Official: White House Likely to Create Hostage Family Engagement Team

Parents of slain journalist welcome moves.

ByABC News
April 27, 2015, 1:27 PM

WASHINGTON— -- Stung by harsh criticism from relatives of American hostages killed by terrorists in recent months, the Obama White House is moving to create a government office to coordinate incident response, which will likely include a "Family Engagement Team," a senior U.S. official told ABC News Sunday.

The likely White House move is in anticipation of findings and recommendations by a hostage policy review team from the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center expected to be delivered to President Obama in the next few weeks.

"In response to what we have heard from family members, we are considering the establishment of a working-level, operationally-focused coordinating Fusion Cell to ensure a whole-of-government response to overseas hostage events," said the senior official familiar with the review. "We are also considering the establishment of a Family Engagement Team as a permanent part of the Fusion Cell, to ensure that families have full-time and direct access to professionals who can provide timely information and other necessary support during and after a hostage crisis."

Justice Department family engagement liaisons played an essential role in the Zacarias Moussaoui 9/11 trial proceedings in 2006. Pentagon outreach teams have helped families of those killed in the terror attacks stay informed and attend hearings since 2008 at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for five defendants charged in the Al Qaeda plot. What is now being proposed will be a government-wide team of experts.

The top government engagement issue for many hostages' families has been strict U.S. policy forbidding ransom payments. Some foreign governments do not share such a policy and at times bow to hostage-taker demands, a practice that fans controversy over whether such payments encourage even more kidnappings.

On Sunday, ABC News reported that three senior officials said last week that one key recommendation expected to be made to the White House by Army Lt. Gen. Bennet Sacolick, who is leading the NCTC review team, is to ensure that the U.S. government communicates better with families and doesn't interfere with those who attempt to pay ransom to kidnappers. The U.S. will not support such efforts and officially will not negotiate, pay ransoms or give "concessions" to kidnappers, in keeping with federal anti-terrorism laws -- but would in effect look the other way if hostages' families do so on their own, the officials said.

Last summer, a military officer working at the National Security Council and a State Department official repeatedly told several families of ISIS hostages in Syria such as journalist James Foley that they could be prosecuted for supporting terrorism if they paid ransoms to the terror group. Many European hostages had been successfully ransomed a year ago but all four Americans were eventually killed in captivity, along with five other prisoners murdered in high-profile ISIS videos.

"We were told at that point that there was going to be no intervention, there was going to be no negotiation, and that no ransom would be paid -- and, if in fact, we attempted to raise the money and pay it we would be potentially prosecuted. So that was pretty upsetting," James Foley's father John said on ABC News’ "World News Tonight" Sunday.

James Foley, a freelance war reporter, was brutally beheaded in a video released by ISIS on August 19, 2014, which shocked the world.

PHOTO: A screengrab from a video posted online appears to show American journalist James Foley shortly before he is killed by a masked captor.
A screengrab from a video posted online appears to show American journalist James Foley shortly before he is killed by a masked captor.

ISIS had demanded $130 million and rarely responded to communications overseen by the family's privately-hired team of experienced former law enforcement officials. The Foleys said donors willing to help any of the families raising ransom in the future also should not have to fear being charged with supporting terrorism.

"It’s only a baby step, it’s a tiny step. If the government can’t help, I would hope that families would be free from prosecution of getting their loved ones home," Diane Foley, who was deeply involved in the private effort to find and free her son, told ABC News on Sunday.

She said Lt. Gen. Sacolick had informed her that no family will ever face such threats again from their own government for trying to free a loved one. No one has ever been prosecuted for trying to pay ransom, law enforcement officials have noted. The Foleys also pressed Obama directly in a conversation last week to accept the review team's recommendations.

"No one was accountable for the return of Jim or for helping us to get a strategy in place to bring him home. We talked to so many people at the State Department, FBI, and within the Senate, but none of them could point to any one person whose mission it was to bring Jim home," she said.

"The previous ‘no negotiation’ policy has been interpreted as no communication, no talk, so I think there’s a huge deficit along the way, from doing nothing to being able to talk to captors," John Foley added. "Negotiation doesn’t mean that we would say ‘yes’ to everything, but it does mean that we would be able to have a dialogue with captors, and who knows what might come out of that?"

Besides the Americans killed by ISIS in Syria, one American and a South African were killed during a hostage rescue attempt by Navy SEALs in Yemen in December. American Warren Weinstein and an Italian hostage, Giovanni Lo Porto, were killed accidentally in a CIA drone strike targeting al Qaeda in Pakistan in January. A person familiar with Weinstein's ordeal said the family attempted to pay around $250,000 to the men believed to be holding him, but nothing came of it before he was killed.

Beyond the Obama administration's anticipated efforts following the deaths of James Foley and some of the other Americans, the Foley family created the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation to help hostages' families navigate official government waters.

For its part, the White House in letters from counterterrorism advisor Lisa Monaco invited 82 families and former hostages dating back to 2001 to participate in the NCTC review. Interviews with 40 people have been conducted by the NCTC team so far, the senior official said.

"We understand this is incredibly difficult and painful for the families and we appreciate their feedback. The feedback each family member and former hostage provided 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," the senior official told ABC News.