New US rules on ransom payments unlikely to trigger windfall for militants

The US has never prosecuted a citizen for trying to obtain the release of an abductee by making payments. But official policy remains that no concessions will be given to hostage-takers. 

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
President Obama announced that the US would no longer threaten prosecution of families who try to pay ransom to win the release of American hostages held overseas Wednesday.
  • Dan Murphy covered the Iraq war from 2003-2008, and the kidnapping in Baghdad of Monitor correspondent Jill Carroll.

The US government will no longer threaten to prosecute friends and families for paying ransom to hostage takers overseas. And that's good news. 

But such threats were never standard practice. No American has ever been prosecuted for paying such a ransom, and it's hard to imagine the spectacle of the federal government putting a family on trial for bringing their relative home alive. Moreover, paying kidnappers – or intermediaries – is standard practice for a host of governments around the world, among them NATO allies in Europe.

So what's changing in terms of US policy on nationals taken hostage overseas? 

One concrete change is that US officials will now be allowed direct contact with hostage-takers, though America's "no concessions" rule remains intact. This means the official policy is "to deny hostage-takers the benefits of ransom, prisoner releases, policy changes, or other acts of concession," as President Obama wrote in a presidential directive on kidnappings. The directive also calls for greater interagency coordination and better communications with families.

In kidnapping situations, the FBI has long assigned handlers to families with missing loved ones, listened in on phone calls, and provided strategy advice. CIA information has often been passed along via the FBI to families making difficult decisions. 

The presidential directive follows a review ordered by Obama earlier this year. It follows a rash of kidnappings of Americans during the Iraqi and Syrian civil wars, many of them taken by the so-called Islamic State (IS) and most either murdered by their captors or still missing. Some grieving family members have been lobbying the administration to pay kidnappers. But they didn't get their way. 

Talking to terrorists

Should a US official be able to speak to a hostage-taker? I don't see why not. Though it's of questionable utility for extremist groups like IS, which revels in videotaping inventive ways of torturing captives to death. The step to "direct" contact from current practice seems very small.

Still, Fox News and hawkish US politicians jumped on the news. "This doesn't fix anything," Duncan Hunter, a Republican congressman from California, told Fox. "The money that we're going to be paying ISIS [another acronym for IS] is going to be used to buy arms and to buy equipment to fight Americans and to fight the Iraqis."

Except that the US hasn't stood in the way of payments in the past. To be sure, the family of James Foley, who was murdered by IS last year after nearly two years in captivity, says the government told them on three separate occasions that it was illegal to pay ransoms. It appears that similar warnings have been given on other occasions.

But I know from first-hand experience that such warnings aren't always given, and that the advice from private companies that focus on freeing captives is not to worry about it – if a deal can be done and the abductee stands a chance of being released. 

I get the logic of not paying ransoms. It subsidizes kidnapping groups, makes the nationals of countries that do pay more attractive targets, and ultimately puts more lives at risks. But I also see the other side of the coin: a human life in clear and immediate jeopardy now, against some theoretical risk to some unknown person down the road. It's very hard to claim complete moral clarity in such situations.

And then consider the family and friends of hostages. Having been deeply involved in a kidnapping situation in Iraq, the emotional toll and confusion for all involved is enormous; only the clear, singular goal of "get the hostage home" keeps everyone focused and somewhat sane. In the Monitor's situation, when correspondent Jill Carroll was kidnapped in Baghdad, if the opportunity had presented itself and the price was feasible, would we have paid? Thankfully we never had to make that decision.

When various scammers (a common hazard in such situations) approached us looking for an easy score, though, we investigated rather than dismiss the notion out of hand. When people's lives are at stake, you do what you can. US policy has de facto understood that for years. Obama has simply clarified the position.

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