What a deal! White House announces it will negotiate with terrorists for American hostages, but give up prosecuting Americans for doing the same thing

June 24, 2015 • 1:03 pm

This just came over my CNN feed, and I find it totally bizarre:

White House has announced a presidential directive and an executive order that will allow the government to communicate and negotiate with terrorist groups holding American hostages.

Officials will now be allowed to talk to those terror groups and discuss ways to secure the Americans’ release, though the government will maintain its policy of not making concessions to captors.

While the government won’t pay ransom, officials will no longer threaten with criminal prosecution the families of American hostages looking to pay ransom to their relatives’ captors.

And it’s weird for two reasons. First, the White House claims that we will continue our policy of not paying terrorists for hostages. But why else would a group like ISIS release any American hostages except in exchange for money or goods? What on earth does Obama et al. think that “talking to terrorists” to “secure the American’s release” will involve? We’re going to sweet talk them out of their captives?

Further, the notion that the government had a policy of threatening American families with prosecution for trying to pay ransom to secure the return of their relatives is truly odious. Seriously, threatening them? Now I don’t know of any case when the government actually did this, or threatened such actions, but simply having such a policy is inhumane.  And to couch the announcement as if rescinding that policy somehow balances the new talk-to-terrorists policy makes no sense at all.

I don’t think the government should pay for hostages, for that’s a road that leads to ever-increasing kidnappings and ever-higher demands, but the government really should tell us what simple talking without ransom is supposed to accomplish.

The fact is that the U.S. simply doesn’t know what to do in the Middle East (neither do I), and this new move seems more like theater than sound policy.

67 thoughts on “What a deal! White House announces it will negotiate with terrorists for American hostages, but give up prosecuting Americans for doing the same thing

  1. I read this as far more Machiavellian.

    In short, we’re now going to pay ransom for hostages, and the government is going to use the families to launder the funds.


      1. I hadn’t thought of that. Instead, I thought that negotiating with terrorists translated to gaining more intelligence cues on where they and their captives are, via those communications links used for negotiating.

        1. “I hadn’t thought of that. Instead, I thought that negotiating with terrorists translated to gaining more intelligence cues on where they and their captives are, via those communications links used for negotiating.”

          Yeah that occurred to me as well. so I didn’t have any particular problem with the government “negotiating” with them. but I do, as I said in my comment below, have a problem with families. and corporations being given a green light to pay ransom to get loved one, and employees back.

          1. I understand.

            Looking at this from another direction: If we continue to let politically abducted Americans be brutally murdered, instead, it will eventually cause a rift between the general American population and its government, much worse than anything we might already be seeing. I don’t know enough about politics or government or international relations to begin to guess how such a rift might play out, but perhaps those with more background and expertise considered that and believe this new plan is the lesser of the two evils.

            I simply don’t know. (Nobody tells me anything. Like the old hippie illustration that said, “I feel just like a mushroom: kept in the dark all the time and all they feed me is bullsh*t”, or something very like that.)

            1. “Looking at this from another direction: If we continue to let politically abducted Americans be brutally murdered, instead, it will eventually cause a rift between the general American population and its government, much worse than anything we might already be seeing.”

              I have looked at it from that direction, and while you’re obviously going to have family members, and friends of hostages decrying such a policy I suspect most Americans understand, or can be made to understand why paying ransom to terrorists is counterproductive. I’m not sure if there has been any polling on this issue, but I find it hard to imagine that a significant percentage of the populace would support such a policy.

              1. “Most Americans” can’t seem to understand the need for control to prevent terrorist lone wolves and downright nut cases right here in our midst. We as a people are far too ready to succumb to propaganda.

                Now, who do you think does propaganda more effectively, the US government or the terrorist organizations convincing our youth, via the internet, to run away from home and get themselves killed overseas for Islam?

            2. It just occured to me that the Obama administrations real concern might be that not paying ransoms would increase public support for on the ground military intervention which they want to avoid. So they see paying ISIS as the lesser of two evils.

              1. “Now, who do you think does propaganda more effectively, the US government or the terrorist organizations convincing our youth, via the internet, to run away from home and get themselves killed overseas for Islam?”

                All one needs do is look at the state of this country, and clearly the answer is the US government, and it’s corporate/military industrial complex overlords to answer that question. In comparison ISIS are rank amateurs who’s success is minimal even among it’s Muslim audience.

      2. Darn it! Just accidentally posted anonymously again. Stupid cookies or whatever that keeps dropping my name/email. Sorry, Jerry.

    1. Agree, though I think you need to change that first part to “we’re now going to publicly admit to ransoming hostages…” I very much doubt Reagan was the only president to cut secret deals with nasty people.

  2. “Further, the notion that the government had a policy of threatening American families with prosecution for trying to pay ransom to secure the return of their relatives is truly odious. Seriously, threatening them?”

