President Obama has ordered a complete review of the government's policy regarding U.S. hostages taken overseas, the White House confirmed on Monday.
National Security Council (NSC) spokesman Alistair Baskey said the review was ordered over the summer in response to what he called "the increasing number of U.S. citizens taken hostage by terrorist groups overseas and the extraordinary nature of recent hostage cases."
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest clarified on Tuesday that the review does not include a "reconsideration" of the long-standing policy that ransoms should not be paid to terror organizations. But he said the review is being conducted among several agencies. "This is obviously an issue that the president takes very seriously," he said.
The review, which was first reported by The Daily Beast, became public one day after the White House confirmed that American aid worker and former Army Ranger Peter Kassig had been beheaded by ISIS in Syria. The terror group had posted a video claiming that it had beheaded Kassig to various social media sites early Sunday. Kassig is the third American to be beheaded by ISIS since August. The group is also holding an American woman, a 26-year-old aid worker whose identity has not been revealed by U.S. officials out of concern for her safety.
The Daily Beast quoted a letter written last week by Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Christine Wormuth to Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., as saying that the review will include "specific emphasis on examining family engagement, intelligence collection, and diplomatic engagement policies."
The beheadings have sparked a fresh debate over the U.S. government's policy of not paying ransom to terror groups. The parents and brother of journalist James Foley, who was beheaded by ISIS in August, told Fox News in September that government officials had told them that they could face prosecution if they attempted to negotiate a ransom. U.S. law prohibits American citizens from paying money to terror groups.
However, an October article in Foreign Policy magazine reported that U.S. efforts to free hostages held in Syria had become bogged down amid general confusion as to the exact policies of the U.S. government on issues such as ransom payments.
"No one's really in charge," one person involved in negotiations told the magazine. The article also reported that U.S. officials had acknowledged that family members of hostages, such as the Foleys, had not received frequent enough updates on what the government was doing to free their loved ones. In addition, a lack of actionable intelligence about ISIS activities in Syria has also been deemed responsible for undercutting U.S. efforts.
According to Foreign Policy, the debate over ransom payments pits the White House, NSC, and State Department against the Justice Department and the FBI. The former entities believe that paying ransoms to terror groups would encourage more kidnappings of Americans abroad. By contrast, the latter offices believe that the issue of whether to pay ransom should be made on a case-by-case basis, and reportedly are willing to aid families if they believe that paying up represents the best method to ensure the hostages' freedom.
A U.S. policy on hostage negotiations signed by President Bush in 2002 states that ransoms can be paid if officials believe doing so would help gain intelligence about terror groups, but can not be paid for the sole purpose of freeing an American.