P E N T A G O N, April 11, 2002 -- The United States was involved in arranging a ransom payment to the Abu Sayyaf rebel group in the Philippines meant to secure the release of an American missionary couple kidnapped nearly 11 months ago, but the couple has not been freed, ABCNEWS has learned.
Sources say the U.S. government helped pay $300,000 in private money more than a month ago in hopes of seeing Martin and Gracia Burnham freed by their radical Islamic captors.
The Pentagon — Defense Secretary Rumsfeld personally — opposed the idea, but he was overruled, sources said. The FBI, White House and State Department thought it was worth the risk and argued that without at least trying, the missionaries would almost certainly be killed.
The Burnhams were kidnapped as they celebrated their 18th wedding anniversary at a Philippines resort on May 27, along with another American, 14 Filipinos and and three resort workers.
The Abu Sayyaf, linked by U.S. authorities to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terror network, killed or released the other hostages.
ABCNEWS has learned the cash was handed to an individual who claimed ties to the terrorist group, but the U.S. was never able to verify that he delivered the money.
For more than a month, U.S. officials have held out hope the terrorists did get the money and would release the Burnhams. The Abu Sayyaf group has more than once waited several weeks after receiving a ransom payment to free a hostage.
In February, the Bush administration changed its policy from one that stated the U.S. government "will not pay ransom," to "it is U.S. government policy to deny hostage takers the benefits of ransom, prisoner releases, policy changes, or other acts of concession."
Administration officials argued at the time it would not change the intent.
"So I think it's pretty clear that we're not going to get in the business of paying off hostage takers," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said on Feb. 22.
But the Bush administration has done just that, arguing behind closed doors that they simply tried to help private citizens pay the money to a terrorist group that sometimes frees people who do pay ransom and invariably kills those who do not.