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Failed US Rescue Attempt Revives Debate Over Hostage Policy

In a video released by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, a man saying he's American hostage Luke Somers says his life is in danger.
In a video released by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, a man saying he's American hostage Luke Somers says his life is in danger.

The death last week in Yemen of a British-born American photojournalist during a rescue operation mounted by American commandos is reviving the debate over U.S. hostage policy.

While congressional critics agree the Obama administration had little choice but to launch an 11th-hour military raid to try to save Luke Somers, who was shot dead by his captors, they say there is a growing disconnect between government agencies, which is reducing the chances of freeing American captives.

Too often the State Department and the FBI sideline options presented by other U.S. government agencies, they claim.

In a letter to President Obama, Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican congressman from California, said he is aware of a government organization that has offered “credible information that could lead to the return of several Americans.” But Hunter said the FBI has dismissed the information, despite having so far failed to turn up any “actionable leads” in working on the cases for several years.

In the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, "options exist to recover Americans in captivity but, because of the FBI and the State Department control on these operations, various lines of effort are being sidelined and even discarded,” he writes.

A White House review of U.S. hostage policy -- ordered after the beheadings in Syria by Islamic militants earlier in the year of American journalists James Foley and Steve Sotloff, and aid worker Peter Kassig -- is still under way. This week relatives of former and current American hostages are due to meet with officials from the National Security Council overseeing the review. Several families have criticized publicly how the Obama administration has handled captive situations and have complained of feeling pushed around by administration officials and of being kept purposely out of the loop and denied information.

In September, James Foley’s mother and brother accused Obama administration officials of repeatedly warning the family that they could face criminal prosecution if they paid a ransom to the Islamic militants from the self-styled Islamic State to secure their son’s release. “We were told that several times and we took it as a threat and it was appalling,” Foley’s mother Diane told ABC News.

And members of the Somers family added Monday to the criticism. Penny Bearman, Somers' stepmother, and his half-sister Lucy Somers told Britain's The Times newspaper they were angry because they think, “if there had not been a rescue attempt he would still be alive.”

On November 30, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula released a video threatening to kill the 33-year-old photojournalist, who had been held for a year, within three days, if the U.S. government failed to meet their demands. They warned against a repeat of a rescue attempt made by U.S. Special Forces on November 25 that resulted in the freeing of eight other hostages. Somers’ captors moved him shortly before that raid.

Somers’ family members say they were “kept in the dark” about the U.S. government's plans to mount rescue attempts. And, Bearman said, “there had been threats before that had not been carried out.” She added: “We are sure Luke would have given support to the ongoing discussions [to secure his release] in Yemen rather than the conflict approach.”

Administration officials argue they had little choice but to proceed on Saturday with the second rescue attempt, and had no reason to believe the captors would refrain from carrying out their threat to kill him. Somers was shot - along with a South African hostage who was due to be released, according to his charity employers - as the raid unfolded.

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has defended the Somers rescue mission publicly, arguing it was “extremely well executed,” while acknowledging it was “complicated and risky.” He added in a statement: “There were compelling reasons to believe Somers' life was in imminent danger.” He has said he sees no reason for a review to be conducted of the actual rescue mission.

But Joe Kasper, an aide to Rep. Hunter, said the failed rescue mission should be part of the NSC-led review. “It is impossible to conduct a review and not consider what went right and what went wrong in every hostage situation and recovery attempt,” he said. “Otherwise, we are not learning from our experiences, and there are definitely a lot of them to learn from.”

A number of European hostages held by Islamic militants in Syria have been released following million-dollar ransom payments. Both the U.S. and British governments have long followed a policy of refusing to pay terrorists in exchange for hostages. But with the executions of Foley, Sotloff and Kassig, political pressure has mounted on the Obama administration to reconsider how it handles hostage situations.

Administration officials tell VOA the review will not lead to a reversal on the prohibition of paying ransoms. They say ransom payments only encourage the seizing of more hostages. But the review is likely to conclude that there should be greater coordination between U.S. government agencies and the sharing of information, they say.