The White House will release on Wednesday a presidential directive and an executive order that will allow the government to communicate and negotiate with terrorist groups holding Americans hostage, a source briefed on the matter told CNN.
While the government will maintain its policy of not making “substantive concessions” to captors or paying ransoms, the White House will announce that officials will no longer threaten with criminal prosecution the families of American hostages looking to pay ransoms to their relatives’ captors, according to a senior administration official.
The White House will release a policy document noting that the Justice Department “does not intend to add to families’ pain…by suggesting they could face criminal prosecution,” according to advance quotes from the policy document the official provided to CNN.
President Barack Obama will meet Wednesday with the families of American hostages at the White House before delivering remarks at 12:20 p.m. to announce changes in the administration’s hostage policy.
Family members of former hostages met Tuesday with officials at the National Counterterrorism Center to learn of the administration’s decisions after a months-long review of U.S. policies in dealing with American citizens held captive. The families were set to meet with President Barack Obama on Wednesday.
The payment of ransoms to terror groups has long been tolerated in many instances, though it is technically illegal. The administration has looked the other way when families of Americans held overseas have paid ransoms.
But several families — including the family of James Foley — have said they were threatened with prosecution as they considered making ransom payments. A member of the National Security Council staff had threatened Foley’s family with prosecution during their ordeal.
On Wednesday, the White House will explicitly indicate that families should not fear criminal prosecution if they choose to make ransom payments. The new directive will not include a formal change to existing laws. But administration officials will indicate publicly, for the first time, that ransom payments will be tolerated.
Officials said the administration will offer clear internal guidance to federal agencies on how to discuss the ransom issue with families to avoid confusion or mixed signals from the government.
However, the longstanding administration policy against government concessions to hostage takers, including paying ransoms, will be reiterated and not be altered.
And after criticism from families that certain officials displayed a lack of compassion, administration officials will also be instructed to “be empathetic, patient, and able to handle the expression of intense emotions” and that they “should be able to deliver the difficult news with clarity and honesty,” according to a policy document set to be released Wednesday.
Other changes expected in Wednesday’s announcement include the formation of a “Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell,” which officials described as a full-time, inter-agency body with the goal of coordinating the U.S. government’s response to hostage-takings. It will include the appointment of a director responsible for overseeing hostage recovery strategies.
A senior administration official said the first director of the Fusion Cell will be a senior FBI official, with deputies assigned from the State Department and the Pentagon. The office will be housed in the FBI. Future directors will be chosen in three years and could be from any of those three agencies.
Two new positions within the government are also expected to be created: a family engagement coordinator to act as a single point of contact for families of hostages, and the designation of a senior representative from the State Department for diplomatic outreach abroad.
The review process has relied heavily on the input of former hostages and their families. Administration officials conducted over 40 interviews with 24 families and former hostages through three rounds of feedback. The administration also consulted with five intermediaries, three international organizations, two hostage experts and four foreign countries.
The interviews with former hostages or families took place in their hometowns or in Washington. The review was led by Lisa Monaco, Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser.
Monaco sent letters to 82 families and former hostages dating back to 2001, inviting them to be part of the review process and to provide their views based on their personal experiences.
“We understand this is incredibly difficult and painful for the families and we appreciate their feedback,” a senior official said. “(Their feedback) has been invaluable and helped us examine ways to improve our processes and communicate with the families most effectively to achieve our shared objective of ensuring the safe return of a loved one.”
Some families, like that of James Foley, an American journalist beheaded by ISIS last August, have been critical of the administration’s handling of hostage situations. His mother, Diane Foley, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in September that she was “embarrassed and appalled” by how the U.S. government dealt with her son’s case.
“I think our efforts to get Jim freed were an annoyance” to the U.S. government, Foley said. “It didn’t seem to be in (the U.S.) strategic interest.”
The wife of Warren Weinstein, an American aid worker accidentally killed by a U.S. drone strike in April, said on Tuesday that during her husband’s captivity, “elements of the U.S. government fell short.”
“We hope to be the last family that fails to receive the level of coordinated government support that those who serve abroad deserve when trouble finds them,” Elaine Weinstein said.
“We believe the creation of a fusion cell is a good idea, but we believe establishing a sole individual with overall policy responsibilities for safe hostage recovery would have been best positioned at the National Security Council, since that would not only give the position more inter-agency coordinating authority but also ensure that those debating counter-terrorism activities and hostage recovery efforts were sitting in the same room,” she said.
California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter, who pushed the administration to conduct the review, was similarly skeptical of early details about the hostage review.
“The changes offered up by the White House prove that neither the right questions were asked nor were any lessons learned,” Hunter said. “Wholesale changes are needed, but what’s being put forward is nothing more than window dressing, I fear.”
He continued, “It’s a pathetic response to a serious problem that has plagued the ability of the U.S. to successfully recover Americans held captive in the post-9/11 era.”
Hunter said housing the Fusion Cells within the FBI was a mistake, claiming the agency was ill-equipped to handle foreign hostage crises.
The team that carried out the administration’s hostage review was comprised of officials from the Departments of Defense, State, Justice, Treasury and the intelligence community.
An administration official said the U.S. government has observed a “significant shift” in hostage-takings abroad by terrorists and criminal groups, requiring the policy to also evolve with new and more pronounced challenges.
“Terrorist groups have become increasingly willing to engage in publicized and repugnant murders of hostages if they are unable to extract concessions,” the administration official said. “They deliberately target private citizens as well as government officials to garner media attention and attempt to extract political and financial concessions.”