COMMENTARY: Obama wrong on changes to hostage policy

The June 2015 White House announcement of changes to the U.S. government’s hostage policy was ostensibly hastened by complaints from families of U.S. citizens being held overseas. However, the revisions deviate from longstanding American principles, create needless additional offices, and perpetuate more confusion than clarity.

According to the Obama administration, the new American hostage policy is a product of a seven-month review conducted by the departments of Defense, Justice, State, and Treasury, along with intelligence groups. The review process included input from former hostages, hostage families, international organizations, hostage experts, other nations, and members of Congress.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

The new hostage policy, implemented via executive order, claims to be consistent with past policy by upholding the prohibition on making concessions, but allows both hostage families and government personnel to communicate with kidnappers. Even the liberal-leaning Washington Post recently editorialized that the revised policy represents a “green light for cash to be paid … This will only encourage hostage-taking.”

The updated U.S. hostage policy is inconsistent with the views of a majority of Americans. Indeed, a February 2015 Pew Research Center poll showed that fully 70 percent of respondents oppose paying ransom for hostages held by terrorists.

Further, negotiating with kidnappers in any manner may increase the number of U.S. citizens abroad who are targeted. A team of researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that if a nation’s government reverses its position on not paying ransom for hostages, the number of its citizens subsequently seized could jump by as much as 30 percent. Given that the American government has witnessed more than 80 of its citizens taken hostage since Sept. 11, 2001, that would be an unacceptable increase.

President Obama’s new hostage policy establishes a plethora of government offices, including an interagency Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, a Family Engagement Coordinator, a Hostage Response Group within the National Security Council, a Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs within the State Department, and an Issue Manager for Hostage Affairs within the intelligence community.

Not only does this set up duplication of duties, but it will surely fall short of satisfying the needs of hostage families for information and assistance.

Instead of seeking a positive change in the law to match its new dictum on hostages, the Obama White House team is trying to have it both ways. That is, the law threatening hostage families with prosecution for paying kidnappers will remain on the books, but will be practically ignored by administration personnel. That sets the stage for selective arrests should there be a serious disagreement between hostage families and government representatives.

While the fate of some hostages being held overseas is a constant worry for administration personnel, it shouldn’t impact American policy for all such kidnappings. First, a large number of Americans taken hostage overseas have been journalists or aid workers, who assume some risk with their job.

Second, concentrating resources to ensure the release of certain Americans will certainly lead to charges of bias and favoritism.

Clearly, President Obama had the opportunity to invoke the new hostage policy as a part of the negotiations with Iran over that country’s nuclear weapons development. By not doing so, the administration appears to have already lost faith in its own fiasco.

Editor’s note: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies director at Delaware State University. He is a past recipient of a National Security Law fellowship from the University of Virginia Law School.

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