WASHINGTON — In a softening of longstanding policy, the Obama administration will tell families of Americans held by terror groups that they can communicate with captors and even pay ransom without fear of prosecution — part of a broad review of U.S. hostage guidelines that will be released Wednesday.
President Barack Obama ordered the review last fall after the deaths of Americans held hostage by Islamic State militants. The families of some of those killed complained about their dealings with the administration, saying they were threatened with criminal prosecution if they pursued paying ransom in exchange for their loved ones’ release.
Two people familiar with the review said there will be no formal change to the law, which explicitly makes it a crime to provide money or other material support to terror organizations. However, the administration will make clear that the Justice Department has never prosecuted anyone for paying ransom and that that will continue to be the case.
Four Americans have been killed by the Islamic State since last summer: journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller. After the release of gruesome videos showing the beheadings of some hostages, Obama approved an airstrike campaign against the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria.
In recent months, two other American hostages have been killed while in custody: journalist Luke Somers, who died in a failed U.S. rescue attempt in Yemen, and Warren Weinstein, who was accidently killed by a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan.
Weinstein’s family has been particularly outspoken about its frustration with the Obama administration. In a statement Wednesday, his wife, Elaine Weinstein, said she hoped the hostage review “was conducted fully and frankly so the U.S. government can have an honest conversation about the areas where it falls short.”
“Our benchmark for this review’s success will be the actions arising from it more than its specific findings,” she said.
The Islamic State militants have released other Western hostages after ransom was paid. The U.S. prohibits the government and private individuals from paying money or making other concessions to terrorists, a policy the administration says is aimed at preventing more American citizens from becoming targets for kidnapping.
People familiar with the review say it is aimed at recognizing the role families may play in seeking to win their loved ones’ release. However, there will be no change in the ban on the government directly paying ransom or facilitating payments for families.
The policy clarification was first reported by Foreign Policy magazine. Those familiar with the review confirmed the details Tuesday on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to do so publicly ahead of Wednesday’s release