The Obama administration is considering the creation of a “fusion cell” of law enforcement, intelligence and other officials to better coordinate its response to hostage situations. Its mission would be to focus exclusively on developing strategies to recover American captives being held overseas.
The proposal is described in a letter sent to the families of American hostages and is one of several ideas the administration is considering as it gets closer to concluding its review of hostage policies. That review was launched in December amid frustration at the government’s response from families of American hostages, some of whom were held and later killed by the Islamic State and other terrorist groups.
The new fusion cell would oversee a “whole-of-government response to hostage events,” according to the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post. It would involve subject-matter experts from agencies including the FBI, the Defense Department, the State Department and those in the intelligence community.
Although all of those agencies already get involved when Americans are taken hostage overseas, the possible creation of a unified group underscores perceived gaps in a response that families describe as often bewildering.
Under another proposal, according to the letter, a senior-level policy group, chaired by the National Security Council staff, would review hostage policies and recovery strategies proposed by the fusion cell. That group would report to Cabinet officials and the president to “ensure sustained, high-level government-wide attention to hostage cases and policies.”
The letter does not address the U.S. ban on paying ransoms to terrorist groups — a policy that has drawn criticism from families and others, particularly in light of other countries’ willingness to pay for the release of their citizens. The administration has said it will not alter the policy, citing concerns that ransoms would reward hostage-takers and encourage them to target more Americans.
At the same time, U.S. officials have expressed an interest in finding ways to better communicate with families about efforts to recover their loved ones. The letter says the administration is considering establishing a “family engagement team” to ensure that families have continuous, direct access to officials who can provide “timely information and other necessary support during and after a hostage crisis.”
Some families have said that support was lacking in their cases.
Sara Berg, the sister of Nick Berg, an American contractor who was kidnapped and killed in Iraq in 2004, said she did not know what had happened to her brother until a video surfaced online depicting his beheading.
Sara Berg, one of dozens of family members interviewed as part of the administration’s review, said she thought the letter sent by the administration reflected its interest in “consensus-making and being open to input.” That, she said, “is very positive.”
U.S. officials, according to the letter, hope to meet in person with families in May to solicit their feedback on the review.
“We have heard concerns expressed by some family members about their interaction and communication with U.S. government officials and the amount of information that can be shared,” said Kathleen C. Butler, a spokeswoman in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. “We have spoken with 22 families, provided them with updates on the review, and sought their feedback on an initial set of proposals.”