President Obama announced Wednesday that the U.S. government will no longer threaten prosecution for people who try to pay ransom for their family members who have been taken hostage by terrorist groups overseas.
"When it comes to how our government works to recover Americans held hostage and how we work with their families," Obama said during remarks from the White House, "we are changing how we do business."
While he reaffirmed the administration's "no-concessions" policy toward terrorists, he said he had to balance his view as a president, husband, and father. If his family were at risk, he said, "I would move heaven and earth to get those loved ones back." But as a president, "I also have to consider our larger national security."
At the White House press briefing shortly after Obama finished his remarks, homeland security and counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco further addressed that conflict.
"There's no doubt that the payment of ransoms fuels the very activity that we are trying to stop," she said. "At the same time, we've got a responsibility to stand with families."
The policy change comes after a broad review of the government's hostage policies ordered by the president last fall on the way the U.S. treats hostages captured overseas. The new executive order and presidential directive asserts that the government's "response to hostage-takings must evolve" with the "ever-changing landscape" of hostage threats. That includes the increased kidnapping of private citizens, such as journalists and aid workers.
"We're not going to abandon you," he told the families of hostages. "We will stand by you."
Federal policy previously allowed officials to prosecute families of hostages who tried to pay ransom, but it's long been unspoken practice for officials not to take any real legal action against them. Obama asserted Wednesday that the government never prosecuted the family of an American hostage for paying ransom to terrorists.
The president also announced several measures to organize the administration's response to hostages: a hostage response group comprised of senior administration officials "who will be responsible for ensuring our hostage policies are consistent and coordinated and implemented rapidly and effectively," he said, who will report directly to the president; the appointment of a senior diplomat as a special presidential envoy for hostage affairs; and one "central hub" of federal officials coordinating rescue efforts.
The president said relatives of hostages have told him they felt at times like "an afterthought or a distraction, that too often the law enforcement or military and intelligence officials they were interacting with were begrudging in giving them information."
"That ends today," Obama said. "I'm making it clear that these families are to be treated like what they are: Our trusted partners and active partners in the recovery of their loved ones."
This story has been updated.