How should the U.S. respond to Steven Sotloff’s killing?

For reaction, Judy Woodruff talks to Charles Sennott of The GroundTruth Project. Then, former National Security Council staff Lt. Col. Douglas Ollivant (Ret.), former Counterterrorism Official Daniel Benjamin and former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter discuss how the killing affects U.S. policy toward the Islamic State group.

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    Pentagon officials have said the U.S. military tried to rescue Sotloff, Foley and other hostages earlier this summer, but the captives were gone when the troops arrived. And now a third hostage is under threat. Today's video warned that a British aid worker will be next.

    Joining me now for reaction to the reported execution of Steven Sotloff is Charles Sennott, co-founder of GlobalPost, where he worked with slain journalist James Foley. He's now executive director of the GroundTruth Project.

    Charles Sennott, you joined us two weeks ago to talk about James Foley. And I know that Steven Sotloff didn't report for you, but you have been working with the Foley family, and what have you learned about Steven Sotloff in the course of this?

  • CHARLES SENNOTT, The GroundTruth Project:

    Well, Steven, like Jim Foley, was just a great journalist, someone who really wanted to be there on the ground, telling the stories that matter.

    He took risks doing that, but he did it knowing what he was doing. And both families share this sense that their sons were passionate about their work. And I think both families understand that it's work that really mattered.

    I think the only time I intersected with Steven was in Egypt, when our paths crossed inside the al-Adawiya Mosque, where the Muslim Brotherhood was holed up in the summer past, a year-and-a-half ago or so. I believe it was June and July and August of 2013.

    And, you know, he was there working then, and he was inside the Muslim Brotherhood and reporting on it and did so for "World Affairs" journal. And if you read that reporting and you look at how open he was and how much he was trying to get in, inside that story and understand it, you saw that same reporting in Syria.

    And I think he and Jim Foley were a lot alike in the way they approached their reporting.


    What do you know, Charles Sennott, about the efforts being made by the Sotloff family, as well as Foley family, to get their sons released?


    Well, you know, the information of the families is very closely guarded.

    Our CEO, Phil Balboni at GlobalPost, my co-founder, was very, very much involved in the details, and I wasn't. And so what I know is really just through — through understanding what's been reported, what's been shared publicly. We have a lot of information we have to be very careful with.

    But I can definitely share with you that all these families have worked so hard, and their representatives have worked so hard to try to secure their release. It's really one of the greatest and most difficult and troubling moral questions of our time. What do you do to save a life? Do you pay the ransom which they are demanding, or do you live up to the U.S. government's policy, which is to say, we never pay ransom?

    Look, it's one of the most complex moral questions we could face. I don't know the answer is, but I know the system as it is now, where European governments do pay and where the U.S. government insists that no families will pay, you can't help but understand the emotion of a family, as was expressed in the video by Steven's mother.

    They just want to save their son. They just want him home. It's a very human emotion. We need to get together and rethink this policy in a way that's collective. I don't know what the answer is, but it needs to be sorted out.


    Are you saying that the families believe that the administration — that U.S. government should have done more to win their release?


    I think none of the families have gone there. And I think they do that for a reason.

    When trauma happens inside a family or happens inside a news organization, it can create a lot of divisions. There are trip wires everywhere, if you look at the effect of trauma. Everyone involved in this, from the concentric circle of the family to the wider circle of the news organization, everyone's experiencing trauma, and the divisions could be everywhere.

    The key is to remember who did this. This was done by ISIS. This was done by a death cult, a really dark force, and it really is that clear an issue. And we can't forget to keep looking at them. Now, the policy questions on how do you approach them, what do you do to shut them down and put them out of business are enormously complex.

    But I think, right now, the families are trying to stay away from any divisions. They have many questions they want answered. And that's fair. And I hope they get those answers, but I think they're so wise in trying to stay together and to keep focused on the evil that has presented itself to us and work very hard to save those lives that still hang in the balance.


    Charles Sennott, we thank you very much.


    Thank you.


    And for more on what this latest killing means for U.S. policy toward the Islamic State, we get three views.

    Daniel Benjamin was U.S. ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism during the first term of the Obama administration. He's now a professor at Dartmouth College. Anne-Marie Slaughter was the director of policy planning at the State Department also during the first term of the Obama administration. She's now president and CEO of the New America Foundation. And Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Douglas Ollivant had two tours in Iraq. He was also the director for Iraq on the National Security Council staff during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He's now a managing partner in a consulting company which does business in Iraq.

    And we thank you all for being here.

    Colonel Ollivant, let me start with you. What do you make of the statement by this ISIS militant before this apparent execution, that this was being done, this killing, in response to U.S. continuing attacks on ISIS?

    LT. COL. DOUGLAS OLLIVANT (RET.), Former National Security Council Staff: Well, I'm sure that's their perspective, but the fact is, is these attacks had nothing to do with these hostages.

    The United States was conducting these airstrikes to protect the Mosul dam, to protect U.S. citizens in Irbil, and most recently to rescue these Turkmen Shia in the village of Amirli who are under threat of genocide, there's no other word for it, but ISIS. So this isn't about our hostages. This is about us attacking ISIS for very real, both political and humanitarian reasons.


    How do you see what's behind this, Anne-Marie Slaughter?

  • ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER, Former State Department Official:

    Well, I agree that this is, in some ways, evidence that our bombings are, in fact, affecting ISIS. We're hurting them. They are trying to get us to stop and they're using the weapons they have at their disposal, which also serve as recruiting videos for them and for angry, radicalized young men who want to join the fight.