    It’s always been the policy of the US government to treat private citizens negotiating with foreign governments (groups) with whom we are at war or have embargoes against as treason. I see nothing odious about it. Do we really want rich Americans financing groups like ISIS? I find this change of policy to be problematic.

    1. Typically terrorists are not representing a government. Which also means that technically we can not be at war with them. War is something that occurs between state actors.

      Actually, by definition terrorists are non-state actors. The bullshit War On Terror that the US government embarked on post 9/11 has indeed muddied the waters and there has been much abuse of words and laws by politicians and many other interested parties. But terrorism is supposed to be the purview of the US criminal justice system, not the military. For good reasons. And though certainly not perfect the US criminal justice system is, historically, pretty damn good at it. Better than the military.

      Using our criminal justice system, and following all the rules that that entails, achieves better results, is much less expensive, is much less destructive of lives and materials, and it fosters improvement or creation of all those things that make up an elightened society that the US is supposed to be a shining beacon of, instead of tearing them down. As we have done prosecuting our War On Terror.

      1. Very interesting! What of terrorism outside our borders, inside another state-actor’s territory, yet targeted at us or at our citizens over there?

        1. The FBI is well versed in dealing with just that and has an extensive network outside the US. There is a long history of the FBI working with foreign governments to find, catch and prosecute terrorists and other criminals. You rarely see any of this kind of thing in the news these days, unless you know where to look, because for some reason most media outlets don’t seem to think it is news-worthy. Not with the War On Terror to cover.

          And the FBI hasn’t stopped these kinds of activities because of the WOT. They are still doing it every day.

          When I’ve got some more time I’ll see if I can find some suitable references.

            1. Apologies, I’ve been on the run. I have a friend who is very knowledgable on this and related subjects due to relevant career experience. I took the liberty of asking him for direction on sources. I’ll let him do the talking, with his permission.

              ”Hello Darrell,

              Yes, Justice Department cases regarding ‘people outside the US caught and prosecuted for terrorism related crimes’ is actually a topic I track in my consulting work. An elegant strategy.

              Ultimately the product of FBI’s terrorism-related arrests are prosecuted by Dept. of Justice’s National Security Division (NSD)

              This link is to the DOJ Press Release on the most recent post-trial conviction and sentencing of a foreign terrorist (May 15).

              More fully addressing a historical summary can be found via this link, DOJ’s National Security Related Press Releases. Keep in mind that FBI does most of the ‘catching’ for DOJ, overseas and in USA (numerous terrorism-related arrests here since May).

              The DOJ/NSD website will inform you of trial outcomes, including the FBI’s work to bring a case to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for prosecution. But if you want to also read about the ‘sausage making’ this link to FBI National Security Branch is it, within which see “NSB Components” where listed find specific to your question, this link to FBI’s Counterterrorism Division including, yep – posters of the ‘most-wanted.’”

              1. darrelle, it’s going to take me awhile to get to the links you shared, but I haven’t forgotten. If this post is closed to comments by the time I get there, I just wanted to thank you, again, and let you know I will be reading through them when I can.

              2. docatheist,

                Thank you for the kind words. Please don’t feel pressured in any way on my account!

            2. And some additional comments from the same friend.

              ”Terrorism crimes have been more ambiguous until recently. The attached case became public late January. DOJ press release attached; also the PDF of actual complaint document</b. I mentioned this case to you in February, but the documentation will better impress the point. Essentially, Saudi Arabia (not famous for judicial process) “lawfully expelled to the United States” (that implies the two countries have no extradition treaty) the named indicted Yemenis. The indictment was sealed for five years while the FBI worked the case overseas using ‘informants’ which penetrated the terrorist cell. The extraordinary feature of this case is the charges of “CONSPIRACY TO MURDER UNITED STATES NATIONALS ABROAD”. Not murder, but conspiracy to murder. That is preemptive and extremely sophisticated. A capability developed over decades of racketeering cases against organized crime, evolved from the RICO Statute. The potential is enormous. If only we would draw down our military approach overseas (killing just recruits more terrorists), and give the budget to DOJ for more investigations and prosecutions like this Yemini model. Also, a feature of this Yemini case is the FBI agent in charge is only a 3-year veteran, meaning the FBI ‘investigative system’ is so sophisticated now that such a complex case can be brought by a rather junior case manager.

              Another point in favor of judicial process vs. military regarding non-state actors is the huge issue of “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.” The US press gives little attention to WHY some of these groups are fighting their government. But more important is that any LEGITIMATE government should have laws and a criminal/judicial system to enforce laws against “predicate crimes” (eg murder, weapons trafficking, illicit finance, etc) to what gets lumped as ‘terrorism’. And U.S. policy should focus on capacity building assistance to foreign partner nations for that purpose, using money from the DOD budget, and draw down combat operations.”

