A sombre President Barack Obama admitted Wednesday that his administration had failed the families of U.S. citizens held hostage by terrorists and vowed to do better.
He called it "totally unacceptable" that families of some American hostages "feel that they've been threatened" for considering paying ransoms and were often left out of high-level discussions about raids or rescue efforts.
The President stopped short of a public apology but he promised change, saying hostage families "should never feel ignored or victimized by their own government."
But the President pointedly left unchanged the official "no concessions" policy of no swaps and no payments to terrorist groups even as he made clear that families of hostages who raised money privately faced no threat of prosecution.
If effect, the only policy change he announced concerned his administration's treatment of families of hostages, not its dealings with terrorist groups.
"I am reaffirming that the United States' government will not make concessions, such as paying ransom, to terrorist groups holding American hostages," he said. Doing so "risks endangering more Americans and funding the very terrorism that we're trying to stop."
But he also made clear that his government wouldn't stop hostage families – despite an existing law banning payments for any purpose to terrorist groups – from raising and paying ransoms privately.
That isn't actually a change. "No family of an American hostage has ever been prosecuted for paying a ransom," the President said. What's different is an explicit statement from the Justice Department saying it won't prosecute families who pay ransoms.
After an emotional White House meeting with dozens of family members of current and former hostages, including some who had been killed, the President vowed a new, inclusive and respectful treatment of families. But evidently some families wanted no part of Mr. Obama's review. Only 24 of the 82 families of hostages seized in the last 14 years took part in the process.
"After everything they've endured, these families are right to be skeptical," Mr. Obama acknowledged, adding that a special new high-level unit would be created to keep them in the loop and part of the decision-making in the future.
White House officials insisted the shift didn't amount to a green light for hostage families to pay ransoms although the President did say he was "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."
In effect, the administration may facilitate – on a case-by-case basis – contacts between hostage families and terrorist groups including regarding ransom payments.
Critics fear the President is opening a back door to funding terrorist groups.
"We have had a policy in the United States for over 200 years of not paying ransom and not negotiating with terrorists," said House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican. "The concern that I have is that by lifting that long-held principle you could be endangering more Americans here and overseas."
Some hostage families had previously accused the government of threatening them if they attempted to raise ransoms, notably Diane Foley, whose journalist son, James, was beheaded in a videotaped execution by Islamic State in Syria last year.
Others like Elaine Weinstein, wife of Warren, the 73-year-old aid worker killed by a U.S. Hellfire missile in a drone strike on the al-Qaeda compound in Pakistan where he was – unbeknownst to U.S. intelligence – held captive, have complained of being ignored.
"We hope to be the last family that fails to receive the level of co-ordinated government support that those who serve aboard deserve," she said before Mr. Obama's statement Wednesday.
Since the Sept 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks, more than 80 U.S. citizens have been held hostage by various terrorists and extremist groups.
A few have been daringly freed by U.S. forces – notably Captain Richard Phillips, who was held for days by Somali pirates after they seized the Maersk Alabama four months after Mr. Obama became president. The Pentagon helped Hollywood turn that raid into a movie.
Others, like Luke Somers, a 33-year-old held in Yemen, were killed during failed raids to rescue them.
A few have escaped on their own.
At least one was inadvertently killed by missile-firing U.S. drones.
Several have been executed by their captors.
More than 30 remain held hostage, although the Obama administration declines to specify exactly how many, where they are held or by which group.
In his public statement reiterating the core policy of no deals, no concessions to win the freedom of Americans held captive, Mr. Obama made no mention of his decision to release five senior Taliban held at Guantanamo in exchange for Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who opted to walk away from his unit's base in Afghanistan. Sgt. Bergdahl faces life in prison on a desertion charge.
The families of non-military American hostages said the swap made it harder to win release of their loved ones.
The father of Kayla Mueller, the 26-year-old American aid worker killed while held captive by Islamic State, questioned why the Obama administration was willing to swap Taliban leaders for Sgt. Bergdahl but refused to pay or allow ransom to be paid for his daughter.
It "was pretty hard to take," he said last February adding: "I actually asked the President that question when we were in the White House."