U.S. Defense Secretary Concedes ‘We Could Do a Little Better’ with Hostage Families

"We could and should maybe re-visit some of these practices," the Secretary of Defense said.

The U.S. could stand to review some of its policies in dealing with the parents and loved ones of Americans held hostage abroad, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said Tuesday.

Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee alongside Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey, Hagel was questioned by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen on U.S. policies regarding Americans kidnapped overseas. The New Hampshire senator’s line of questioning referenced media reports published last week which revealed the parents of two American journalists recently beheaded by the Islamic State in Syria — James Foley and Steven Sotloff — were told they could face prosecution in U.S. courts if they attempted to pay the fundamentalists’ ransom demands to free their sons.

“We must all be mindful of the humanity involved,” Hagel said, acknowledging the pain parents of kidnapped children feel. “We could and should maybe re-visit some of these practices,” the Secretary of Defense said. While he declined to go into detail and indicated support for current U.S. prohibitions against paying ransoms to terrorist groups, Hagel acknowledged there are “some areas that we could do a little better with.”

Bolstered by public comments from the slain journalists’ family members, U.S. efforts to free Foley and Sotloff have been heavily criticized in recent weeks, with the White House’s treatment of the families criticized as callous and devoid of compassion. A former official who advised the Foley family described their treatment by at least one member of the administration’s staff, an unnamed military officer who threatened the family with prosecution, as “utterly idiotic.”

Defenders of the White House have pointed to a failed U.S. special operations mission launched in early July to rescue the journalists and other captives held by the fundamentalist group as an example of the extreme lengths the U.S. went to save the hostages. The operation saw dozens of American commandos inserted into the heart of Islamic State territory, despite a dearth of intelligence in the region. There was a firefight that left some Islamic State fighters dead and one U.S. service member wounded. American officials believe the hostages were moved shortly before the special operations troops touched down. Addressing the Senate committee Tuesday, Chairman Dempsey called the failed rescue the “most complex, highest risk mission we have ever taken.”

The decapitation of Foley and Sotloff, rolled out in Islamic State video propaganda, captured the attention of the American public and the world. The killings have highlighted profound differences in U.S. and European policies for securing the release of kidnapped citizens. The United States and Britain are among the few countries on the planet that strictly prohibit the payment of ransoms to terrorist organizations holding their citizens captive, arguing that doing so incentives kidnappings. Other European nations sign declarations avowing to do the same but use intermediaries to pay off militant groups behind the scenes. A New York Times investigation published in July found that al Qaeda and its affiliates have raised at least $125 million through kidnapping since 2008, with most of the revenue drawn from European governments paying through intermediaries.

In November the Foleys were one of 23 families to receive an email from the Islamic State informing them that their son was being held captive. According to a New York Times article published Monday, the European home countries of several of the hostages — including France, Spain, Switzerland and Italy — quickly moved to secure the release of their citizens, while four American families–including the Foleys and the Sotloffs–were largely left to fend for themselves.

Reports published last week by ABC News and Yahoo News revealed the families of both Foley and Sotloff were informed by a senior Obama administration counterterrorism official that efforts to raise money for their sons’ release could expose them to criminal prosecution for providing material support to the Islamic State. Foley’s mother, Diane, told ABC she “had to beg” the U.S. government for information about her son. “We were told we could do nothing,” she said. “Meanwhile our son was being beaten and tortured every day.” According to Yahoo, Sotloff’s father walked out of a meeting with a meeting with a National Security Council official “shaking.”

The New York Times Monday night reported that “[a]lthough American officials initially advised the family that they could be prosecuted for paying a ransom, the bureau later privately told the Foleys that it was unlikely they would face charges and they could pursue their own course of action, independently of what the United States was attempting.”

Hagel’s brief comments on U.S. hostage policies on Tuesday appeared limited to the government’s interactions with the family members of kidnapped Americans. The broader and ongoing debate over ransom payment and the consequences that stem from differing policies held by various western governments remains unresolved.

Many American and British journalists–and their families–understand what covering conflict zones can mean if they find themselves kidnapped. As James Foley knelt in the sand somewhere in Eastern Syria earlier this summer, moments before a masked man dressed in black pressed a knife to his throat, he said, “I wish I could have the hope of freedom and seeing my family once again, but that ship has sailed.” Foley added, “I guess, all in all, I wish I wasn’t American.”

Responding to Foley’s killing in August, investigative journalist and author David Rohde published an opinion piece laying out the consequences that stem from the diverging hostage negotiation policies held by the U.S. and Britain and other European countries. Rohde, a two-time Pulitzer prize winner, was kidnapped while reporting in Afghanistan in November 2008. With the help of an Afghan journalist, he escaped seven months later.

Addressing Foley’s words, Rohde wrote, “Foley clearly spoke under duress. But his regret at being an American captive, real or not, reflected grim fact.”

On Tuesday, Rohde told The Intercept that in the absence of a consistent response to hostage situations — one adopted by both the U.S. and European nations — terrorist groups will continue to snatch westerners abroad.

“I’ve seen no clear evidence that groups are grabbing more Europeans and fewer Americans,” Rohde said in an email. “They take any foreigners they can get and use the Europeans for ransom and the Americans for publicity.”

“My captors were absolutely convinced that the US government secretly paid ransoms–and then publicly denied it–because that’s what European governments regularly do,” he added. “As long as there isn’t a unified position between the US and Europe on paying ransom, there is no deterrent.”

Photo: Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images

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