Would US sue parents of James Foley? Why White House is defending itself.

The parents of James Foley, who was beheaded by the Islamic State, say the Obama administration told them they could be sued if they tried to pay their son's ransom. A White House official said Sunday that it was not a threat.

Jim Cole/AP/File
Diane and John Foley talk to reporters outside their home in Rochester, N.H., after speaking with President Obama last month after their son, James Foley, was killed by the Islamic State.

The Obama administration insisted Sunday that it never threatened to prosecute the families of the two Americans beheaded by the Islamic State for raising money potentially to pay a ransom. 

On the surface, the claims appear to be explosive. The idea of prosecuting parents desperate to save their sons from a barbaric act comes across as at best unfeeling.

Speaking of possibly being thrown in jail for paying a ransom to a terrorist group, which is against federal law and longstanding US policy, John Foley told Fox News: "Big deal. I'd rather be in a prison here than my son [James] being in a prison over there."

In an interview with CNN, Diane Foley added: "We were told we could not raise ransom, that it was illegal. We might be prosecuted."

On Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough sought to clarify what the administration said. "We didn't threaten anybody, but we made clear what the law is," he said on on "Fox News Sunday." "That's our responsibility, to make sure we explain the law and uphold the law."

According to the transcripts of the CNN and Fox News interviews, at least, Mr. McDonough appears to be correct. The Foleys do not say the administration explicitly threatened to sue them. The issue appears to be more one of nuance and perception.

When a federal law is in question, simply the delivery of such a message by the federal government – even in the spirit of transparency – could seem to carry an implicit threat.

Ms. Foley told CNN: "I was horrified, I was horrified. Because we had had legal counsel that had assured us that no family of a captive American had been prosecuted for trying to get their child freed."

Perhaps more to the point, however, is that the repeated warning apparently gave the Foleys the impression that the United States was more concerned about following a rule than bringing James Foley home alive.

The Obama administration has argued that was not the case. National Security Adviser Susan Rice has noted that the US launched a Special Operations raid in an attempt to rescue Foley and the other American hostage who has since been beheaded, Steven Sotloff. And with the US about to send more personnel to Iraq to fight the Islamic State, it has reason not to want to encourage more hostage-taking.

Indeed, the Foleys did not have only harsh words for the government.

"We met wonderful people within our government, who cared, who wanted to help," Ms. Foley said, later adding, "I don't want to blame people because that is not going to help."

But the interviews left little doubt that the Foleys felt the administration was not on their side.

"As an American I was embarrassed and appalled, you know. I think our efforts to get Jim freed were an annoyance," Ms. Foley told CNN.

"I just think we needed a little more information and a little more trust," Mr. Foley told Fox News. "We felt like outsiders asking favors."

By its very nature and intent, hostage-taking creates excruciating choices. Even hostages who are eventually freed question why it took so long and what was really going on. Shane Bauer, who was taken hostage by Iran with two other hikers from 2009 to 2011, is currently suing the US government. Other nations do pay ransoms, and some research suggests that shunning hostage-takers does nothing to discourage them from taking more.

The more effective argument is that giving terrorist organizations large sums of money makes them more dangerous. For example, the $130 million demanded for Foley is "the equivalent of several hundred thousand AK-47s at black market prices," Brian Jenkins, a senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corp. think tank, told the Times of Israel. "It’s more than 200 times what it cost al-Qaeda to carry out the 9/11 operation."

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