I am of two minds about this story. Certainly, we can all relate to the desperation of the parents of Steve Sotloff and James Foley. They were willing to do anything to get their children back — as any of us would do in a similar situation. The fact that the government apparently threatened both families with prosection if they tried to raise ransom money seems harsh and arbitrary.
But the government is forced to think not only about present hostages, but any future hostage taking of Americans by the terrorists. It seems logical that paying ransom for hostages only encourages more hostage taking. Recall in Lebanon in the 1980s when the U.S. bartered arms for hostages only to see more hostages taken by the terrorists.
But there is more to this story. Specifically, White House lies about being in “constant contact” with the families of hostages. That’s not the story the families are telling. And the manner in which the message about potential prosection was delivered is more reminiscent of a threat delivered by a mafioso than a caring, compassionate government.
The mother of slain American journalist James Foley said she wasn’t necessarily surprised that the U.S. government threatened her family with prosecution should they raise money to pay her son’s ransom, but she was astounded by how such a devastating message was delivered.
“I was surprised there was so little compassion,” Diane Foley told ABC News today of the three separate warnings she said U.S. officials gave the family about the illegality of paying ransom to the terror group ISIS. “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… I’m sure [the U.S. official] didn’t mean it the way he said it, but we were between a rock and a hard place. We were told we could do nothing… meanwhile our son was being beaten and tortured every day.”
Earlier this week five current and former officials with direct knowledge of the Foley case confirmed the alleged threats were made.
“It was an utterly idiotic thing to do that came across as if [the U.S. official] had the compassion of an anvil,” said a former official who has advised the family.
At times, Diane Foley said the family “had to beg” the government for information on their son.
“We were an annoyance, it felt, at some level… They didn’t have time for us,” she said.
Today White House spokesperson Josh Earnest said that government officials were in constant contact with the Foley family and declined to comment on the alleged ransom warnings, telling reporters he’s “not going to be in a position to detail the kinds of conversations that took place so often between members of the administration and the Foley family.”
“It is a long standing policy of this administration, it was the policy of previous administrations that ransoms should not be paid to terrorist organizations,” Earnest said before referring more specific questions about the Foley’s situation to the Justice Department.
Secretary of State John Kerry today told reporters that he was “really taken aback [and] surprised” by Foley’s allegations. “I can tell you that I am totally unaware and would not condone anybody that I know of within the State Department making such statements,” Kerry said.
The family of Steve Sotloff, the other murdered American, was also threatened directly with prosecution at a White House meeting.
Sources close to the families say that at the time of the White House meeting the Sotloffs and Foleys — after receiving direct threats from IS — were exploring lining up donors who would help pay multimillion-dollar ransoms to free their sons. But after the meeting those efforts collapsed, one source said, because of concerns that “donors could expose themselves to prosecution.”
Although European hostages have been freed through ransom payments that have run into the millions of dollars, the Obama administration has taken a hard line against any such payments, viewing the transfer of cash as a violation of federal laws that forbid providing “material support” to a terrorist organization.
“They’ve been stricter than any administration on this,” said a former law enforcement official who has been working with the families of IS hostages.
Barfi said that within a few hours of the White House meeting, he was at a separate meeting with State Department officials. One of those officials repeatedly mentioned the “material support” law and made it “clear,” said Barfi, that criminal prosecutions could result if ransoms to the IS terrorists were paid.
Such explicit threats made to parents who “had to beg” to get any information about their children points to an administration that employed clod-hoppers as liaisons to the families. No doubt it was a tough job to inform the families of the law and the potential penalties that would have come with raising ransom money. But it’s obvious from statements made by both families that the administration blew it. The situation called for striking the right balance between showing compassion and imparting the matter-of-fact information about potential prosections. The White House chose people without tact or empathy to deliver their message and struck out.
Even though they’re right about the policy.