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U.S. government to stop threatening prosecution of hostage families for paying ransom

The U.S. government will no longer prosecute families who try to pay ransom for American hostages, and the U.S. will directly negotiate with militants holding them but will not pay ransom, officials said on Tuesday. (Video: Reuters)

The U.S. government will stop telling families of hostages taken abroad that they could face criminal prosecution if they pay ransom for the release of loved ones, an emotional issue that has arisen in recent cases of Americans captured and later beheaded by the Islamic State group.

Instead, under a new presidential policy directive and executive order, the U.S. government will work with the families, sharing classified information when necessary and even dealing directly with hostage takers in an effort to assist private families hoping to secure the release of loved ones, according to an advance copy of documents spelling out the new hostage policy.

“In short, we will not abandon families in their greatest time of need,” the new policy document says. And it said that the Justice Department “does not intend to add to families’ pain in such cases by suggesting they could face criminal prosecution.”

[How Islamic State beheadings are changing the debate on paying ransom]

The Obama administration is creating a "fusion cell" made up of officials from the FBI, State Department and the Pentagon to coordinate responses in such situations, U.S. officials said on condition of anonymity because the White House does not plan to issue a report on hostages and ransom until Wednesday. Senior FBI official Michael McGarrity will lead the fusion cell, which will be housed at bureau headquarters. FBI crisis negotiators will offer guidance to the families on how to "respond to contact and demands from the captors."

The document says that as a result of a “significant shift in hostage takings by terrorist organizations,” the government’s response “must evolve to take account of this new reality.”

In addition, the State Department will create a special presidential envoy for hostage affairs to pursue diplomatic efforts, including with foreign government leaders, to recover hostages.

US. government official policy has been to refuse to pay ransom to hostage takers on grounds that doing so would only encourage more hostage taking and provide funds for other terrorist activities. But pressure on the administration to review its policy increased after reports that the FBI had given some families advice on how to make such payments on their own.

Families had criticized the Obama administration for not showing more sensitivity to their plights. The advanced documents call for government officials to "be empathetic, patient, and able to handle the expression of intense emotions." It added that they "should be able to deliver difficult news with clarity and honesty."

Only 24 of the 82 families invited participated in the review. On Tuesday, dozens of family members met with top national security officials for hours and Obama is expected to meet with many of them on Wednesday. The families did not hold back, according to one senior official.

"They were brutally honest," the official said. "It was a very open and raw dialogue."

[The families of hostages are told to keep quiet. They shouldn’t.]

FBI officials have said all along that it has been the bureau’s unspoken policy to advise families who pay ransom and not prosecute them.

But the administration has insisted that it would not change its policy barring the government from paying ransom. In a Dec. 17, 2014, letter sent to the families, Lisa Monaco, President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, made the administration’s no-ransom policy clear. “The scope of this review will not include a reconsidering of our no-concessions policy,” Monaco wrote.

At a press briefing Tuesday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that allowing private families to pursue ransom payments would not undermine the administration’s policy of refusing to make any payments at all. He said that Obama “does tend to believe that it's important for the United States of America to adhere closely to a non concessions policy. That is a policy that was not under review in this process.”

The new approach to ransom drew criticism from some in Congress. “Wholesale changes are needed, but what’s being put forward is nothing more than window dressing, I fear,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “It’s a pathetic response to a serious problem that has plagued the ability of the U.S. to successfully recover Americans held captive in the post-9/11 era.”

Hunter criticized the structure of the so-called fusion cell, saying that it should be directed by a single person above the cell. He said the FBI lacks the authority to issue directions to the Pentagon or State Department and that the agency “is not organized or developed for hostage recovery in hostile areas.” Hunter predicted infighting in the fusion cell, adding that  such battles had already erupted during the review process.

Hunter is co-sponsoring legislation that would create a “hostage czar,” a high-level position at the National Security Council that would centralize efforts to find and free U.S. hostages.

Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and John Cornyn (R-Texas), Senate majority whip, introduced similar legislation [] on Tuesday establishing an Interagency Hostage Recovery Coordinator, a newly established position.

“American hostages held and killed by ISIS and other terrorist groups were aid workers, humanitarians, and journalists – they represent the highest of American ideals and values,” Cardin said in a statement. “Too frequently, the suffering families of hostages were left in the dark, unsure who in government was working exclusively to ensure the safe return home of their loved ones.”

The senior U.S. official said the government in the future will offer families of hostages one-time classified briefings and work to declassify information. The official also said the president and his advisers would take into account whether families wanted the government to launch a raid to save a relative. He cautioned, however, that there were no guarantees that the government would in the end heed their wishes.

Cardin cited “incredible heartache” felt by Maryland resident Elaine Weinstein and her family over her husband Warren, a USAID worker who died in a drone strike while being held captive along the Afghan-Pakistani border. American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff as well as aid worker Abdul-Rahim Kassig were held captive and killed by the Islamic State. Luke Somers, a journalist, was killed in Yemen and aid worker Kayla Mueller was killed in Syria.

[American hostage Warren Weinstein devoted his life to helping the world’s poorest people]

In December, the administration launched a review of how to handle hostage cases, especially when families want to pay ransom even while the government does not. "We’ve been definitive about our no-ransom, no-concessions policy, and it's one that is not subject to this ongoing hostage policy review," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in April. "And that’s because that policy is clearly in our national security interest, that we know that extremist organizations only use ransoms to fund their terror activities."

But at that time he also added, "Speaking generally, helping with a ransom payment, to use your word, is not tantamount to paying a ransom." Earnest said that while the U.S. government would not pay ransom, as some European governments have, he also said that "what we are trying to do is to aggressively enforce this policy -- which we do -- while also supporting these families that are relying on the expert advice and support of the FBI, other law enforcement agencies, and other national security officials that are trying to secure the safe return of their loved one."