WASHINGTON - The accidental killing of two hostages in a U.S. operation against al-Qaida has put a new spotlight on the Obama administration's reliance on drones in the battle against terrorism — and has also raised pressure on the White House to revise the nation's oft-criticized strategy for dealing with abducted Americans and their families.
A day after President Barack Obama apologized and took responsibility for the deaths of American Warren Weinstein and Italian Giovanni Lo Porto in a January strike along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, officials said Friday that a nearly yearlong, interagency review of the hostage policy is to be completed this spring.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the Obama administration is considering whether to create a "fusion cell" comprised of the FBI, Pentagon, State Department and intelligence community to ensure they are closely coordinating on rescue efforts and communication with families. The administration is seeking reaction to the idea from relatives of hostages, after several have complained about the government's response in the past.
"These families are in a terrible situation — unthinkable to imagine what it would be like to have a loved one, a family member, being held against their will by a terrorist organization," Earnest said.
The review won't affect the longstanding U.S. refusal to offer ransom or other concessions for the release of hostages. "Paying ransom or offering a concession to a terrorist organization may result in the saving of one innocent life, but could put countless other innocent lives at greater risk," Earnest said.
Obama ordered the review last summer as more Americans were abducted by the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria and other militant groups, and hostage families and lawmakers criticized the response.
The families' anguish has been made worse by the fact that European governments routinely pay ransoms and their hostages are released unharmed. Meanwhile, kidnappers have killed several Americans, including Luke Somers, who was shot just as a U.S. rescue team was rushing to him.
"We've reached out to all of the hostage families to get their input," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said of the 82 families and former American hostages taken since 2001. "We want it from them, to see how we can do better, because we understand they're the most important part of this."
On Thursday, Elaine Weinstein thanked her congressional delegation from Maryland and some in the FBI for their "relentless efforts to free my husband." But she also said, in a statement, "Unfortunately, the assistance we received from other elements of the U.S. government was inconsistent and disappointing over the course of three and a half years."
"We hope that my husband's death and the others who have faced similar tragedies in recent months will finally prompt the U.S. government to take its responsibilities seriously and establish a coordinated and consistent approach to supporting hostages and their families."
The administration review has involved consultations with hostage experts from the U.S. and other countries as well as interviews with about two dozen former hostages and family members who have received updates and provided feedback on initial proposals, according to a senior official. That official, who did not have authorization to speak on the record, commented only on condition of anonymity.
The National Counter Terrorism Center is leading the review.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, complained about a lack of government coordination between agencies.
"Warren Weinstein did not have to die," he said in a statement. "His death is further evidence of the failures in communication and coordination between government agencies tasked with recovering Americans in captivity — and the fact that he's dead, as a result, is absolutely tragic."
He said that in the lead-up to the trade of Taliban commanders for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a Pentagon official was developing plans to recover not just Bergdahl but all Western hostages believed held in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area, including Weinstein. Bergdahl was eventually traded in May 2014 for five former Taliban figures held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay.
"Their planning did not include a 5 for 1 trade, as occurred, but rather a 1 for 7 exchange," Hunter said, but the plan never came to fruition.
The complaints echo those of the parents of James Foley, a freelance journalist kidnapped in Syria in November 2012 who last August was the first American to be executed by Islamic State militants. John and Diane Foley have said the government uses its policy of not paying ransom or negotiating with terrorists to avoid answering families' questions about the state of their loved ones. They said officials kept families in the dark.
"For one year, we didn't really know where he was or whether he was alive," John Foley said at a forum at the University of Arizona in February. "We had no one who was accountable for Jim, if you will," his wife, Diane, added.
Likewise, the family of kidnapped aid worker Kayla Mueller, who was killed in what Islamic State militants said was a Jordanian airstrike in February, has said government policies were contradictory and prevented her from being rescued.
Rep. John Delaney, a Democrat who represents the suburban Maryland area that includes the Weinsteins' home, has called for the creation of a "hostage czar" who would unify government efforts to free hostages and work with their families. "I feel like his country failed him in his greatest time of need," he said of his constituent.
He said he planned to introduce legislation in a month or so that would create a panel led by the czar — someone empowered to reach across agencies and coordinate efforts to find and retrieve U.S. citizens held hostage and be the primary liaison with families.