White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest Thursday signaled a change in U.S. policy toward ransoming hostages of terrorist organizations, suggesting the United States government may soon tolerate people attempting to ransom their kidnapped family members and even help with the process, though government funds would not be used.
A review underway of U.S. hostage policy, ordered by President Obama, is expected to recommend that families be free to try to ransom loved ones who have been taken prisoner.
A report in the Wall Street Journal this week said that not only did the FBI in 2012 not prosecute family members for trying to ransom kidnapped aid worker Warren Weinstein, it offered logistical help abetting the ransom attempt. In the end, $250,000 was paid but Weinstein was not freed and was later killed accidentally in a U.S. drone strike.
Earnest, while not commenting directly on the case reported by the Journal, drew a line between ransom and abetting ransom, saying it was important to help the families of hostages.
Helping with a ransom payment, to use your word, is not tantamount to paying a ransom. And 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 . . .
And the question is how do you try to do everything you can to rescue an American that’s being held hostage and support their family that’s going through living hell at the same time? And that’s something that our law enforcement agencies, our intel community, our military, and our diplomats go to great lengths to try to do.
Earnest insisted that actual payments by the U.S. government for ransoms will not be made. But it’s unclear to me what the distinction really is. If you oppose ransoming hostages – for the very good reason that it spurs more taking of captives – than you should not in any way facilitate or condone ransoms.
Once the door is opened to helping families ransom hostages, it becomes very easy for officials to contrive new and expanding strategies for doing so, leading perhaps to the point where the government is doing everything to ransom hostages but coming up with the money.
Families of hostages deserves our empathy. And no doubt, working with them, federal officials become particularly sensitive to their plight. But this new policy could put the word out that the U.S. is effectively in the hostage ransom business. And then there will be many more captives taken and offered back for a price.