More than 80 Americans have been taken hostage during the last decade or so, and the U.S. government’s efforts to recover captives taken by terrorist groups has had decidedly mixed results. Heeding the call of victims’ families, President Barack Obama has issued an executive order changing the government’s approach to its hostage recovery policy.
Speaking from the Roosevelt Room on the afternoon of June 24, Obama began his remarks by “making it clear that our top priority is safe and rapid recovery of American hostages.” However, he said, the government will continue its policy of not paying ransoms or making concessions to terrorists. But, he said, families are not barred from communicating with hostage-takers and the government may help families with that communication.
“I firmly believe that the United States government paying ransom to terrorists risks endangering more Americans and funding the very terrorism that we’re trying to stop,” said Obama.
The government will create a coordinated, efficient response to eliminate the quagmire of conflicting information and lack of communication between departments and agencies the families of hostages have encountered, he said.
“The families of hostages have told us — and they’ve told me directly — about their frequent frustrations in dealing with their own government,” said Obama.
Elaine Weinstein, wife of the late Warren Weinstein of Rockville, who was captured in Pakistan and held hostage before being killed in a U.S. counterterrorism strike, released a statement in April, following the confirmation by the White House of her husband’s death, criticizing the government.
“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,” her statement read. “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.”
Perhaps the most significant change for families of hostages is the appointment of a family engagement coordinator, who will have a permanent, senior position within two key groups. The coordinator will work with a family engagement team, which will be comprised of representatives from the Federal Bureau of Investigation Office of Victim Assistance and the State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs.
“I’m making it clear that these families are to be treated like what they are — our trusted partners and active partners in the recovery of their loved ones,” said Obama. “We are all on the same team, and nobody cares more about bringing home these Americans than their own families, and we have to treat them as partners.”
A yet-to-be-created hostage recovery fusion cell will serve as the government interagency body for coordinating the recovery of American citizens held captive abroad. Recovery professionals from five agencies and the intelligence community will staff it.
In addition, a separate hostage response group will meet weekly to discuss recovery strategies. The president further ordered that an intelligence community issue manager for hostage affairs and a special presidential envoy for hostage affairs be appointed.
A status report on the implementation of the reforms will be provided after six months, with a full assessment by the National Counterterrorism Center to be delivered one year from the date of the executive order. Former hostages and families of captives will be consulted in the crafting of the assessments.
The president’s executive action could mark a significant change in recovery efforts and the victimization of hostage families.
As outlined in their paper “The Double Victimization of Hostage Families,” Eric Lebson and Andrew Ricci of the public relations firm LEVICK, families are “frequently stonewalled by government entities claiming a need for secrecy and confidentiality in the name of counterterrorism. … lack of greater insight into what actions are actually being taken can be an additional source of distress and frustration for an already distressed family.”
Lesbon and Ricci, who have offered their services pro bono to hostage families, write that families have to choose between a “high” and “low strategy.” They can go public to put pressure on officials or they can maintain a low profile and hope that the government’s assurances that they’re doing “everything possible” pays off.
In many instances, family members may start with a low profile and switch to high visibility if a loved one’s case has remained intractable. Both strategies come with significant risks.
Former hostages and their families contributed to the review of the government’s previous policies and many of the changes, Obama said, came as a “direct result of their recommendations.”
Of the Americans taken hostage since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, several have been American Jews, including Weinstein and journalists Daniel Pearl and Steven Sotloff. All three were killed in captivity.
The memorial foundation created to honor Sotloff, who had dual American-Israeli citizenship and reportedly fasted on Yom Kippur while captured, was referred to specifically by the president. He read aloud the journalist’s quote, “Everyone has two lives. The second one begins when you realize you only have one.”
Pearl’s family established the Daniel Pearl Foundation, which funds journalism fellowships, youth initiatives and music programs to foster cultural understanding.
“My message to every American being held unjustly around the world who is fighting from the inside to survive another day, my message to their families who long to hold them once more, is that the United States of America will never stop working to reunite you with your family,” said Obama. “We will not give up — no matter how long it takes.”