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White House imposes order on often confused ransom policy

Mixed signals on how to deal with hostage situations have created additional grief for families

Following months of pressure from grieving families, President Barack Obama unveiled a slate of new policies on Wednesday intended to bring some level of standardization to how the federal government deals with international hostage situations.

The new policies include an announcement from the Justice Department that it will not prosecute Americans who attempt to pay ransom for their relatives. Federal law prohibits Americans from providing “material support” to organizations designated as terrorist groups. In a statement, the Justice Department said it “has never used the material support statute to prosecute a hostage’s family or friends for paying a ransom for the safe return of their loved one."

Additionally, the White House announced the formation of an interagency Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell that will coordinate rescue efforts across federal departments. This new body will be led by officials from the FBI, and include representatives from other agencies including the Justice Department, the Pentagon, the CIA and the Treasury Department.

Wednesday’s policy shifts are intended to provide clarity and create a routinized process for what has often been an ad hoc response to hostage situations abroad. President Obama said in a Wednesday press briefing that the government must treat families of hostages "with the dignity and compassion that they deserve."

Families of kidnapped Americans had previously complained that they had received contradictory information from different agencies, suggesting that the government's response to hostage crises was not being coordinated in a unified manner. In some cases, families would be threatened with prosecution if they paid ransom by one agency, while another agency would offer to facilitate the payment.

Shortly after it was revealed in April that Al-Qaeda hostage Warren Weinstein had been mistakenly killed by an U.S. drone in Pakistan, his family issued a statement thanking the FBI for its work but criticizing other government agencies for an “inconsistent and disappointing” response to his capture.

"We hope that my husband’s death and the others who have faced similar tragedies in recent months will finally prompt the U.S. Government to take its responsibilities seriously and establish a coordinated and consistent approach to supporting hostages and their families,” said Elaine Weinstein, the deceased hostage’s wife, in an April statement.

That statement came during a six-month internal review of the government’s response to international hostage situations. Wednesday’s announcement was the end product of that review.

Notably, Obama confirmed on Wednesday that the federal government’s official policy against paying ransom to terrorist groups remains in place. Part of the rationale for that prohibition is the belief that paying ransom would incentivize armed groups abroad to kidnap more Americans. (Many European states tend to pay ransom to bring hostages home regardless.)

“A hostage situation is a gut-wrenching situation, but I think the government’s job is to ensure that the greatest number of Americans are as safe as possible,” said Zachary Goldman, the executive director of NYU Law School’s Center on Law and Security. He described the announcement that family members would not be prosecuted for paying ransom as an attempt to find balance in “a very, very difficult situation." 

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