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White House To Amend Ransom-For-Hostages Rules

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Good morning. The United States government makes it clear; it does not pay ransom for hostages who are kidnapped by militant groups. Of course, for the families of hostages, getting their loved ones back is the only thing that matters. But if they try to raise money for a ransom payment, the government has threatened them with criminal charges. Today, the White House is expected to remove that threat. We turn first to NPR's Jackie Northam.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The Obama administration launched a review of its hostage policy six months ago, after a string of grisly killings of U.S. citizens who were held by Islamist militants. The White House faced widespread criticism of its handling of the hostage situations, including the way it treated the families. Diane Foley's son, James, was beheaded in Syria by the self-proclaimed Islamic State. She told ABC News that she and her husband were brushed off and then threatened by the administration as they worked to free their son.

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DIANE FOLEY: We were told very clearly three times that it was illegal for us to try to ransom our son out and that we had a possibility of being prosecuted.

NORTHAM: The new review will make it clear that families of hostages will no longer be penalized if they negotiate with and pay ransom to captors. The review will recommend the creation of a new interdepartmental office. It will include a point person to work directly with the families for better communication, says White House spokesman, Josh Earnest.

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JOSH EARNEST: I think the sense was that the administration could be more effective in delivering clear information and, in some cases, instructions to the families of those who are going through this terrible ordeal.

NORTHAM: While the White House is giving families the green light to deal with captors, President Obama plans to maintain a long-standing policy that the U.S. government will not make ransom payments, says Earnest.

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EARNEST: The reason that the president believes that is the right approach is that to offer concessions to terrorists only does allow them to more effectively fund their operations, but also makes American citizens around the globe an even more significant target than they already are.

NORTHAM: Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism specialist at Georgetown University, says he's not surprised the administration is sticking to its no-concessions policy, while at the same time allowing families to negotiate. Hoffman says it's a recognition that the government needs flexibility.

BRUCE HOFFMAN: You know, at the end of the day, what's worse - paying off the terrorists, who have enough income streams in any event, or handing them, in essence, you know, this horrible propaganda opportunity which, you know, you don't pay the hostage ransom; you take a very hard line, and then you see the tragic, horrific results of an American having his head chopped off? I mean, in my view, that's worse.

NORTHAM: The White House plans to unveil the hostage review later today. Several families of hostages will be present. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.