          1. It was a bit of a surprise for me to see so much FBI involvement in the FIFA soccer corruption thing.

      2. “Which also means that technically we can not be at war with them. War is something that occurs between state actors.”

        Yes technically, and I should have used quotes around the word war. That being said when the actors are engaged in their activities from within war zones the normal law enforcement response is impossible. You can’t simply agree to pay the ransom, and then observe the drop, and arrest the kidnappers when they arrive to collect, or follow them back to the hostage, and arrest them there.

        1. Your caricature of the FBI does them an injustice. The US government currently has three Tier 1 CT assets. Seal Team Six, Delta Force and the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team. These groups often train and operate together. For operations outside of the US the military units have been used much more frequently, but the HRT has been used in overseas operations. The FBI and the military have a history of working together.

  3. The treat to prosecute family members is a consequence of laws that predate Obama. His directive to remove the threat of punishment seems like the best thing he could do given the refusal of Congress to do anything about anything (except trade deals).

    The other part is harder to figure out. I’m not understanding the point of it. But perhaps there is something there that I’m not seeing.

  4. I am mystified as well. Attempting to negotiate with terrorists doesn’t seem to have helped in the past. There’s a reason they are called ‘terrorists’ and not ‘freedom fighters’ or ‘revolutionaries.’ It’s not an equal playing field, and that is what is required for negotiation.

    Look where negotiations got Chamberlain in his attempt to help defuse the situation between Nazi Germany and Czechoslovakia in 1938. Of course a lot of the dynamics were different, but I don’t see a lot of difference in principle.

    1. Attempting to negotiate with terrorists doesn’t seem to have helped in the past.

      Didn’t it largely work with the IRA?

      1. It eventually did, but then not all ‘terrorists’ are the same. They vary hugely.

        The IRA had a defined aim which was not particularly outrageous (home rule for Northern Ireland, very roughly); something Whitehall would probably have granted a lot earlier with a sigh of relief if they could have. The IRA would often telephone warnings before their bombs went off, presumably wanting to cause disruption but not massacres (which are counter-productive). You might call them rational terrorists.

        You couldn’t apply any of that to ISIS, for example.

        So I think the response to terrorists should be tailored to the characteristics of the group involved.


        1. Well, the aim for Sinn Fein/IRA wasn’t really home rule for Northern Ireland. Indeed you can argue that the Troubles started precisely because NI had de facto home rule in the 1960s, which in practice meant rule by the Protestant majority.

          1. Yes, that looks to be about right, I mis-stated that. They do appear to have been relatively well-organised and to have had aims and interests that could be negotiated.

    2. “There’s a reason they are called ‘terrorists’ and not ‘freedom fighters’ or ‘revolutionaries.’”

      Yeah, because they’re on the other side.

      It’s one of those irregular nouns. They fund terrorists, you fund revolutionaries, we fund freedom fighters.

      (See also: Taliban)


      1. I had the thought just this morning that there is no substantive difference between these “terrorists” and organized crime–Mafia, Columbian cartels, etc., at least as far as their methods are concerned.

      1. “If not, we should make a point of getting some.”

        And wait for the reaction the first time someone traded back is shown on video beheading someone, or marching gays off rooftops.

        1. Doesn’t ISIS have a fungible group of fighters to perform those acts?

          Anyway, we crossed that Rubicon when we released five Taliban prisoners from Gitmo to secure the release of Bowe Bergdahl, the US soldier who went missing in Afghanistan.

  5. Didn’t Japan attempt negotiations to get 2 of their nationals back? That was a sham, ISIS had killed them even while negotiating. I do not support negotiations or ransoms. It only encourages our enemies.

    1. The same with the Jordanian captured pilot. ISIS tried to “negotiate” and get terrorists released in exchange for his release for weeks after immolating him.

  6. The US government traded Taliban prisoners for Bowe Bergdahl quite recently. It colluded in the deal that got the three young Americans who strolled over the border out of Iran a few years ago (the money that Iran received was actually paid by one of the Gulf States – but you could reasonably think that they did it in the expectation of US favors in the future). And companies have ransomed kidnapped executives in places like Central and South America for years with governmental approval or at least tolerance. So the whole “we don’t make deals with terrorists” is pompous playacting.
    Yes, the government has indeed threatened prosecution of people who wanted to pay a ransom to get their relatives back from Middle Eastern terrorists. The L A Times: “Families say they have received confusing messages from the government. One agency would threaten relatives with prosecution for talking about ransoms while another offered to facilitate such payments, for example.”
    I don’t see a good one-size-fits-all answer, and realizing that and reining in the rhetoric is the first step.

    1. Remember the Iran Hostage Crisis? Or later, the Iran Contra Affair? Both involved the US negotiating for the release of hostages.

      1. Iran was, by any measure, a “state actor” at the time — a rogue state that US law forbade the government from supplying weapons to, but a “state actor,” nonetheless.

