President Obama today the U.S. government is “changing the way [it] does business” when it comes to American hostage policy in the wake of the deaths of Americans at the hands of terrorists, including a promise not to threaten families of hostages with prosecution for attempting to pay ransoms.
“These families have already suffered enough, and they should never feel ignored or victimized by their own government,” Obama said from the White House. “No family of an American hostage has ever been prosecuted for paying a ransom in return for their loved ones. The last thing we should ever do is to add to a family’s pain with threats like that.”
Obama said that families of some of the 80 Americans who have been held hostage around the world since 9/11 told him directly that they felt “frustrated” by the government, how they felt “lost in the bureaucracy” and threatened for “exploring certain options” to bring their loved ones home –- an apparent reference to threats over ransom payments.
The president said the shift does not change the U.S. government's policy of never itself paying ransoms or granting concessions to hostage-takers. Over 30 Americans are currently being held abroad by various groups, including terrorists, cartels and criminals, White House Assistant for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Lisa Monaco said today.
In a past private meeting with Obama, one parent of a hostage bluntly asked what he would do if one of his own daughters was kidnapped and the President replied that he would consider doing whatever it might take to save her, according to a person who has been working with the families.
Speaking today, he said that if his family was at risk, he would "move Heaven and Earth to get those loved ones back."
One former official called the policy shift essentially a "behavioral change" by the government. Current officials told ABC News the change comes in the wake of what happened in the case of hostage James Foley.
While ISIS was threatening him with death last summer, his parents say a military official at the White House was threatening them with prosecution if they tried to raise a ransom for his freedom.
"It just made me realize that these folks talking to us had no idea what it was like to be the family of a kidnapped American," Foley's mother, Diane, later told ABC News. "I was surprised there was so little compassion."
ISIS beheaded James Foley in a gruesome video posted online in August.
ISIS also eventually killed fellow journalist Steven Sotloff, aid workers Peter "Abdul-Rahman" Kassig and Kayla Mueller. Journalist Luke Somers was killed by terrorists with al Qaeda in Yemen during an attempted rescue mission by U.S. Navy SEALs last December. Aid worker Warren Weinstein was accidentally killed in a CIA drone strike on an al Qaeda house where he was held in Pakistan last January.
President Obama said today the updated hostage policy will ensure the families of American hostages that “we’re not going to abandon you.”
“We will stand by you,” he said. “I’m making it clear that these families are to be treated as what they are… our trusted partners. We are all on the same team.”
Under the new policy, the administration said the U.S. government can facilitate communication with hostage-takers and the government will also create a new office that will work with the American families of hostage victims, administration officials said. A senior official said the hostage inter-agency "fusion cell" will be physically housed at FBI headquarters and initially will be run by a senior FBI official. Officials from other agencies and departments may rotate in to run the program in the future.
“The Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell will improve how the U.S. Government develops hostage recovery plans, tracks developments in specific cases, shares information with families, and provides information to Congress and the media,” says a White House fact sheet released today.
In addition to the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, the White House said the government will create a Hostage Response Group, name an Intelligence Community Issue Manager for Hostage Affairs, name a Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs and create a Family Engagement Team to "prioritize continual collaboration with the family in the safe recovery of the hostage."
Elaine Weinstein, wife of Warren Weinstein, said Tuesday the government's actions have been a long time coming.
“This review will not bring Warren back. It is our most sincere hope that it was conducted fully and frankly so the U.S. Government can have an honest conversation about the areas where it falls short," Weinstein said in a statement. "Our benchmark for this review’s success will be the actions arising from it more than its specific findings."
The families of Mueller, Kassig and Sotloff released a joint statement today, saying the changes are a "step in the right direction."
"We have faith that the changes announced today will lead to increased success in bringing our citizens home," the statement says. "When we see evidence of this occurring, it will further our healing."
However, Richard Clarke, former White House counter-terrorism advisor and current consultant to ABC News, described the shift as a “dangerous change in policy.”
“By saying that families can pay, this increases the chances that Americans will pay for American hostages. That, in turn, makes every American a target for hostage taking,” he said after Obama’s announcement. “I think this is very counter-productive.”
ABC News' Arlette Saenz, Jordyn Phelps and Lee Ferran contributed to this report.