The wife of an American hostage who was killed in a U.S. counterterrorism operation in Pakistan blames his al Qaida captors for the death, but she also lashed out Thursday at what she called “inconsistent and disappointing” assistance from the Obama administration during an ordeal of more than three years.
The criticism from the wife of 72-year-old development expert Warren Weinstein, who along with Italian hostage Giovanni Lo Porto was killed in a U.S. strike on an al Qaida compound in January, adds to a chorus of protests from families who claim the U.S. government could have done more in its efforts to bring captive Americans home before they were killed in captivity.
The families say the U.S. government is long overdue a central coordinator for hostage recovery so that opportunities don’t fall through the cracks of a diffuse interagency process.
“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,” Weinstein’s wife, Elaine, said in a statement.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
An internal review is under way to update the Obama administration’s hostage policies, though the most controversial piece – the longtime U.S. refusal to pay ransoms – is not under consideration for change, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.
Harf said the government asked for input from 82 families of hostages and former captives who were taken in incidents dating back to 2001. She didn’t have figures for how many agreed to participate in the review, which began last summer and has yet to conclude.
Elaine Weinstein praised members of Congress and “specific officials” from the FBI for their assistance during her husband’s captivity, and she said her criticism was reserved for unnamed “other elements of the U.S. government.”
Several families of hostages have criticized the administration’s handling of the cases.
The mother of American journalist James Foley, the first U.S. hostage beheaded by the Islamic State, has been among the most vocal of the relatives calling for better communication with families and a more streamlined approach to interagency cooperation.
The family of Austin Tice, a freelance journalist and contributor to McClatchy who was seized in Syria in 2012, also has spoken out with demands for three main changes: communicating more closely with victims’ families, approaching each case individually, and seizing opportunities for a quick, safe return. One major criticism of the Tices is that there’s no one person overseeing the return of hostages, something the family has said “we crucially need to change.”
Some relatives of hostages also seek to overturn the longstanding U.S. ban on paying ransoms or making similar concessions to hostage takers, but U.S. officials have said that the policy will remain in place because it’s effective as a deterrent to targeting Americans. Critics of the ban disagree, noting that the Islamic State freed several European hostages after receiving ransom payments while American and British hostages, whose governments refuse to negotiate, were killed.
In defiance of the U.S. ban, Foley’s parents raised funds for a ransom but were warned by U.S. authorities that it would be illegal for them to pay it. Similarly, the family of Steven Sotloff, another American journalist who was killed by the Islamic State, were warned that they could face prosecution if they paid a ransom. The father of Islamic State hostage Kayla Mueller, who apparently died when Jordanian planes bombed the location where she was being held, accused the Obama administration of putting its policy of not paying ransoms “in front of American citizens’ lives.”
Mueller’s death renewed calls from Foley’s family and other relatives of hostages for the administration to hurry and finish its review.
“Kayla, along with our son and others, were held for nearly two years and there were many opportunities along the way – several times when the captors reached out, several times when returning hostages brought sensitive information,” Diane Foley told ABC News in February, right after the announcement of Mueller’s death. “And yet nothing was done to save our young Americans. So that’s the part that deeply concerns me.”
Harf, the State Department spokeswoman, said that not all the feedback from the families has been negative, though she didn’t dispute the many calls for a revamped hostage policy.
“These families have gone through the worst thing they will ever have to go through, and I think you hear a lot of different statements from them. We’ve heard people talk about how supportive the U.S. government has been,” Harf said at the State Department briefing. “But we know this is an incredibly challenging issue. That’s why we’re doing a review of how we deal with all of these issues.”
A senior administration official, speaking anonymously under administration rules, said that the government had told Elaine Weinstein earlier this year that it had information that her husband was dead, but “we were not able to confirm it at the time.”
Weinstein, who was working as a development adviser, was captured from his home in Lahore, Pakistan, on Aug. 13, 2011, and was held hostage for more than three and a half years. Lo Porto, the Italian hostage, was an aid worker who’d been held since 2012.
U.S. officials wouldn’t comment on whether there had been efforts to negotiate Weinstein’s release. In Pakistan, an attorney who claimed to have been in contact with the militants holding the two men said as recently as a week ago he’d asked for proof that Weinstein was still alive.
The Weinstein family couldn’t be reached for comment.
Anita Kumar in Washington and McClatchy special correspondent Tom Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.