    The decapitation, as horrible as it is, of an American is a recruiting video. But this is not about whether we paid ransom or not. This is, terribly, the weapons they have at their disposal to try to hit back.


    Daniel Benjamin, do you see what happened today — or what this video purported to show today as a result of what the U.S. is doing?

  • DANIEL BENJAMIN, Former Counterterrorism Official:

    Well, I think there certainly was the desire on the part of ISIS to hit back.

    This is, in fact, their retaliation for the bombing runs. And this is also, to elaborate on what Anne-Marie was saying, another way for them to underscore their reputation as the most brutal terrorist group that we have seen yet.

    And the many, many killings that we have heard about in prisons of Syrian troops, the crucifixions, the slaughter of Yazidis, all this goes together, in their minds, to strengthen their reputation as a truly fearsome group that will stop at nothing.


    Colonel Ollivant, does what we see today mean that ISIS an even worse threat than what was already believed?


    I don't think we got any new information.

    And, again, our hearts go out to the Sotloff family, but we saw the earlier execution, and the second one really tells us nothing new about this group. As your earlier guest said, it's a death cult, a group that buries children alive, that sells off young girls as sex slaves, that performs crucifixions.

    Nothing's beyond this group, and so I don't think we learned anything particularly new today.


    So, that raises the question yet again, Anne-Marie Slaughter, what should U.S. policy be? We heard President Obama say last week that the administration's strategy toward ISIS is still being developed. What should that strategy be?


    Well, I think there are two questions there.

    One is, what should our policy be with respect to ransoms and hostages? And there, as much as all of our hearts go out to the families of these journalists, I think our policy is the right one, not to pay ransoms. A ransom funds this group to do more killing and, of course, also encourages kidnapping.

    The larger question is what do we do about ISIS as a whole, and, here, this threat has been growing for certainly 18 months to two years, through the continuation of the Syrian civil war now spilled into Iraq. I think a comprehensive strategy to do more than to contain ISIS, to actually eliminate it or decimate ISIS, has to be a regional strategy that addresses the Syrian civil war, as well as what's happening in Iraq and among the Kurds.

    And that's a longer-term strategy, at least four to six months. It has to include multiple countries in the region, including Iran. And thus far, we have not been willing to take on that broader strategy that is, as I said, has to include Syria, as well as Iraq.


    And what form, Daniel Benjamin, do you see that strategy taking? How much more aggressive or not should the U.S. be at this point?


    Well, the — this execution is, of course, going to raise the pressure on the president enormously to do something in the near term.

    But I think that a rush to action, at this point, would be unwise until we can make sure that action is really effective. And so bombing strikes, for example, in Syria could very well undermine our efforts, because it would alienate all the countries that we need to have in the partnership that Anne-Marie was discussing.

    I do think at the end of the day that the United States will be deeply involved in supporting an alliance of regional countries who will be involved on the ground, with the Iraqis themselves in the forefront. And we may well be providing intelligence, as well as arms, and we very well — very well may have a drone campaign to take away ISIS' leadership.

    But I think that the key thing right now is not to react instantly to try to get some retaliation for this really barbaric attack, but rather to get the strategy right, to get the partners brought in, and to ensure, of course, that the Iraqis themselves continue to move towards inclusiveness and towards working together against a common threat. I don't think the United States should be on the ground in this one.


    So, Douglas Ollivant, what about that? Would it — you agree it would be a mistake for the U.S. to do something now that would be seen as retaliation?


    I think that's exactly right.

    In the military, we talk about tactical patience. You have to wait until the conditions are right to perform the right military action and get the best effects.


    So, wait for what?


    Well, right now, the first — we need reliable partners on the ground. As Dan Benjamin said, putting U.S. boots on the ground is a nonstarter both here and in the region, so we need reliable partners there.

    The next step is to get a government formed in Iraq that we can work with, and we are waiting for them to go through their long, drawn-out government formation process, so we have a reliable partner, at least on the one side of the border. The Syrian side, obviously, it will be much harder.


    Anne-Marie Slaughter, it — am I — do I hear you saying waiting for a government to be formed, waiting for a coalition is the right thing to do?


    Well, yes, actually.

    I mean, I have been a strong supporter of using force in Syria for a couple of years, now. But, here, I do think there has to be a comprehensive solution. Now, we can contain ISIS, and we are going to continue using drone strikes to prevent ISIS from expanding the ground it covers, from threatening Baghdad, the Mosul dam. We're going to continue doing that. I think that's the right thing to do.

    But the longer-term strategy, as I said, to actually eliminate ISIS, certainly to recapture the territory it holds, it does take a regional coalition, and we can't act without governments to engage with. And, as I said, ultimately, that's going to have to include Turkey, and probably also Iran.


    So, Daniel Benjamin, that means wait, even if it means months?


    Well, I don't think that it will be months, and I wouldn't rule out doing the kind of targeted strikes that we have seen in the last month, because they're vitally important for the morale of the Kurds, of the Iraqis on the ground and for others as well who are in the region watching this spectacle unfold.

    But the fact is, at the moment, ISIS is a limited threat to the United States at home. The greatest threat is from potential sympathizers acting up here and carrying something out. This is a group that has not carried out a terrorist attack of an international nature really over long distances in its history.

    And so while people in the region are very much in peril, I think we ought to get this right and construct the relationships, construct the alliance that will contain and diminish this group.


    A lot of tough questions today.

    And we thank you, all three. We hear you three, Daniel Benjamin, Colonel Douglas Ollivant, Anne-Marie Slaughter. Thank you.


    Thank you.


    Thank you.

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