United States policy on hostage negotiations is arrogant, hypocritical, and favors some prisoners more than others, according to a former negotiator, responding to reports the government was involved in efforts to free American hostage Warren Weinstein several years ago.
Dan O'Shea, a reserve Navy SEAL officer who led the interagency Hostage Working Group at the US Embassy in Iraq between 2004 and 2006, told VICE News a change in strategy was long overdue. US policies and efforts to retrieve hostages were "disjointed 10 years ago and we still haven't learned those lessons," he said.
On Sunday, it was reported the White House was planning to adopt an anticipated recommendation from a National Counterterrorism Taskforce (NCTC) review that it stop threatening to prosecute families of hostages who pay ransoms — a practice long strictly forbidden by the government.
Then on Wednesday, a report emerged the government had actually strayed from its strict "no negotiating with terrorists" policy years ago by allegedly allowing FBI agents to vet a Pakistani middleman who would deliver a $250,000 ransom raised by Weinstein's family to his al Qaeda captors in June 2012.
US officials told the Wall Street Journal that the FBI had indicated to Weinstein's family that a rescue mission was likely not a serious option as they did not know his location. Paying a ransom was "the least bad of the unattractive options available," they reportedly said. The FBI declined VICE News' request for comment on Wednesday.
Ultimately the ransom payment was delivered, but failed. Weinstein, 73, a USAID contractor who was abducted in 2011 in Pakistan's northwestern city of Lahore, was killed alongside an Italian captive in a US counterterrorism drone strike in a border region of Pakistan and Afghanistan in January.
"It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally and our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes — sometimes deadly mistakes — can occur," Obama said in announcing the deaths three months later on April 23. "But one of the things that sets America apart from many other nations, one of the things that makes us exceptional is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes."
After the announcement, Weinstein's widow, Elaine, blamed her husband's death on the feeble response from officials.
"Unfortunately, the assistance we received from other elements of the US government was inconsistent and disappointing over the course of three and a half years," she said. "We hope that my husband's death and the others who have faced similar tragedies in recent months will finally prompt the US government to take its responsibilities seriously and establish a coordinated and consistent approach to supporting hostages and their families."
Days later, a senior official told ABC News that the White House was going to soften its stance on ransom payments, in line with the anticipated recommendations of the NCTC review which is expected to be handed to President Barack Obama in the next few weeks.
"There will be absolutely zero chance of any family member of an American held hostage overseas ever facing jail themselves, or even the threat of prosecution, for trying to free their loved ones," said the official.
At a daily press briefing the next day, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest would only confirm that the government would listen to the recommendations and determine what could be done to make communication with families "more effective." He refused to say whether prosecution threats had been made in the past, and on Wednesday said policy on ransom payments had not changed.
The administration would also consider the creation of an interagency "fusion cell," which would include a family engagement team as the primary point of communication and support to hostages' families, Earnest said.
O'Shea said families of hostages had long felt abandoned by US authorities. "There's a certain American arrogance — hubris if you will — that was very counterproductive," O'Shea said of his time working with various US government agencies on more than 400 kidnapping cases, of which roughly 40 involved Americans. "Time and time again when I talked with these families in a hostage case, and the biggest issue for them was they just felt no one cared, no one kept them in contact. [Officials] just said, 'don't worry about it, we're doing everything we can, don't talk to the media.'"
This was the same experience reported by the parents of James Foley, a freelance American journalist who was beheaded by the so-called Islamic State militant group last August.
"We were told at that point that there was going to be no intervention, there was going to be no negotiation, and that no ransom would be paid — and, if in fact, we attempted to raise the money and pay it we would be potentially prosecuted," James Foley's father John told ABC News. "So that was pretty upsetting."
O'Shea said that the government response to hostage situation in the past had vastly differed depending on the individual involved.
"We put effort into certain kidnappings and then we put effort into others," he said. "Why did we put so much effort into bringing home a soldier — Bowe Bergdahl — who as it turns out is going to be charged with desertion, versus a state department employee [Weinstein]?"
Obama's decision last May to swap five ranking Taliban commanders held in Guantanamo Bay prison in exchange for Bergdahl's release (without Congressional approval) set off a stream of criticism last summer.
Bergdahl, an Army Sergeant accused of walking off his post in Afghanistan in 2009 shortly before his capture by the Taliban-linked Haqqani Network, was formally charged with desertion in March this year. He faces life in prison if convicted.
Some of the comments after Bergdahl's release took aim at the government's apparent hypocrisy in departing from the staunch, decades-old policy of not negotiating with terrorists.
"There's laws on the books that say you cannot do business with terrorist organizations, and that includes paying a ransom — because what will that do? Fund more terrorism," O'Shea said. "With the Bergdahl swap, the president announced in one fell swoop, 'Yes the US negotiates with terrorists.' The same US government is saying to families 'If you negotiate on behalf of your son's life with Islamic State, we're going to throw you in jail,' which is so hypocritical."
More recently, the US had publicly condemned the actions of other European governments for paying ransoms for several of their citizens. It also warned Japanese officials not to pay ransoms for two Japanese journalists held by the Islamic State. The Japanese government did not hand over any money and the journalists were later beheaded.
Since then, the administration has seemingly shifted its position. Changes to the US hostage negotiation policy were a step in the right direction and "long overdue," said O'Shea. James Foley's family agrees.
"The previous 'no negotiation' policy has been interpreted as no communication, no talk, so I think there's a huge deficit along the way, from doing nothing to being able to talk to captors," John Foley said. "Negotiation doesn't mean that we would say 'yes' to everything, but it does mean that we would be able to have a dialogue with captors, and who knows what might come out of that?"
Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields