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As American Captives Die While Others Walk Free, Is U.S. Hostage Policy Costing Citizens’ Lives?

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In a year that saw the brutal televised beheading of Western journalists and aid workers by the Islamic State, the United States is facing calls to change a hostage policy that may have undermined chances to save their lives. Journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, as well as aid worker Peter Kassig, were all beheaded after being kidnapped by ISIS in Syria. Luke Somers, a photojournalist, was killed in Yemen this month during a failed U.S. rescue mission. Family members of the hostages have criticized U.S. government policy of refusing to engage with their captors, including the payment of ransom. Meanwhile, at least 15 hostages also kidnapped by ISIS in Syria have walked free. That’s because their governments — all but one European — have negotiated and paid millions of dollars to win their release. But not only does the United States refuse to negotiate or pay ransoms to captors, it has threatened the hostages’ families with prosecution if they try to do so on their own. We host a roundtable discussion with three guests: Philip Balboni, president and CEO of GlobalPost, where Foley was a freelance reporter when he was taken hostage in 2012; Gary Noesner, former chief of the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit; and Sarah Shourd, who was was held prisoner by Iran for 410 days before ultimately being released in a deal brokered by Oman.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: After a year that saw the brutal televised beheadings of Western captives by ISIS, we spend the hour on whether U.S. hostage policy has cost American lives. After losing at least four hostages in 2014, the U.S. faces calls to change an approach that may have prevented their release. Journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, as well as aid worker Peter Kassig, were all beheaded after being kidnapped by ISIS in Syria. A fourth American, a female aid worker, is said to remain in ISIS captivity.

Luke Somers, a photojournalist, was killed in Yemen this month during a failed U.S. rescue mission. The captors shot Somers and another hostage, South African teacher Pierre Korkie, before fleeing. The charity Gift of the Givers says it had reached a ransom deal with the captors that was set to free Korkie just hours later. The U.S. says it was not aware Korkie was about to released when it launched the operation.

AMY GOODMAN: Family members of the hostages have criticized U.S. government policy for refusing to engage with their captors, including the payment of ransom. Under this approach, dangerous rescue missions like the one in Yemen appear to be the only option. While at least four Americans were killed and one remains in captivity, 15 hostages also kidnapped by ISIS in Syria have walked free. That’s because their governments—all but one European—have negotiated and paid millions of dollars to win their release.

But not only does the U.S. refuse to negotiate or pay ransom to captors, it’s thwarted the efforts of family members who try to do so on their own. The families of all four Americans kidnapped by ISIS in Syria were told they could face prosecution if they paid money to free their loved ones. Diane Foley, the mother of slain journalist James Foley, spoke to ABC News earlier this year.

DIANE FOLEY: We had to beg. We had to—

JOHN FOLEY: The higher we went, the more difficult the [inaudible].

DIANE FOLEY: Right. And we were an annoyance, it felt, at some levels, that, you know, they really didn’t have time for us. We were told very clearly, three times, that it was illegal for us to try to ransom our son out and that we had possibility of being prosecuted. I was surprised that there was so little compassion.

AARON MATÉ: That’s Diane Foley, the mother of James Foley.

Well, in addition to blocking ransom payments, the U.S. has missed other potential opportunities to win the hostages’ release. According to The New York Times, at least seven people, who either witnessed the Americans’ abduction or imprisonment in Syria, say they tried to make contact with U.S. officials to pass on useful information, including the location of the prison where they were held. But these witnesses say their efforts largely fell on deaf ears. One fighter says U.S. officials refused to negotiate with a sheikh who was authorized to speak on the Islamic State’s behalf, just months before Foley was beheaded. The U.S. also reportedly denied the overture of an ISIS general who offered to free Foley in exchange for cash and asylum in the U.S.

AMY GOODMAN: After criticism from the Foleys and other families, the Obama administration announced a review of its hostage policy last month. But the review will not cover the ban on ransom payments. Administration officials say not paying ransoms ultimately protects more Americans by making them less valuable targets.

Today we’ll hear from a New York attorney, Stanley Cohen. He was directly involved in secret talks to win the freedom of U.S. aid worker Peter Kassig, who was held by ISIS in Syria. When U.S. ally Jordan arrested the sheikh he was negotiating with, the talks collapsed, and Kassig was beheaded soon after.

But first we’re joined by three other guests. Philip Balboni, president and CEO of the online international news outlet GlobalPost, for which James Foley was a freelance reporter at the time he was taken hostage in November of 2012—Foley also was freelancing for the GlobalPost when he was held for 44 days by Gaddafi’s forces in Libya in 2011. During the nearly two years Foley was held hostage in Syria before he was beheaded, Balboni worked with Foley’s family to secure his release.

Gary Noesner also joins us. He’s the former chief of the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit and has written the book Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator.

