A Maryland congressman introduced legislation Friday 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.
The bill, called the Warren Weinstein Hostage Rescue Act, is named after an American contractor who was abducted in 2011 and inadvertently killed last month in a CIA drone strike on an al-Qaeda compound in Pakistan.
“The tragic loss of Warren Weinstein should be a call to action, because our hostage rescue operations have to improve,” said Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.). “Hostage rescue is incredibly complex and multiple agencies have a role in the process, which at times has complicated our ability to act efficiently.”
After the Obama administration revealed last week that Weinstein had been killed, his wife thanked her congressional representatives, including Delaney, and the FBI, but she was critical of other parts of the U.S. government involved in efforts to secure her husband’s release.
“Unfortunately, the assistance we received from other elements of the U.S. government was inconsistent and disappointing over the course of three and a half years,” Elaine Weinstein said in a statement.
The U.S. government’s approach to handling hostage cases has come under intense criticism since the Islamic State beheaded three American hostages last year. The group also claimed that an Arizona woman it had kidnapped was killed in an airstrike on one of its buildings in Syria.
Some families of the hostages said the government must do a better job of sharing information with them and have pushed the Obama administration to makes changes. Some families said they were told they could be prosecuted if they paid any ransom, leading them to believe that they couldn’t raise money to try to free their loved ones.
The Wall Street Journal, however, reported this week that the Weinstein family did pay a $250,000 ransom in 2012 with the assistance of the FBI, which vetted a middleman involved in the transaction.
The disclosure has only added to the confusion surrounding U.S. hostage policy.
At a White House briefing Thursday, spokesman Josh Earnest said that although the U.S. government has a policy of not paying ransom, “helping with a ransom payment is not tantamount to paying a ransom.”
The White House began reviewing its hostage policy in late December because of the uncertainty surrounding it. The administration is considering the creation of a fusion cell of law enforcement, intelligence and other agencies to develop strategies to recover Americans being held captive overseas.
The review is expected to be completed in several weeks. Officials have said that the review won’t change fundamental U.S. policy proscribing the payment of ransom to terrorist organizations.
The effort is being led by Army Lt. Gen. Bennet S. Sacolick, director of strategic operational planning at the National Counterterrorism Center, with whom Delaney has met.
A Delaney spokesman said the legislation shares the same goals as the White House review. It is intended “to synchronize and reinforce our respective initiatives in the shared interest of ensuring the improved coordination of hostage recovery efforts as well as family engagement,” the spokesman said.
The bill also would create a fusion cell that would provide quarterly reports to Congress and ensure that the families of U.S. hostages receive “regular updates that do not compromise U.S. intelligence.” It would not authorize the federal government to negotiate with terrorists.
Another bill introduced earlier this year by Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.) also calls for the creation of a single position to handle efforts to locate and recover U.S. hostages. But that measure doesn’t seem to explicitly preclude ransom payments, and is unlikely to be endorsed by the White House.
“Even though we should discourage the payment of ransoms, it makes no sense to legally restrain the mere possibility of payment because, depending on the circumstances, it could offer a way to safeguard hostages and keep them alive longer,” said Hunter spokesman Joe Kasper.