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Obama Orders Review Of U.S. Hostage Policy

Journalist James Foley in 2011. He was killed by Islamic State militants in Syria in August.
Steven Senne
Journalist James Foley in 2011. He was killed by Islamic State militants in Syria in August.

President Obama has ordered a full review of the process the United States uses to try to recover Americans taken hostage overseas.

In a recent letter to a lawmaker, Christine Wormuth, under secretary of defense for policy, said Obama ordered the review 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 Daily Beast first reported on the review on Tuesday, shortly after the Islamic State claimed responsibility for killing a third American, the aid worker Peter Kassig.

CNN reports that the White House said it ordered the review over the 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,' Alistar Baskey, a National Security Council spokesman wrote.

"'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,' Baskey said. 'Those efforts continue every day.'"

If you remember, the family of American journalist James Foley, who was also beheaded by Islamic State militants, criticized the Obama administration's handling of his case.

"There's more that could have been done directly on Jim's behalf," James' dad, Michael Foley, said. "I really, really hope that Jim's death pushes us to take another look at our approach to terrorist and hostage negotiations."

Foley said one of the problems with U.S. protocol on hostages is that it does not negotiate with terrorists, shunning ransoms and prisoner swaps.

It is unclear whether the U.S. will rethink that position as part of this review.

ABC News reports that in a speech on Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry explained why the U.S. doesn't pay ransom.

"As for kidnapping, the United States has set a heart-rending but absolutely necessary example by refusing to pay ransom for captured Americans," Kerry said. "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."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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