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The US Government’s (sort of) New Hostage Policy

Prompted by what many felt was an ineffective and disjointed official response to kidnappings in Syria, the US Government has launched a revised policy on kidnapping abroad. A mix of new initiatives and clarification of prior practice, the newly articulated policy doesn’t radically change how global companies or organizations respond to kidnappings overseas. Instead, the policy announced on June 24th seeks to clarify the government’s position on paying ransoms and bolsters Federal resources to respond to kidnappings around the world.

The most high profile concern coming out of the Syria kidnappings was the threat to prosecute families of those held if they paid ransoms, as reported in the New York Times, New Yorker magazine and other sources. In his announcement, the president addressed the ransom payment issue directly, reaffirming what most professionals in the kidnap response field have long acknowledged: No Americans have ever been prosecuted for making a ransom payment. And while he stopped short of saying affirmatively that no one ever will be prosecuted, President Obama stated that “The last thing that we should ever do is to add to a family’s pain with threats like that [prosecuting].” At the same time, the new policy restated that the US Government itself will not pay ransoms, asserting that doing so only increases the risk of kidnapping.

So in the end, the most widely discussed part of the new hostage policy isn’t really that new after all. Regardless, professionals in the kidnap response world have welcomed the reaffirmation of the long standing practice: that the US Government doesn’t support paying ransoms to terrorist organizations and won’t do so directly, however it won’t interfere if families or employers pay. And, it’s important to remember that in Syria, the threats to prosecute were specific to the fact that the captors were US government designated terrorist organizations. Most abductions overseas are committed by criminals and not subject to the same concern.

The bulk of the review’s recommendations focus on re-organizing teams within the US Government to set policy around kidnapping and manage response. At the National Security Council the Hostage Response Group will focus on policy related to hostages while at the FBI the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell will coordinate operational response to kidnappings. At the State Department a Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs will lead diplomatic engagement on hostage policy and response. And across the government, more emphasis will be placed on coordinating with families, including a specific role for a Family Coordinator within the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell.  Full details can be found in the report as well as the accompanying Presidential Policy Directive and Executive Order.

While only in part new, the policy announced on June 24th is welcome news for organizations operating globally. Reorganization within the government demonstrates a fresh commitment to better coordinate with family members and employers of those kidnapped abroad. Importantly, the statement by the President offers reassurance that families and employers have a full range of options — including ransom payments — at their disposal when working with professional kidnap response firms to seek the release of hostages overseas.