Nearly all of the families grieving over the Americans killed in captivity abroad within the last year have come forward to publicly criticize the federal government, claiming they were either kept in the dark or that more was not done to help their loved ones as the United States continued its no-ransom policy in dealing with terrorists.
The latest criticisms came after President Obama acknowledged that an American hostage and two U.S. citizens who fought for al-Qaida were accidentally killed by U.S. drone strikes on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan in January. Within minutes of Obama’s surprise announcement Thursday, the family of one hostage, aid worker Warren Weinstein, blamed the federal government for its “inconsistent and disappointing” action over the three and a half years that the 73-year-old was held captive in Pakistan.
“We hope that my husband’s death and the others who have faced similar tragedies in recent months will finally prompt the U.S. government to take its responsibilities seriously and establish a coordinated and consistent approach to supporting hostages and their families,” Weinstein’s wife, Elaine, said in a statement.
In a State Department briefing later Thursday, spokeswoman Marie Harf pushed back against the criticism. “I think these families have gone through the worst thing they will ever have to go through. And I think you hear a lot of different statements from them,” Harf said in response to a question about the Weinstein family’s complaints. “We’ve heard people talk about how supportive the U.S. government has been.”
“Our folks are very committed here, starting with the secretary who has had contact with many of these families; his chief of staff, now two them who’ve had contact with families,” Harf added, noting that the government is currently undertaking a review of the way agencies deal with hostage issues. “I talk to the people inside this building and in the U.S. government who work with these families. It is an incredibly difficult thing to do.”
But the Weinstein family is hardly alone in their sentiment. For the growing list of American families with sons and daughters who have been taken hostage by terrorist groups abroad, the government’s hands-off approach in refusing to negotiate for a U.S. citizen’s release and treating ransom pay-offs as illegal has left families feeling helpless and alone.
Carl Mueller, whose 26-year-old daughter Kayla was killed in an airstrike in Syria, expressed unease with prioritizing the policy ahead of his daughter’s life. “We understand the policy about not paying ransom,” he said in an interview with “TODAY”’s Savannah Guthrie. “But on the other hand, any parents out there would understand that you would want anything and everything done to bring your child home. And we tried. And we asked. But they put policy in front of American citizens’ lives.”
After American photojournalist James Foley became the first American to be gruesomely beheaded on-camera by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, his mother, Diane Foley, said she was “embarrassed and appalled” by U.S. officials who told the family to put their trust in the federal government to rescue her son.
“I pray that our government will be willing to learn from the mistakes that were made and to acknowledge that there are better ways for American citizens to be treated,” Diane Foley told CNN.
Last December, Luke Somers’ U.K.-based family said they believed the American photojournalist would still be alive had the U.S. not attempted a rescue mission, and that they were “kept in the dark” before he was ultimately shot dead by his al-Qaida captors. Meanwhile spokesman for the family of Steven Sotloff, another American beheaded by the militant group, said in September that the White House “bullied” the slain journalist’s parents and that they were discouraged from raising ransom funds.
“We never really believed that the administration was doing anything to help us,” longtime family friend Barak Barfi sad on “CBS This Morning.” “We had very limited contact with senior officials.”
Only a small number of countries around the world – the U.S. and Britain included – maintain a strict zero-concession policy when presented with terrorist demands. While other European countries have expressed a willingness to pay off ransoms for kidnapped victims, U.S. officials argue that doing so will fund dangerous groups and only encourage more hostage-takings.
Todd Sandler, a professor at University of Texas at Dallas who has analyzed a data-set of terrorist kidnappings from 1968 to 2012, says broadly the U.S.’s hands-off approach in negotiating with hostage-takers has benefited American citizens at large, but at a tremendous cost to the few that held captive.
“Countries that make concessions to terrorists to get back hostages tend to have more hostages taken,” Sandler said. “If you’re signaling to the terrorists that they will get a payback, they will continue to take hostages.”
Both Weinstein and Foley’s families have said that federal officials treated pleas to rescue their sons as more of an “annoyance” than a priority. Weinstein’s family thanked members of Maryland’s congressional delegation – Rep. John Delaney, and Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin – as well as individual officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but said the assistance from “other elements of the U.S. government” were insufficient.
In an interview with msnbc, Delaney, a Democrat, condemned the federal government for failing to fully coordinate resources and make Weinstein’s return a top priority. “His country let him down,” Delany said. “We should have a hostage czar – someone how wakes up every day and has complete access to all of the resources of the U.S. government to find Americans that are held hostage.”
Obama said he has launched a full review of military strikes from January. And while Elaine Weinstein says she blames the Pakistani government for not stepping in when an opportunity arose to rescue her husband, she hopes it will be a lesson for the future.
“I hope the nature of our future relationship with Pakistan is reflective of how they prioritize situations such as these,” she said in the statement.