On March 1, 1973, a group of gunmen stormed into a reception being held at the Saudi Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan, taking hostage a group of diplomats that included the U.S. ambassador and deputy chief of mission. The militants—from the Palestinian group Black September, which a year earlier had killed nine Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics—demanded the immediate release of a list of prisoners in Germany, Israel, Jordan, and the United States, including Sirhan Sirhan, the convicted assassin of Robert Kennedy. At a press conference the next day, President Nixon was asked if the U.S. government was considering Sirhan’s release. “As far as the United States as a government giving in to blackmail demands, we cannot do so and we will not do so,” the president said. “We will do everything that we can to get them released, but we will not pay blackmail.” Several hours later both U.S. diplomats were dead.
Though it may not have seemed particularly significant at the time—it’s hard to imagine any U.S. president seriously entertaining the notion of releasing Kennedy’s assassin—Nixon’s comment was the first articulation of what, more than 40 years later, has become a well-known policy: The U.S. won’t give in to terrorist demands, even if it means that U.S. citizens will die.
But over the years, and particularly since the 9/11 attacks, the stated policy—it’s not a codified law—has morphed into something it was never intended to be. Not making concessions to terrorists has become, in loudly proclaimed rhetoric, not negotiating with terrorists, which has become not communicating with terrorists in any context, which has become preventing others, like the family members of American hostages, from negotiating. “It was not originally no concession, no negotiations,” Brian Michael Jenkins, a senior adviser at the RAND Corp. and expert on terrorism, tells me. “There are a variety of ways to persuade someone to release hostages. But over a period of time, it became a mantra.”
Last fall, in the wake of several highly publicized ISIS beheadings and the controversial prisoner exchange that secured the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, President Obama ordered a review of U.S. hostage policy. That policy is once again back in the news thanks to the accidental killing of an American and an Italian al-Qaida prisoner in a U.S. airstrike in January.
A review of—and articulation of—how the U.S. can and should deal with hostage situations is long overdue, not least because there appears to be confusion about what exactly our policy is, even among those charged with implementing it. Whatever the review concludes, it should start from the premise that the U.S. policy against paying ransoms was never meant to apply to families, and that it was never meant to preclude talking to hostage takers, which can often prove useful for buying time and gathering information in a dangerous situation.
Politicians have long been saying one thing and doing another when it comes to hostage negotiations. It was Ronald Reagan, who, as a candidate, upped the ante by promising that when he became president, “there will be no negotiation with terrorists of any kind.” But his administration infamously negotiated the sale of weapons to Iran as part of an effort to secure the release of American hostages in Lebanon. George W. Bush also boldly proclaimed, “No nation can negotiate with terrorists, for there is no way to make peace with those whose only goal is death.” But in 2002 his White House supported arranging a ransom payment to the al-Qaida-affiliated Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines in an unsuccessful attempt to secure the release of two American hostages. And outside of hostage negotiations, there’s a long tradition of the U.S. maintaining secret backchannels with groups considered terrorists, as well as publicly encouraging negotiation with them.
Not negotiating with terrorists has always been a policy guideline—subject to amendment when circumstances demand—rather than the near-biblical commandment you’d think it was from the statements of prominent Republicans.
“U.S. policy has changed. Now we make deals with terrorists,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said after the Bergdahl swap. “It has long been America’s unwavering, bipartisan policy not to negotiate with terrorists, especially for the exchange of hostages,” said former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton. “By trading to release hostages, we are invariably putting a price on the heads of other Americans,” said Sen. Marco Rubio.
While Republicans have been definitive, if wrong, on U.S. policy, the Obama administration has seemed confused. Then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, for instance, argued that the swap of Taliban detainees for Bergdahl did not violate the policy because it had been handled through Qatari mediators. But Hagel’s explanation got the logic of the policy backward, seeming to argue that concessions to terrorists are fine so long as the U.S. doesn’t directly communicate with them. (The better answer would have been that the U.S., which was then in the process of winding down combat operations in Afghanistan, has a long history of trading hostages with the enemy at the end of wars.) The administration’s policy appeared even more incoherent after the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley at the hands of ISIS in August 2014, after which his parents reported that they had been threatened with prosecution by government officials if they attempted to raise money to pay their son’s ransom.
Early reports indicate that the review of hostage policy ordered by Obama—being conducted by National Counterterrorism Center, due to release its findings later this spring—will recommend allowing families to pay ransoms to hostage takers. But this would actually just be a restatement of long-standing U.S. policy. Gary Noesner, who for 30 years worked as an FBI hostage negotiator and conducted talks with numerous terrorist groups including the kidnappers of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, says it was not unusual for families or companies to decide to pay ransoms during his tenure, and that the U.S. was not in the habit of trying to prevent this. “No prosecutor in the country is going to take a family to court for trying to save the life of their son. It’s not going to happen,” he says.
In fact, under Obama, the U.S. government has helped families pay ransoms. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power put the family of journalist Peter Theo Curtis in touch with Qatari officials who helped secure his release from al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the FBI had given the family of American aid worker Warren Weinstein advice on paying ransoms before he was killed by a U.S. drone strike in January, as it has done in numerous other cases. This inconsistency is all the more reason why clarification of U.S. best practices and goals is essential.
So, then: What should the policy be? Noesner says the U.S. should not be in the business of making substantive concessions to terrorists, but that shouldn’t mean the U.S. doesn’t talk to the hostage takers. One might ask what the point of negotiating is if you don’t plan on granting concessions, but as Noesner points out, the purpose is “not only to release the victims but to identify the perpetrators and pursue them.” In his memoir, Noesner writes that in the Daniel Pearl case, “We were never able to sustain a meaningful dialogue with his captors, but the limited contacts we did have assisted FBI investigators in identifying those responsible through their use of an Internet café in Pakistan.”
It’s not clear yet whether the policy review will allow negotiators more room to maneuver, but one thing that is not likely to change is the prohibition on the U.S. government paying ransoms. Al-Qaida affiliates have raked in tens of millions of dollars from European governments, and the ransoms demanded are reportedly escalating. American officials say that paying ransoms would encourage more kidnappings. David S. Cohen, U.S. undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, has claimed, for instance, that al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the network’s North African affiliate, decided to “target mainly Europeans, not Americans, for kidnapping operations because AQIM believed that some European governments would pay ransoms while the U.S. government would not.”
But this is a tougher claim to make after ISIS’s beheadings of Americans Foley, Steven Sotloff, and Peter Kassig. ISIS effectively exploits graphic videotaped violence for propaganda and recruitment services, and none of its videos has garnered as much attention as the ones featuring the killing of U.S. citizens. It’s hard to imagine ISIS would be dissuaded from kidnapping another American, if it had the opportunity, by the fact that it was less likely to get a ransom. Meanwhile, it’s undoubtedly more dangerous to be British or American in ISIS custody—citizens from other countries, including some that were kept along with Americans, have been released for ransoms. ISIS almost certainly got more “value” out of the American and British prisoners it killed than the European ones it ransomed. Not paying ransoms is generally a good policy, but it’s a policy, not a law, for a reason: It’s possible to imagine circumstances under which different tactics could be used.
Overall, it’s misguided to suggest that negotiating with terrorists cannot be productive. The goal going forward, which I hope will be articulated in the review findings, should be to do everything possible to prevent kidnappings, to punish those who perpetrate them, and to secure the release of hostages in a responsible way that protects U.S. national security. As blustery sloganeering, “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” does more harm than good.