Drone killings reopen debate on U.S. hostage policy

Government contractor Warren Weinstein, a 72-year-old Rockville resident, is shown in a video while being held captive by al-Qaida militants.
Government contractor Warren Weinstein, a 72-year-old Rockville resident, is shown in a video while being held captive by al-Qaida militants. (Uncredited / Associated Press)

It wasn't until three months after a U.S. drone blasted a suspected al-Qaida compound in Pakistan that America's spies figured out that an aid worker from Rockville had been killed, the White House said this week.

The deaths of Warren Weinstein, who was working as a federal contractor on economic development projects in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region when he was captured by al-Qaida in 2011, and an Italian aid worker drew renewed calls for a change in the U.S. government's policy on hostages.


Lawmakers including Rep. John Delaney, Weinstein's congressman, have called for the creation of an office to coordinate intelligence and rescue attempts among the federal agencies involved when a hostage is taken. The White House said it is weighing a similar idea as part of an ongoing review of the actions the government takes when people are captured by terrorists.

The proposed shift follows a series of high-profile failures, including a botched commando raid in Yemen in December that saw the captors kill the two hostages, an American and a South African. Several attempts to rescue Americans imprisoned by Islamic State in Syria also failed, and the group beheaded three of them last fall.

President Barack Obama said Thursday that Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto were killed in a January drone strike. He said officials did not know that Weinstein and Lo Porto were being held at the compound.

Delaney, a Montgomery County Democrat, said identifying where captives are being held is a basic step that should be emphasized.

"It puts us in a position of trying to get them out, either through rescue missions or diplomatic efforts," he said. "At a minimum, it prevents us from bombing."

Delaney said he had been developing legislation before Weinstein's death was announced that would require the National Security Council to create a committee chaired by a "hostage czar" who could drive the government's efforts. He had hoped the bill would pass in time to aid Weinstein, he said, but plans to continue working on it.

Weinstein's wife was searing in her criticism of the government after Obama announced his death.

In a statement, Elaine Weinstein praised Delaney, Sens. Ben Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland and the FBI for their "relentless efforts to try to free my husband."

"Unfortunately," she said, "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."

White House spokesman Joshua Earnest said Friday that Obama was weighing the creation of a "fusion cell" that would coordinate between the Departments of Defense and State and the intelligence community, all of which play a role when an American is taken hostage.

"It would ensure those efforts are closely integrated, both in terms of the steps that are taken by the agencies to secure the return and rescue of the hostage but also as it relates to the communication with the family of the hostage," Earnest said.

Earnest said the White House aims to work more closely with families of those held, and is seeking their input on how to do so. Officials have sent letters to 82 families and former hostages, dating to 2001, and have spoken with 22 so far.

The White House launched its review in November after family members of several hostages killed in Syria publicly criticized the government's official refusal to pay ransom or negotiate with terrorists, as some European governments do.

The United States has allowed intermediaries, such as the government of Qatar, to negotiate or pay ransom in some cases. Qatar was crucial in arranging the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in a swap for five senior Taliban fighters in the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, in Cuba.


While the CIA and other U.S. spy agencies generally take the lead on collecting intelligence on where hostages are being held, the FBI has jurisdiction to investigate crimes against Americans overseas, including kidnapping.

The FBI recently formed a hostage rescue task force at its headquarters in Washington to improve coordination with other agencies.

Also at headquarters, the FBI has a group of "victims assistance" specialists with experience in social services who are in touch with families. The FBI often taps agents in its 56 field offices across the country to meet quickly with families whose loved ones have been taken hostage and offer them assistance.

The FBI draws on the experience of behavioral experts at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., who study past hostage situations to better understand the thought processes within terrorist organizations to develop advice on how to negotiate with kidnappers.

The FBI also has an operational group at Quantico called the Hostage Rescue Team.

"The FBI is enormously diligent about trying to track down American hostages, but I think an improved interagency process, a higher profile on the issue may be called for," said Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. "It is regrettably a problem that is not going to go away."

Members of Maryland's congressional delegation said they would review any proposals to improve the government's efforts. A spokeswoman for Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said he was considering whether to make changes using the State Department's annual funding bill.

"He agrees there should be better communication with the families of these hostages," Sue Walitsky said. "Having a loved one taken is a gut-wrenching experience for any family; it's the not knowing and the silence that makes it all the more hard."

Delaney said the new office he is proposing would have the power to align diplomatic, intelligence and military resources in the effort to return hostages home.

In Weinstein's case, Delaney said, the Pakistani government was slow to help. A key part of the czar's job, he said, would be encouraging foreign leaders to turn over information. If they refuse to help, he said, the United States could withhold aid money.

"The asks on these hostages are very specific," he said. "We're not asking them to change their foreign policy."

W.J. Hennigan and Brian Bennett reported from the Tribune Washington bureau.