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Obama Announces Changes To U.S. Hostage Policy

A new directive addresses criticism that the U.S. has treated victims' relatives callously. Families of several ISIS victims called the change "a step in the right direction."

Last updated on June 24, 2015, at 7:03 p.m. ET

Posted on June 24, 2015, at 12:45 p.m. ET

Obama speaks after the death of journalist James Foley in Aug. 2014
Pool / Getty Images

Obama speaks after the death of journalist James Foley in Aug. 2014

WASHINGTON — President Obama on Wednesday announced changes to U.S. hostage policy following a review ordered after the death of several Americans in the custody of ISIS.

"Since 9/11, more than 80 Americans have been taken by murderous groups engaged in terrorism or piracy," Obama said, noting that more than half of them have been brought home, but too many have not. "As a government, we should always do everything in our power to bring these Americans home safe and support their families."

Before Obama spoke, the White House released two documents — an executive order and a policy directive — details of which were reported on Tuesday, including the creation of a new "fusion cell" inside the FBI to coordinate government efforts at hostage recovery. The fusion cell will be headed by a senior official, either from or assigned to the FBI, and include members from the Departments of State, Treasury, Justice, and Defense, as well as the intelligence community. It will also have a full-time "Family Engagement Coordinator" to liaise with the families of those taken captive.

The FBI-based cell will also work alongside a "Hostage Recovery Group," led by the Deputy National Security Advisor for Counterterrorism. A new Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs will also be named, reporting directly to the Secretary of State. This envoy will handle the diplomatic side of all hostage scenarios, according to the policy directive.

A substantial part of the directive is devoted toward the U.S. government's treatment of the families of kidnapping victims. Last year, an unnamed official made headlines after threatening the family of journalist James Foley, who was killed by ISIS after being held captive for months, with prosecution if they attempted to pay the demanded ransom.

"That's totally unacceptable," Obama said. "These families have suffered enough, and they should never feel ignored or threatened by their own government."

Obama, who met with several of the families ahead of his statement, continued: "I've visited with them. I've grieved with them. I've hugged them," he said of the families of those kidnapped overseas. "Some are still grieving. I thank them for sharing their experiences and their ideas with our review team."

According to the new directive, "the United States Government shall provide the hostage and his or her family with appropriate assistance and support services, including legally mandated crime victims' rights and services, to help them cope with the physical, emotional, and financial impact of a hostage-taking." The government will also share as much information with families "as possible."

In a joint statement issued after the announcement, the families of Kayla Mueller, Abdul Rahman (Peter) Kassig, and Steven Sotloff — all of whom were also killed by ISIS — called the changes "a step in the right direction."

"We’re hopeful they will make a difference for families and their friends and loved ones facing this horror currently and in the future," the statement read. "We have faith that the changes announced today will lead to increased success in bringing our citizens home. When we see evidence of this occurring, it will further our healing."

In his remarks, Obama noted that while the U.S.' stance against granting concessions toward groups that seize hostages remains in place, communication with hostage-takers was not out of the question.

The documents released on Wednesday are the result of a six-month long review undertaken after substantial criticism over the disjointed approach the U.S. had taken towards various hostage situations in Syria. Already the new policy has been critiqued as being merely "window dressing," as one congressman vocal on the issue put it on Tuesday.

Some welcomed the changes.

"Instead of 5% of the time of Washington's 20 busiest people, there will be senior talent dedicated, 24/7, to hostage rescue," David Bradley, chairman and CEO of Atlantic Media, wrote in a statement emailed to reporters. Bradley was one of the subjects of a New Yorker story by Lawrence Wright published Wednesday on what hostages' relatives have gone through.

In the statement, Bradley noted that he and his colleagues had come to know many of the families affected during their attempts to help from the sidelines, and sent the email in a personal capacity.

"I don't know how often the throw weight of a determined bureaucracy can outwit the speed and fury of stateless terrorists like ISIS," he said. "But, the chances should move in our favor."

Likewise, Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, called the changes "thoughtful and important." In a statement, the Democrat from California said Obama "chose the compassionate course by removing the fear of prosecution of individual families seeking to negotiate ransom payments with hostage-takers, while preserving a policy against the government making concessions to hostage takers."

Meanwhile, journalists working in high-risk environments are "particularly vulnerable to kidnapping, and so they have a direct stake in these discussions," Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, said in a statement, adding that the new policy should "lessen the anguish of the families and improve the likelihood of a successful outcome."

Here's the full Executive Order.

And here's PPD-29 in its entirety.