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RISK: U.S. government allows families of American hostages to pay ransom

Officials can help families communicate with hostage-takers

President Barack Obama cleared the way for families of American hostages to pay ransom to secure their loved ones’ release, despite a long-standing U.S. ban on making concessions to terrorist groups.

As part of a review of hostage policies, the White House said it “does not intend to add to families’ pain in such cases by suggesting that they could face criminal prosecution.”

There will be no change to the law banning material support for terrorists, but the Justice Department indicated it would not hold families accountable if they pursue ransom payments.

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The U.S. government will continue to uphold this “no concessions” policy, but officials can help families communicate with hostage-takers, either through direct contact with terrorist groups or using intermediaries.

“These efforts will be focused on ensuring the safety and security of a family to prevent them from being defrauded or further victimized by a hostage-taker,” the White House said in a fact sheet. “In short, we will not abandon families in their greatest time of need.”

Obama ordered the review last year after criticism from families that complained about threats of prosecution, as well as sparse, confusing and sometimes contradictory information from the government.

The most vocal families were those whose loved ones were killed in recent months while being held by the Islamic State group, al-Qaida and others.

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European governments routinely pay ransom for hostages and win their release. But the U.S. has long argued that paying ransoms both funds terror activity and makes Americans a greater target for kidnapping.

Critics of the White House review argue that allowing families to do what the government won’t could lead to those same troubling consequences.

“We have had a policy in the United States for over 200 years of not paying ransom and not negotiating with terrorists,” said John Boehner, a senior Republican Congressman. “The concern that I have is that by lifting that long-held principle you could be endangering more Americans here and overseas.”

Despite the ban on the U.S. government making concessions to terrorists, the Obama administration did negotiate with the Taliban last year to win the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured after walking away from this post in Afghanistan. Five Guantanamo Bay detainees were exchanged as a condition of his release.

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White House officials say those negotiations were permissible because Obama sees a special responsibility to leave no American service member behind on the battlefield. Some hostages’ relatives argued against the government making such distinctions between U.S. citizens.

In a step aimed at streamlining communications with families, the White House also announced the creation of a “Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell” that will co-ordinate recovery efforts among various government agencies. Some families had pushed for the new office to be based at the White House, but it will be at the FBI.