White House says more than 30 Americans held hostage abroad

Updated 4:44 PM EDT, Wed June 24, 2015
01:50 - Source: CNN
Obama: We should do everything to help hostages

Story highlights

Government officials will be allowed to negotiate with terror groups but will still not make 'substantive concessions'

The White House makes clear that families won't be threatened with prosecution if they pay ransoms

Obama establishes an interagency task force to spearhead hostage-freeing efforts

(CNN) —  

The U.S. government will now communicate with terrorist groups holding the more than 30 Americans currently hostage abroad, one of a slew of changes to the nation’s hostage policy that President Barack Obama announced Wednesday.

The U.S. government will stick to its “no concessions” policy – often incorrectly interpreted as “no negotiations” – while also allowing government officials going forward to talk with terrorist groups like ISIS that have kidnapped Americans, according to a presidential policy directive Obama outlined on Wednesday.

More than 30 Americans are currently held hostage abroad, Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco, who oversaw the policy review, told reporters on Wednesday.

The tally includes those who are held hostage by terrorist groups as well as criminal gangs and cartels, according to a senior official, who said the government couldn’t provide a further breakdown for safety reasons.

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The changes to the hostage policy, which also include the creation of an interagency “fusion cell” to streamline efforts to free American hostages and improve communication between the government and families, follow a months-long review of U.S. policy that included interviews with nearly two-dozen families of current and former U.S. hostages.

Obama also made it clear that the U.S. government will not prosecute families looking to pay ransoms to terrorist groups holding their loved ones hostage – a threat some families faced during their ordeals.

“No family of an American hostage has ever been prosecuted for paying ransom for their loved one. The last thing we should ever do is to add to a family’s pain with threats like that,” Obama said at the White House.

“The bottom line is this: When it comes to how our government works to recover hostages, we are changing how we do business,” he said.

The presidential directive issued by Obama reiterates U.S. policy “to deny hostage-takers the benefits of ransom, prisoner releases, policy changes, or other acts of concession.

“However, this policy does not preclude engaging in communications with hostage-takers,” the directive says.

Obama noted that many changes he ordered on Wednesday “are a direct result” of the families’ feedback and said that he considered the policy changes not just through the lens of president, but as a husband and father.

“If my family were at risk obviously I would move heaven and Earth to get those loved ones back,” he said. “I’m making it clear that our top priority is the safe and rapid recovery of American hostages,” he added.

But Obama also noted that he would not authorize the government to make ransom payments, noting that it would put “in danger more Americans” by incentivizing kidnappings.

The parents of James Foley, the first American hostage beheaded by ISIS, applauded the “in-depth” work of the hostage policy review team and thanked the leaders of that group in a statement on Wednesday.

And they pledged to continue to work to improve U.S. policy on the matter to help American hostages still held abroad.

“Jim wanted to make a difference in the world. Perhaps his horrific death was necessary to awaken the American public and our government,” John and Diane Foley said.

The payment of ransoms to terror groups has long been tolerated in many instances, though it is technically illegal. The administration has looked the other way when families of Americans held overseas have paid ransoms.

But several families – including the family of James Foley – have said they were threatened with prosecution as they considered making ransom payments. A member of the National Security Council staff had threatened Foley’s family with prosecution during their ordeal.

Lawmakers ‘disappointed’ with hostage policy reforms push legislation

House Speaker John Boehner on Wednesday said he feared the erosion of the U.S.’s policy of not paying ransoms and the principle of not negotiating with terrorists.

“I’ve not seen the report nor have I seen an analysis of it, but we have had a policy in the United States for over 200 years of not paying ransom and not negotiating with terrorists and the concern that I have is that by lifting that long held principle you could be endangering more Americans here and overseas,” Boehner said.

U.S. policy actually does not prohibit negotiations, but prohibits making “substantive concessions” to captors in the process.

Family members of former hostages met Tuesday with officials at the National Counterterrorism Center to learn of the administration’s decisions after a months-long review of U.S. policies in dealing with American citizens held captive.

In interviews with the hostage policy review group, families expressed concerns that officials displayed a lack of compassion and the new presidential directive explicitly directs officials to “treat all families and hostages equitably and fairly while respecting their dignity and privacy.”

“All interactions with the family should be undertaken with the utmost professionalism, empathy, and sensitivity to the psychological and emotional disruption the family is experiencing and should be informed by the family’s needs, wishes, and rights,” according to the policy directive.