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Official: Relatives could be allowed to pay ransoms for U.S. hostages

Official: U.S. considering policy change to allow families of hostages held overseas to pay ransoms

A White House review of hostage policy is likely to recommend that the government not block ransom payments by family members seeking release of captives, a U.S. official said Sunday.

The family of Warren Weinstein, the American aid worker taken hostage in 2012 and killed accidentally in a U.S. drone strike in January, reportedly paid a ransom in violation of the policy, hoping it would lead to his release.

Weinstein and an Italian man were killed in a strike targeting a compound thought to be frequented by Al Qaeda militants, President Obama announced last week in a rare public admission of a grave targeting error by a U.S. drone attack. Obama has embraced the strikes as his preferred method of conducting counter-terrorism operations overseas, but the hostage deaths brought renewed scrutiny to his choice.

The White House said after confirming the death of the men that it is considering revamping its approach to overseas hostage rescues.

The proposed change to the ransom policy, if approved by Obama, would represent a loosening of the current U.S. protocol, which forbids such payments to obtain hostages' release. The official said the prohibition on ransom payments by the U.S. government would be unaffected by the proposal, which was first reported by ABC News.

The proposal to permit family-paid ransoms "could make sense," U.S. Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), who congressional district included Weinstein's hometown of Rockville, Md., said on ABC's "This Week."

Richard A. Clarke, a former U.S. counter-terrorism official, argued that lifting the blanket ban on ransom payments would encourage the taking of additional hostages.

"If you say that we'll pay them, there'll be many more hostages," he said on "This Week."

Some families who quietly sought to pay ransoms have been threatened with prosecution for violating the policy, officials told ABC.

The White House review, announced in November, was undertaken in response to complaints from captives' family members, who said they are often left in the dark about government efforts to gain hostages' release.

Delaney called for the creation of a "hostage czar," an official for coordinating efforts to locate hostages among agencies and departments involved in rescue efforts.

"We don't do as effective a job as we could in finding these hostages," he said.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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