At least since the 1980s, United States administrations have remained firm in their commitment not to negotiate with terrorists, even when an American citizen’s life is at risk. That resolve only hardened after 9/11.
This policy ensures that the US, unlike many European governments, refuses to pay ransom for American hostages held by terrorists groups such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
But now, information has come to light indicating that the stance on ransom payments may not be as clear-cut as was previously perceived. On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation helped facilitate a 2012 ransom payment to Al Qaeda to secure the release of kidnapped American aid worker Warren Weinstein. Despite his family paying the $250,000 ransom, Mr. Weinstein was not released by his captors. Instead, he died in January in a Central Intelligence Agency drone strike on an Al Qaeda compound in Pakistan. Despite the tragic outcome, the case highlights the need for more flexibility for law enforcement agents who trying to walk a line between official policy and the desire to secure the release of citizens held hostage.
“Of course we will negotiate – we’re trying to save lives,” says Gary Noesner, a retired FBI negotiator and author of the book "Stalling For Time: My Life As An FBI Hostage Negotiator."
“This has been a consistent policy for some time. It used to have flexibility, but no substantive concession policy has turned into a no-negotiation policy. Failure to negotiate is just ignorance," he says. "We [the FBI] would never overtly make the recommendation or provide or carry the money. But the FBI in this case told the Weinstein family that this [payment] might be their best option. That was probably accurate and that is an appropriate role.”
Meanwhile, another former FBI veteran and one of the lead international kidnapping negotiators for the US government, Charles Regini, told The Daily Beast that the FBI has consistently supported and assisted families with ransom payments.
“In fact, the FBI regularly assists and supports families and companies in payment of ransoms. FBI negotiators are trained in kidnap negotiations techniques, including payment of ransoms to support private efforts," Mr. Regini said. "The FBI has been doing that since the 1990s and that practice continues today.”
In order to assist Mr. Weinstein’s family in obtaining his release, the Wall Street Journal reported, the FBI vetted the Pakistani middleman that the family used to transport a $250,000 ransom payment to Weinstein’s captors.
White House officials said that the FBI agents did not violate US policy because they did not directly authorize the payment. Instead, officials told the Wall Street Journal that the agents had provided information only after they were certain that the family was going to go through with the ransom negotiations.
But a spokesman for the Weinstein family contradicted this version of events, stating that the family went ahead with the ransom payment after receiving advice and intelligence from FBI officials.
The discrepancy may be rooted in changing perceptions since the attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon in 2001 about what measures are appropriate in hostage situations, experts say.
“It’s just in recent years, post-9/11, the idea has morphed into no negotiations. It was never meant to be that and it shouldn’t be that,” says Mr. Noesner. “The only thing that has changed over time, preceding Obama, is there has been increased inflexibility. The way the FBI functioned since the Lindbergh kidnapping [in 1932] was that it was the family’s decision. If the family decides to pay the ransom, we, as the FBI, have the obligation to apprehend the kidnappers.”
In November 2014, the White House launched a review of its hostage policy, which is ongoing. Last week, the White House maintained that the payment of ransom could endanger future hostages and make Americans abroad more desirable targets for kidnapping, although White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest conceded that the policy is “painful.”
Meanwhile, family members of other American hostages, including Diane Foley, mother of slain journalist James Foley, said that a member of the National Security Council informed them it is illegal to pay ransom, but that FBI officials appeared conflicted about his comments and informed them, contrary to what the official said, that they would not face charges if they decided to pay.
“The NSC figure, I hope he’s looking for a new job. It is technically illegal to send money to a group if that group is on the State Department’s list. But when Congress implemented that law, it had nothing to kidnapping. It was intended to stop humanitarian groups sending money to refugees from accidentally sending funds to Hamas,” says Noesner.
Moreover, some have alleged that the government is not always consistent in carrying out its policy.
In December 2014, Rep. Duncan Hunter, (R) of California, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, asked the Defense Department’s inspector general to investigate an alleged ransom payment to free the hostage Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was released by a group allied with the Taliban in May 2014 in a prisoner swap, the Hill reported.
Additional anonymous sources also told the Daily Beast that the U.S government is aware of several ransom payments made to free American hostages. Questions remain over the legalities of these cases and what characterizes a direct ransom payment.
The military has attempted rescue missions in a number of cases, including the successful freeing of Al Geiser from Afghanistan in 2008, but rescue missions can be risky.
In December 2014, an unsuccessful rescue mission resulted in the execution of American hostage Luke Somers and South African hostage Pierre Korkie, who were held by the group Al Qaeda in Yemen.
“We, the government, rely too heavily on the military to provide a rescue. The most dangerous time for a hostage is during a rescue mission. They are rarely executed for lack of payment. Rescue missions should be a last resort because there are often tragic consequences,” says Noesner.
A rescue mission was ruled out in Weinstein’s case because there was no credible intelligence available indicating his precise location in Pakistan, the Journal reported.
Overall, Noesner says that the no-payment policy is ineffective and, in his view, needs more flexibility in order to save lives.
“The refusal of payment does not prevent Americans from being kidnapped, never has, never will. The two core reasons for the interpretation of the current policy, simply don’t work," he says. "What FBI agents know, is that in a great majority of instances it is either pay some money or the hostage doesn’t come out.”