“I had very ambivalent feelings about governments paying and I still do,” said Lawrence Wright, a Pulitzer Prize winning author and staff writer for the New Yorker. “But I believe the government should not get in the way of families trying to save their children.”
Wright is steeped in to the topic after reporting and writing “Five Hostages,” a 25,000-word New Yorker piece that was released online last week and surfaced Monday in the latest print edition of the magazine, which is dated July 6 and 13.
It details an exhaustive, largely frustrated civilian effort led by publishing company executive David Bradley and aiming to free five hostages from Islamist extremists. It put Wright in close contact with the families, who included those of ultimately beheaded journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, as well as with Obama administration officials carrying out what until last week was a clear policy of blocking families’ efforts to pay ransoms.
The U.S. has not only supported a policy of the government not paying ransoms but also supported a law that provides for prosecution of citizens who do pay such ransoms to terrorists. That law has never been actually applied and, last week amid criticism of the law, the administration said formally that it would not prosecute any such cases in the future.
“Even [President] Obama, when parents have talked to him, has said he’d do anything if one of his daughters were taken,” Wright said in a Monday chat with Poynter.
Wright’s personal ambivalence in part reflects his view that the U.S. should work harder to prevent European countries from paying ransoms. “I think the spread of terrorism is assisted in some way by the hundreds of millions paid in the last several years.”
No European nation admits paying ransoms but it’s widely understood that several do, notably France. But even a country that does not pay ransoms, such as Denmark, did not stand in the way of one family paying a ransom for the successful release of a photojournalist son who was held hostage.
In announcing it won’t prosecute Americans who try to get family members released, the administration said it was assembling a “fusion cell” of officials from the State Department, Defense Department and FBI to coordinate responses to hostage situations.
The group will be headquartered at the FBI and will include bureau counselors who will assist families in responding to demands from captors.
As for the new policy, Wright’s first reaction is that it’s unclear if it can be put into motion in an effective manner.
The notion of a fusion cell means bringing together a group of contentious federal agencies that haven’t worked together terribly well in the past.
“Can they now be encouraged to do so?” Wright wonders.