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Why U.S. policy toward negotiating with terrorists may be risking Americans’ lives

In “We Want to Negotiate: The Secret World of Kidnapping, Hostages and Ransom,” author Joel Simon analyzes hostage situations involving Westerners taken from Syria. One example: American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, who were executed. Judy Woodruff sits down with Foley's mother, Diane Foley, and author Simon to discuss why the U.S. might need to reconsider its negotiation policies.

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  • William Brangham:

    The Islamic State once controlled large parts of Iraq and Syria, but now that state is close to being completely destroyed.

    The brutal fight against ISIS has been chronicled by hundreds of reporters over the last five years, but some of those journalists were taken hostage.

    As Judy Woodruff explored recently, negotiating with their captors revealed a stark divide between the United States and the United Kingdom on one side, and many European nations on the other, over how best to secure the hostages' release.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    "We Want to Negotiate" is a new book that explores the myriad ethical, professional and moral dilemmas that arise when trying to secure the release of reporters taken just for doing their jobs.

    Its author, Joel Simon, is executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. And we are also joined by Diane Foley, the mother of James Foley, and American journalist murdered by the Islamic State in 2014. She is the founder and president of the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation.

    And we welcome both of you to the program. It's good to have you.

    So, Joel Simon, you have a full-time job running the Committee to Protect Journalists. Why did you want to do a book about what happens when hostages are taken and how governments deal with it?

  • Joel Simon:

    Well, unfortunately, being kidnapped is an occupational hazard for journalists who cover conflict around the world.

    And over the years, I have had to deal with these kinds of issues. In the summer of 2014, there were, not just journalists, but a number of international aid workers and others who were taken hostage by the Islamic State.

    And Diane actually came to me and asked for my help securing Jim's release. And after Jim was killed, we had a conversation, and Diane encouraged me to look into this issue.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, in a nutshell, you looked at the approaches taken by so many governments. You looked at many examples of what has happened over the years.

  • Joel Simon:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What was your final understanding about why the U.S. approach was what it was, which was, make no concessions?

  • Joel Simon:

    Yes.

    What had happened was, in 1973, a couple of American diplomats were taken hostage in Khartoum in Sudan. And one of the demands of those hostage-takers — they were a Palestinian terrorist group — was the release of Sirhan Sirhan, who was the convicted killer Robert F. Kennedy.

    The next day, President Nixon had a press conference scheduled. And he was asked by a journalist, what are you going to do about the demands for these hostages? And he said, we won't pay blackmail, we're not going to negotiate.

    Those two hostages were subsequently killed, the diplomats. And so the whole policy of we don't negotiate was sort of born in blood. And the policy emerged from that moment.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Diane Foley, you have written since your son was murdered by the Islamic State that the U.S. government should have, could have done more to win his freedom.

    What do you believe they could have done? And why do you think it would have worked?

  • Diane Foley:

    Well, I know that no one can come home if we — if no government plans to talk to captors. And that was the case when Jim was taken.

    It was as if FBI and State Department's hands were tied. They were not allowed to engage with the captors at all. So, we had about a one-month window, when the captors were reaching out to us.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    They were writing to your family.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Diane Foley:

    And they gave us proof of life, et cetera.

    But our government wasn't allowed to engage at all. And it was like Jim's fate was sealed right there.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One of the arguments that is made about all this is that, when you pay, when you say you are willing to pay, you run the risk that you are encouraging more kidnapping, more hostage-taking in the future.

    How do you answer that?

  • Joel Simon:

    Well, first of all, I started, when I did the research, with that assumption. It's logical.

    But the data just doesn't support it. Kidnapping is really a crime of opportunity. And there is no evidence or very little evidence to suggest that kidnappers are checking passports, and your nationality is going to determine whether you're kidnapped or not, regardless of the particular policy that your government has.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Diane, Joel writes in the book that you told President Obama to his face when you met with him at the White House that his administration could have done more than they did.

  • Diane Foley:

    He agreed when I — his initial message was that Jim was the highest priority.

    But I told the president, with all due respect, that wasn't the case. And he apologized. He said they could do more.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Are you convinced that a ransom would have gotten your son out safely?

  • Diane Foley:

    I think what would have gotten him out would have been the engagement of the government or of a security firm who could engage and negotiate, talk to them, find out what they really wanted.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But your point is, and I think Joel's — is that there was just no — there was no engagement.

  • Diane Foley:

    None. None at all. None at all.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that's — Joel, is that changing?

  • Joel Simon:

    There's a little more — there is more flexibility under the new rubric. And President Obama, when he announced the hostage policy review, he pointed out that Americans had not been — have not been prosecuted for paying ransom.

    Diane and other American hostage families were told at one point that they might be prosecuted and go to jail for ransoming their loved ones. President Obama made clear that's not the case — or has not been the case, I should say.

    But the one thing that is important to note is, when the hostage policy review was conducted, the one thing that was never on the table was the no-concessions framework. And that was reiterated. So we're still very much within this framework of, we don't negotiate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And the question, I think, you keep coming back to is, how much should a government be prepared to do? I mean, should there be any limit on what you're prepared to do to win back the life of an American citizen?

  • Joel Simon:

    National security is a perfectly legitimate framework through which to ask, and answer these questions.

    But I think putting it within a rigid policy framework, taking options off the table that could actually enhance national security — there may be circumstances where bringing a hostage home makes us safer.

    So I just think — and we owe it to the families to do everything that we can to consider every option and to support them, and to not take any options off the table.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Diane, finally, what would your message be to the American people, who look at what happened to you, to your son, and wonder, God, we hope this never happens again? What can we do to make sure it doesn't?

  • Diane Foley:

    Well, the reality is, I think more and more Americans are traveling internationally all the time, through work or education, as journalists, aid workers.

    So, unfortunately, a lot of terrorists and criminals see hostage-taking as a way to get clout, money, influence, whatever. And I do think our government should have the backs of good Americans who go out in the world and end up being unjustly detained or kidnapped while doing their work.

    I really think it's important that our country make this a national priority.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Diane Foley, Joel Simon, thank you both.

    The book is "We Want to Negotiate: The Secret World of Kidnapping, Hostages and Ransom."

    We thank you.

  • Joel Simon:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • Diane Foley:

    Perfect, Judy. Thank you.

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