Why the Obama Administration Changed Its Hostage Policy

A candid explanation from Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes

A memorial for Kayla Mueller, an American who died in ISIS captivity (Deanna Dent / Reuters)

After years of complaints about the federal government’s handling of cases involving Americans held hostage abroad, the Obama administration moved last week to overhaul its approach. That, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said on Monday, represented an acknowledgement by the administration that “we made mistakes; we weren’t doing as good a job as we could’ve.”

Families of hostages were largely left to their own devices, contacting various government agencies and receiving contradictory guidance and conflicting information. Rhodes spoke of “families who said, ‘I didn’t know who to call.’” This, he said, “made an already confusing and heartbreaking situation more difficult.”

Rhodes, speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is organized by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, reviewed the three-part plan to improve the administration’s response. The first step stems from an understanding that, for many government officials, “if something is not their expressed mission, it does not get the focus it demands.” So the government is creating new posts and units dedicated to bringing hostages home. The second is a recognition that the people talking to the families weren’t actually trained, or equipped, to fulfill that role; the administration will appoint dedicated liaisons who are. And the third is a public clarification of an informal policy; the government won’t pay ransoms to terrorists, but neither will it prosecute families that do.

The new policies were announced last Wednesday, the same day that The New Yorker published Lawrence Wright’s searing account of the ordeal endured by the families of Kayla Mueller, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig, Theo Padnos, and James Foley. Four of the five were held hostage by ISIS in Syria. “The families,” Wright wrote, “had largely lost faith in their government.”

David Bradley, the owner of Atlantic Media, which publishes The Atlantic, is at the center of Wright’s account. Bradley had previously helped secure Foley’s release from detention by the Qaddafi regime in Libya, and volunteered to coordinate the families’ efforts to free the five captives.

“We made changes,” said Rhodes. “Frankly, a lot of that benefited from David Bradley and the group of people he had working on these cases. David helped the families present to us their concerns in a way that was very useful.” Listening to their stories shifted the administration’s approach. “Everything we did grew out of those engagements with the families,” Rhodes added. “Hopefully we can get better.”