WASHINGTON — With terrorists beheading Americans, President Barack Obama has ordered a review of how the United States responds when citizens are taken hostage overseas.
The review comes as some family members of those killed have complained that the United States did not take enough action in an attempt to save their loved ones. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama ordered the review of recovery efforts over the summer given “the extraordinary nature of some of the hostage takings that we’ve seen this year.”
Earnest said the review will not include the United States’ longstanding policy of refusing to pay ransom, which stands in contrast to many other governments.
“The president continues to believe as previous presidents have concluded that it’s not in the best interest of American citizens to pay ransoms to any organization, let alone a terrorist organization,” Earnest said. “And the reason for that is simple — we don’t want to put other American citizens at even greater risk when they’re around the world.”
On Sunday, Islamic State militants released a video showing they had decapitated American aid worker Peter Kassig following the beheading deaths of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff earlier this year. State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said Tuesday that a “small number” of U.S. citizens are still being held by the Islamic State, but refused to provide a specific number.
In a letter to Obama Tuesday, California Rep. Duncan Hunter urged the president to task one person within the administration to lead efforts to recover Americans. “It is my firm belief that we are not exhausting the full range of options,” wrote Hunter, a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
Hunter has said the U.S. tried to pay an Afghan intermediary early this year to free Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from Taliban captivity, but the intermediary disappeared with the money. The Pentagon has denied paying cash, and Bergdahl was eventually returned to the U.S. in exchange for the release of five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay.
Hunter spokesman Joe Kasper said the administration review has to evaluate payments, even if there isn’t going to be a policy change. “There are a lot of ways the issue on monetary incentives could be handled, including options that don’t require paying captors. But we need to make sure there is a better understanding on this front, specifically for the people who are tasked with recovering Americans in hostile areas,” he said.
The USA Patriot Act prohibits any payment or assistance to terror groups that could boost their support, and families of hostages have been warned against breaking that law. But the issue of payments by American families or U.S. corporations has come under debate within the Obama administration since the beheadings began, a U.S. official familiar with the conversations has said.
Christine Wormuth, who oversees Defense Department policy, said in a letter to Hunter last week that the review is focused on examining engagement with hostages’ families, intelligence collection and diplomatic efforts to find and rescue hostages.
Earnest would not give a timeline for when the president expects the review to be completed.