with terrorists.
That policy was reiterated on Monday following the release of new threats by the terror group ISIS, who demanded over the weekend that U.S. ally Jordan release their "imprisoned sister" Sajida al-Rishawi in exchange for hostage Kenji Goto.
    "Our views on this are well known. We've spoken about them frequently -- publicly -- and have for years," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters when asked about the new ISIS demands. "We don't make concessions to terrorists. That remains the case."
    While Goto is a Japanese citizen, the case is reminiscent of recent hostage situations involving Americans James Foley, Steven Sotloff and Peter Kassig (as well as Brits David Haines and Alan Henning). The U.S. government consistently refused to give into the demands of the ISIS captors in those cases, and the men were all eventually executed.
    But some are accusing the administration of applying its hostage policy inconsistently, citing the exchange of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Guantanamo detainees last year, as well as the more recent case of terror suspect Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, who was reportedly released from U.S. federal prison last week and returned to Qatar.
    The Daily Beast reported on Monday that U.S. and Qatari officials discussed a possible exchange for al-Marri last year, which would have secured the release of Matthew and Grace Huang, an American couple convicted in Qatar over the death of their adopted daughter.
    The report indicates a "government contractor" in Qatar approached then-U.S. ambassador to Qatar Susan Ziadeh with a proposal for this exchange, and that the Huang's defense team were later notified that the issue had been raised.
    Asked to respond to The Daily Beast report, Psaki said bluntly, "There was no discussion of that, no."
    However, Psaki stopped short of denying that such a deal had ever been brought forward by the Qataris.
    "I'm just not going to speak to what Qatar officials did or didn't do," said Psaki. "But I can assure you, that wasn't part of the discussion."
    The Huangs were eventually cleared of wrongdoing by a Qatari court and allowed to return to the United States in December.
    Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California, raised the al-Marri case in a letter last week to Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, asking for the committee to review the U.S. hostage policy and the al-Marri case.
    "Specifically related to al-Marri, it is my understanding that engagement began months ago, upon initiation by Qatar, for a possible exchange arrangement for other Americans in captivity," Hunter wrote. "Other foreign nationals — who I understand are still in custody — have also been named as potential figures of interest in other cases, with Qatar at the forefront."
    In the same letter, Hunter expressed concern that the administration "is failing to pursue more appropriate lines of non-kinetic planning, instead utilizing prisoner releases or exchanges, which are often counter to U.S. security interests, for leverage in negotiations."
    The White House has in fact ordered a review of its hostage policy in light of recent cases, but the results of that review, if completed, are not known to the public.
    As for Bergdahl, the administration has consistently maintained they were justified in negotiating his release because of his status as a prisoner of war, and thus outside the restrictions of the hostage policy.