President Obama Orders Full Review of Hostage Negotiation Policy

The review will look at how the U.S. government deals with American hostages.

ByABC News
November 17, 2014, 8:08 PM
President Barack Obama addresses the nation from the Cross Hall in the White House in Washington, Sept. 10, 2014.
President Barack Obama addresses the nation from the Cross Hall in the White House in Washington, Sept. 10, 2014.
Saul Loeb/AP Photo

— -- President Obama has ordered a comprehensive review of policy dictating how the U.S. government tries to secure the freedom of Americans held hostage by terrorists abroad, a senior Pentagon official revealed in a recent letter to a member of Congress.

“As a result of the increased frequency of hostage-taking of Americans overseas, and the recognition of the dynamic threat posed by specific terrorist groups, the President recently directed a comprehensive review of the U.S. Government policy on overseas terrorist-related hostage cases, with specific emphasis on examining family engagement, intelligence collection, and diplomatic engagement policies,” Christine Wormuth, the undersecretary of defense for policy, wrote in a Nov. 11 letter to Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., obtained by ABC News today.

Wormuth, the No. 3 ranked civilian at the Pentagon, writes that the review will seek “to integrate innovative and non-traditional solutions” that the administration hopes will improve inter-agency coordination and “strengthen the whole-of-government approach” led by the FBI and State Department during hostage negotiations.

The letter does not explicitly address whether ransom payments will be part of the assessment. The U.S. has a strict policy against paying ransoms to terrorist organizations, though many other countries permit direct payment.

In a speech today defending the U.S. war against the Islamic State, Secretary of State John Kerry warned that paying ransoms could endanger more Americans.

“And as for kidnapping, the United States has set a heart-rending but absolutely necessary example by refusing to pay ransom for captured Americans. Last year the U.N. Security Council and the G8 firmly endorsed an identical policy, and all of the evidence shows that where and if a country is paid a ransom, there are many more people who are taken hostage,” Kerry said.

Hunter wrote the president on Aug. 20, a day after American journalist James Foley was reported murdered by the Islamic State, urging Obama “to guarantee we are maximizing our recovery efforts.”

Since Hunter sent the letter, at least two more Americans have been murdered by the Islamic State, including Steven Sotloff and Peter Kassig, whose death was reported over the weekend. Kassig had adopted the name Abdul-Rahman after he converted to Islam in captivity. At least one more American is believed to be currently held by the Islamic State.

National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey said today the Obama administration's "goal has always been to use every appropriate resource within the bounds of the law to assist families to bring their loved ones home."

"In light of the increasing number of U.S. citizens taken hostage by terrorist groups overseas and the extraordinary nature of recent hostage cases, this summer President Obama directed relevant departments and agencies, including the Departments of Defense and State, the FBI, and the Intelligence Community, to conduct a comprehensive review of how the U.S. government addresses these matters," Baskey added. "While we are not in a position to detail every effort or every tool we are using to try to bring American hostages home, we will continue to bring all appropriate military, intelligence, law enforcement, and diplomatic capabilities to bear to recover American hostages. Those efforts continue every day."

ABC News' Devin Dwyer and Luis Martinez contributed to this report.