President Obama’s decision to allow families to freely negotiate to pay ransom to foreign groups holding their loved ones hostage – and even to help facilitate contacts with hostage-takers – reflects a key tenet of the president’s foreign policy approach: engagement with America’s adversaries to get tough but desirable things done.
The question of paying ransom for citizens held hostage by America’s sworn enemies may not be on a par with the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran to limit the Iranian nuclear program or talks with the Cuban government to reestablish full diplomatic relations for the first time in more than five decades.
But the change, which the administration announced Wednesday, does add another element to a shift in America’s approach to adversaries that has been under way since Mr. Obama extended a hand and a promise of dialogue to Tehran in his 2009 inaugural address.
The change is more one of approach than of policy. While Obama’s order, outlined in a “presidential directive,” will not involve any explicit change in existing law that prohibits providing money or other forms of support to terrorist organizations, it will essentially lift the threat of legal action against families who try to free family members by negotiating a ransom with their captors.
"We are clarifying that our policy does not prevent communication with hostage takers by our government, the families of hostages or third parties who help these families and, when appropriate, our government may assist these families and private efforts in those communications," the president said, after meeting with families of captives and former hostages on Wednesday.
“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,” he added.
Despite a number of warnings during the past year to families of hostages taken captive by the self-proclaimed Islamic State, administration officials underscore that no one has ever been prosecuted for paying a ransom. The message from today forward is that the Justice Department will not seek to prosecute families.
The new directive also suggests an effort to align policy on what the families of hostages can and can’t do with what the government does on behalf of military personnel being held captive.
Last year, Obama signed off on negotiations with the Taliban to free Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was being held captive in Afghanistan. Those negotiations culminated in a swap that freed Mr. Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban detainees held at the Guantánamo Bay military prison.
At the time, the administration said the swap reflected Obama’s sense of duty as commander-in-chief not to leave any member of the armed forces behind on the battlefield. The new directive tacitly recognizes that American families must have the same right to try to free their relatives.
As part of the policy redirection, the government will create a “family engagement team” with the intent of giving a supportive cast to government-family contacts that in the past have ranged from spotty and dismissive to threatening.
According to a White House fact sheet issued Wednesday, the government will “collaborate more effectively with families by proactively sharing more information, ensuring coordinated, consistent interaction by professionals with specialized training, and that any relevant background regarding the family’s particular needs is always taken into consideration.”
Blurring the line against contact with enemies further, Obama’s directive specifies that the government can negotiate with captors of US citizens and can communicate with them on behalf of families hoping to secure their loved ones’ freedom.
Obama’s directive, the result of a policy review the president ordered last fall, does not alter the US prohibition against any form of concession – including paying ransom – to hostage-takers.
After four American hostages were killed by Islamic State militants last year, some of their family members lashed out at the government for doing little or even threatening them with prosecution if they sought to free their loved ones with ransom payments.
By contrast, a number of European hostages were freed after their governments paid ransoms.
European governments are estimated to have paid out tens of millions of dollars in ransoms to IS and other terrorist groups in recent years. The US government says its prohibition on paying ransom is rooted in the conviction that such payments only encourage more hostage-taking.