President Obama said Wednesday that his administration had too often failed the families of American hostages held overseas by groups like the Islamic State, announcing a policy overhaul that will publicly state for the first time that the United States government can communicate and negotiate with hostage takers.
Mr. Obama said the government would not change a longstanding policy against paying ransoms to terrorist groups, a stance that he acknowledged had become controversial as terrorist threats have evolved and kidnappings have become more common. But he said he was making clear that the rule “does not prevent communication with hostage takers by our government, the families of hostages or third parties who help these families.”
“We’re not going to abandon you,” the president said. “We will stand by you.”
Speaking in the Roosevelt Room of the White House shortly after signing a presidential directive and executive order laying out the changes in the hostage policy, Mr. Obama also said families should not be threatened with criminal charges if they try to pay ransoms.
“The last thing that we should ever do is to add to a family’s pain with threats like that,” the president said, shortly after meeting with former hostages and families of captives, some of whom were killed by the hostage takers.
The changes were an effort by Mr. Obama to come to terms with a brutally painful chapter of his presidency. Families of Americans taken hostage abroad have increasingly criticized his administration for its handling of their cases, saying they were deprived of information, given conflicting guidance, ignored and threatened by a confusing patchwork of government agencies, none of which seemed to be primarily concerned with bringing home their loved ones.
“I acknowledged to them in private what I want to say publicly, that it is true that there have been times where our government, regardless of good intentions, has let them down,” Mr. Obama said. “I promised them that we can do better.”
But in doing so, the president put forth a somewhat tortured logic for addressing hostage cases. He argued forcefully that offering money in exchange for hostages would only enrich terrorists and endanger Americans, but said the government would back family members who wanted to do so.
Top White House officials have been at pains to explain how the government could keep a no-concessions policy while essentially blessing decisions by families to violate it.
“These are very hard issues,” Lisa Monaco, Mr. Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, said in an interview. She said the White House was “wrestling with not abandoning families while also being quite clear that the vast resources of the United States government are not going to be put towards fueling terrorist activities.”
In the end, the announcement did not go far enough for some of the hostages’ relatives, some of whom pressed Mr. Obama on Wednesday to scrap the no-concessions dictate altogether.
“He was asked to keep considering whether that is, in fact, the right policy,” said Marc Allen Tice, the father of Austin Tice, a freelance journalist who disappeared in Syria in 2012. “There was skepticism and there was pushback,” he said, adding, “Over all, we feel like this is a good beginning.”
In a joint statement, the families of Kayla Mueller, Peter Kassig and Steven J. Sotloff, American hostages killed by the Islamic State, called the changes “a step in the right direction.” Diane and John Foley, the parents of James Foley, who was also killed by the militant group, praised the policy review, saying of their son in a statement, “Perhaps his horrific death was necessary to awaken the American public and our government.”
The policy directive made official and public what has long been the United States government’s unspoken practice in some hostage cases. But that practice has been inconsistently applied and poorly understood both inside federal agencies and among family members desperate to win the release of their relatives.
Mr. Obama’s orders reorganized the government’s hostage recovery efforts, creating an interdepartmental “fusion cell” based at the F.B.I. with primary responsibility for freeing American captives. A new hostage response group at the National Security Council, to be led by Ms. Monaco, will monitor the efforts and oversee hostage policy. A family engagement coordinator will work with the F.B.I. task force and the White House team to support hostages’ relatives.
The order also requires that the government declassify as much information as possible to share with hostages’ families.
Some family members who had hoped for the creation of a senior-level “hostage czar,” charged exclusively with freeing American captives, said they were concerned that the new system could be hampered by the same bureaucratic dysfunction that has plagued efforts to date.
“It feels like a lot of committees,” Mr. Tice said.