What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Shifting policy, Obama pledges U.S. will ‘stand by’ families of hostages

As the number of American hostage deaths have surged in the past year, some families have spoken out about being threatened with prosecution for considering paying ransom and feeling stonewalled by the government. Judy Woodruff reports on the White House’s efforts today to change the policy for families.

Read the Full Transcript

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    After coming under fire over the handling of American hostage cases abroad, President Obama today announced a change in policy.

  • PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    We're not going to abandon you. We will stand by you.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The president's pledge to hostage families follows a surge in deaths in the past 12 months. Six Americans have died in captivity in Syria, Yemen and Pakistan since last summer. Three of them were beheaded by Islamic State militants in Syria.

    Some of the families say they were threatened with prosecution if they had tried to pay ransoms, but Mr. Obama promised today that will change.

  • PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    The last thing that we should ever do is to add to a family's pain with threats like that.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The U.S. government will maintain its policy against official concessions to terror groups, although, Washington did negotiate last year's release of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan. He had been held five years by the Taliban. And many European countries routinely pay ransoms for captives.

    DAVEED GARTENSTEIN-ROSS, Foundation for Defense of Democracies: This is a huge mistake.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But some, like Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, argue the practice only encourages hostage-taking.

    DAVEED GARTENSTEIN-ROSS, Senior Fellow, Foundation for Defense of Democracies These organizations make hundreds of millions of dollars, when you look at the sum total of them, from hostages. They will nab a person, they will demand a payment, and then it will strengthen their military capacity and allow them to take further hostages. This is an enormous problem.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Beyond the ransom issue, relatives of beheaded journalist James Foley and others complained of being stonewalled. Last year, Diane Foley told CNN's Anderson Cooper that her son's safe return never seemed a priority for the U.S. government.

    DIANE FOLEY, Mother of James Foley: As an American, I was embarrassed and appalled. I think our efforts to get Jim freed were an annoyance.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The president heard that complaint firsthand today in a meeting with the relatives.

  • PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    Many of the families told us that they, at times, felt like an afterthought or a distraction, that, too often, the law enforcement or military and intelligence officials they were interacting with were begrudging in giving them information. And that ends today.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now Mr. Obama has ordered a series of changes, to include creating an intergovernment agency fusion cell for hostage recovery, naming a special State Department envoy to deal with foreign governments on hostage matters, and establishing an issue manager in the intelligence community to declassify information for family members.

    The president acknowledges the families are right to be skeptical, but he's promising there will be accountability.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest