U.S. President Barack Obama is expected Wednesday to announce a monumental shift in the U.S. policy on hostages in which the government will no longer bully the families of American captives with criminal prosecution if they attempt to pay ransom to groups like the Islamic State and al Qaeda, the New York Times reported. The new policy could have changed the fate of a number of slain hostages whose families were threatened by government officials when trying to free their loved ones.
Obama’s announcement will come as the conclusion to a comprehensive review the president ordered in December on how the U.S. government treats American hostages captured abroad. Since then, Obama has met with the families who had previously begged him to change the government’s “no concessions” policy toward captors. The parents of murdered American journalists James Foley, 40, and Steven Sotloff, 31, were told by White House officials last year they would face prosecution should they raise money for their sons’ ransoms.
Diane Foley, the mother of James Foley, who was taken hostage in Syria in 2012, told ABC News she saw the statement as a “threat, and it was appalling.” She also was shocked by the lack of compassion. “It just made me realize that these people talking to us had no idea what it was like to be the family of someone abducted,” Foley said during an interview with ABC News in September. “We were horrified he would say that. He just told us we would be prosecuted.”
The parents of Steven Sotloff, who was abducted in Syria in 2014 while covering the civil war, “heard the same thing the Foleys did,” Barak Barfi, a friend of Sotloff who served as the family’s spokesman, told Yahoo News. “The family felt completely and utterly helpless when they heard this,” he said in September. “The Sotloffs felt there was nothing they could do to get Steve out.”
The parents of Peter Kassig, a former U.S. Army Ranger who was taken captive by ISIS in eastern Syria in 2013, also pleaded with the U.S. government to amend its policy on hostages overseas, but to no avail. In October, Ed and Paula Kassig later released a three-minute video to the ISIS militants begging to show mercy on their 26-year-old son.
“We’ve asked our government to change its actions. But, like our son, we have no more control over the U.S. government than you have over the breaking of dawn,” Ed Kassig said in the video.
As each of the three families were barred from paying ransom, the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, released graphic videos showing the beheadings of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and Peter Kassig.
Four French journalists held hostage by ISIS for months in Syria were freed in April 2014. French President Francois Holland has denied paying ransom for the journalists. However, the German magazine Focus reported that the French government paid $18 million for the release of Nicolas Henin, Pierre Torres, Edouard Elias and Didier Francois, according to Reuters.
Obama is expected to announce Wednesday the making of a new committee to oversee U.S. hostage policy. The president also will appoint a special envoy at the State Department to lead the government’s interactions with foreign countries on issues concerning captives. Obama also will create an interagency hostage recovery “fusion cell,” which will be headquartered at the FBI where a high-level “family engagement coordinator” will support relatives and keep them updated with information on their loved ones, a senior administration official told the New York Times on Tuesday.
The imminent changes will have come too late for James Foley, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig and other American hostages who were captured and murdered by groups overseas. But the policy changes will affect the dozens of journalists and aid workers who are still in rebel-controlled areas of Syria, as well as their relatives who await their safe return.