        State actors are almost always amenable to negotiations, since they have territory to protect (among other interests), as our recent negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program demonstrate.

        Terrorist organizations may also be amenable to negotiations, as long as they have rational goals, wants, needs, desires, and fears. Whether it is wise policy to negotiate with such terrorist organizations (or with rogue states, for that matter) is an entirely different question.

  7. Nobody believed that they weren’t doing it anyway (well, nobody I’ve talked to in my business, and unsurprisingly, the topic comes up), so it’s a minor item of incredible (literally “not credible”) BS taken off the list of pieces of incredible BS to maintain.
    Next thing you know, they’ll be eating cheese and surrendering to French monkeys instead of hanging them.

    1. The French are (as I’m sure you’re aware) the cheese-eating surrender monkeys — along with the other “little chocolate-making countries” of Europe — according to American rightwing cant. (I’d like to sentence the chicken-hawks who have spouted this nonsense to a tour of duty with the French Foreign Legion — maybe with the battalions that fought at Dien Bien Phu.)

      1. Yes indeed.
        How about Napoleon?
        How about WW1.
        Didn’t France play a reasonably significant role in helping the American revolution?

        1. Indeed, Lafayette had General Washington’s back at Yorktown, the decisive battle of the Revolutionary War. Otherwise, today we Americans might be speaking … well, English, but not good, old American English, but that strange Hugh Grant-style loo, lift, petrol British-type-English.

          I mean, can you imagine?

          1. “If it wasn’t for us you’d be speaking a slightly different type of english”.

            Hmm, doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?

            1. Doesn’t have quite the same piquancy as “if it wasn’t for us Yanks, you Frogs would all be sprechen Kraut,” no.

  8. My understanding of the new policy, with which I disagree, is that the U.S. government would continue its policy of not negotiating with or paying ransom to terrorists, but families of hostages would be free, or at least freer, to negotiate and pat ransom without fear of prosecution for violating U.S. policy. The word “threaten” is out of place in this discussion of policy. Families have never been threatened with prosecution any more than any law breaker is threatened with it. Being prosecuted for paying ransom or negotiating with terrorists has been a possibility since the U.S. has had the policy. It’s a good policy in that it discourages the taking of American hostages. If indeed our policy has now changed we can look forward to a flurry of hostage taking. And if the policy truly has changed, why would the U.S, announce it? What advantage is it to the U.S. to inform our enemies that they can now benefit from taking hostages? Obama has been a terrible President when it comes to foreign policy.

    1. I wonder…terrible president when it comes to foreign policy compared to who? Hopefully you are not referring to the previous.

      A policy of not paying for hostages is probably good as a normal policy but nothing can or should be cut in stone. We did recently trade 5 terrorist for one GI, with the Taliban I believe. That is a form of payment and that is why nothing should be stuck in concrete. Talking is not some evil thing that screws up things or proves much of anything by saying, I won’t talk to them.

      Bush had policies of not talking to certain countries, like North Korea or Iran. Stupid policy that did not work and when any policy is not working, why would you not change it. As I recall in most conversations, talking also includes listening and what do you know…sometimes you learn something.

  9. We will not negotiate with terrorists, except when we do.

    Sounds like a line from the same book that had “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

    1. It is our policy never to negotiate with terrorists.

      (However, pragmatism dictates that policy may be adjusted in appropriate cases where an improved resolution can be attained.)

      Does that clarify it?


      1. I was thinking that maybe, like “Napoleon” & “Squealer” in Animal Farm, Barack & Biden snuck into the barn overnight with brushes & paint and added the extra proviso-clause to the “Thou shalt not negotiate” commandment.

  10. You should not negotiate payments with Terrorists full stop. Pay them and like any Blackmailer they will be back for more. if the Familiies wish to do so that is their prerogative.

    1. It shouldn’t be the perogative of the families either. When you pay to get your family member back, it encourages them to snatch somebody else’s family member like maybe mine. You don’t negotiate.

      1. Agreed, which is why I don’t find it at all “odious” to “threaten” families with prosecution if they pay ransoms in such circumstances. I’m not necessarily suggesting we prosecute, particularly if they are unsuccessful in gaining their loved ones freedom, that would be adding insult to injury, but it should be illegal, and they should be made aware of that fact if it’s something they are considering,

        1. I suspect that the ramifications of negotiating were not well thought out. There are countries that have created entire cottage industries out of ransoming families or in the case of Somalia, ships. Negotiating just encourages them. Not wanting to do that is hardly odious.

        2. I don’t think it’s splitting hairs, though, to avoid conflating “negotiation” with “paying ransome.” If negotiation can impart to the terrorist-kidnappers that so much plausible harm will come to them, if they don’t release their captive, that might have the opposite effect of paying ransom.

Leave a Reply