WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama announced Wednesday a more coordinated U.S. response to help rescue Americans held hostage by terrorists and acknowledged the government had sometimes let the families down.
“I acknowledged to them in private what I want to say publicly, that it is true that there have been times where our government, regardless of good intentions, has let them down,” he said after an emotional meeting with relatives of executed hostages.
“I promised them that we can do better,” he added.
The president reasserted the main plank of the U.S. policy, that unlike some allies the government would not make concessions or pay ransoms to hostage takers, saying this would enrich the militants and encourage further abductions.
“I know this can be subject of significant public debate. It’s a difficult and emotional issue, especially for the families,” he conceded.
But he set out a more cooperative policy in which the government would work with the families and said a special presidential envoy would be appointed to coordinate the efforts of law enforcement and diplomats.
The new approach was drawn up over six months after complaints by families their initiatives to free relatives had been discouraged and sometimes blocked by officials who threatened legal action if they raised ransoms privately.
The new approach, set out in a presidential directive, allowed “communication with hostage takers by our government, the families of hostages or third parties who help these families,” Obama told lawmakers and officials gathered at the White House.
“When appropriate, our government may assist these families and private efforts in those communications, in part, to ensure the safety of the family members and to make sure that they’re not defrauded,” he said. “My message to these families was simple. We’re not going to abandon you. We will stand by you.”
A central hub was being created at the FBI that would bring together experts from across the government to locate and bring home hostages and which would work closely with the families.
The issue exploded last summer, when black clad Islamic State militants posted gruesome videos on social media of the execution of a number of Americans and others held in Syria.
Obama said since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks more than 80 Americans had been taken hostage abroad and more than half ultimately had come home.
White House Homeland Security Adviser Lisa Monaco told reporters that more than 30 Americans were being held outside the United States.