And Sarah Shourd joins us. She was held prisoner by Iran for 410 days and released through negotiations in part with a third country, Oman, which facilitated the payment of a half a million dollars each for Sarah Shourd and her two friends, Americans Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer. She is currently a contributing editor at Solitary Watch and will be publishing an anthology, as well producing a play, based on the nearly 75 oral and written testimonies she’s gathered from people who have lived through or are currently in solitary in the United States. And she’s a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.

We’re going to begin right now with Philip Balboni, president and CEO of GlobalPost. Can you talk about the efforts you made working with the Foley family to have James released?

PHILIP BALBONI: Sure. Well, when we learned Jim was kidnapped, it was two days after his abduction, just after Thanksgiving 2012. I immediately hired an international security firm that I had actually worked with when Jim was a captive, more briefly, as you mentioned, in Libya in 2011. And that began a 20-month effort to, first, find and then to free Jim. We had investigators on the ground on the Turkish-Syria border within a matter of days. Many of them stayed for months, running down leads, trying to determine who had taken Jim and how we might be able to be in contact with them and start negotiating for his release. So it was an incredibly intensive effort that went on, literally, every single day for those 20 months. And I personally supervised that effort. And, of course, we worked closely with John and Diane Foley, Jim’s parents, and with his brother Michael and others. It was a complicated, frustrating effort, you know, with such a tragic ending. I have so many feelings and thoughts about this that they couldn’t be easily encompassed in this program.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the issue of ransom? I mean, these very damning words of Diane Foley, which she repeated on several networks, saying that she was threatened with prosecution—


AMY GOODMAN: —if she were to raise money.


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what the U.S. said to her, as well is to you, Philip Balboni.

PHILIP BALBONI: Sure. Well, the primary threat, I guess, if we could call it that, came in a conference call with other family members, that followed a meeting we had in Washington at which all the hostage families got together for the very first time. It’s been revealed it was a member of the National Security Council. I would say that we had many contacts with the government—State Department, NSC. Diane was received at the White House at least twice. We had frequent contact with the FBI, both the family directly and our own investigators. There were contradictory signals. And it’s now been reported that the Bureau, Federal Bureau of Investigation, always made it clear to us that they would help and that there would be no prosecution. So there was—there was dissonance on that point, which I think slowed down the investigation.

I think the U.S. policy should be changed. I’m glad the Obama administration has begun that review, but I don’t it goes far enough. As I said in that story by Rukmini Callimachi of The New York Times, the policy really isn’t nuanced. And I don’t think we need to change the public posture of never paying a ransom. That has merit in some cases. But each case needs to be looked at on its merits. And I think in Jim’s case, and also in Steven’s and Peter’s, the families did want to pay a ransom. It was very difficult to raise that much money and to do the coordination, even though we were standing behind them with professional experts in kidnap and ransom. You know, I feel that we might have succeeded if the policy had been different. And, you know, that will be a lifelong regret for me.

AARON MATÉ: Philip, you were in touch with the captors. What did they want? Some figures in the media said they wanted tens of millions of dollars. Is that true?

PHILIP BALBONI: Well, there were six emails from the kidnappers. They stopped in late December of 2013 and never resumed until the fateful email we received on August 12th that said that Jim would be executed because of the U.S. bombing in Iraq. In the early emails from the kidnappers, they wanted 100 million euros or the release of Muslim prisoners. This was just an opening gambit. And as we now know, they did effectuate 15 ransoms for sums that have varied from, you know, two to three million euros and maybe slightly more than that. So, unfortunately in Jim’s case—

AMY GOODMAN: We seem to have lost Philip Balboni, again, president and CEO of GlobalPost. We’re going to go to break, and when we come back, we’ll continue this unique roundtable. Philip Balboni, again, heading up GlobalPost, where James Foley was a freelance reporter when he was taken hostage in 2012, worked with Jim’s parents very closely in trying to gain his release. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Aaron Maté. We are spending the hour looking at the U.S. policy around hostages, how to have them freed. Among those with us, Philip Balboni, head of GlobalPost, where James Foley worked. He would be beheaded last year by ISIS—this year. We’re also joined by, as well, Gary Noesner. He is the former chief of the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit, also author of Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator. As you listen to Philip Balboni describe the efforts with Jim Foley’s family to try to have Jim released, can you talk about what the U.S. policy has been?

GARY NOESNER: Well, it would be a little bit frustrating. I wasn’t able to hear all of Mr. Balboni because of some technical issues here. But, you know, the U.S. policy has always been one of making no substantive concessions to terrorists, and that’s a good policy. It can be supported on a lot of different ways. However, that has, in the last decade or so, morphed into meaning no negotiations, which it never was in the past. When I ran the FBI unit in the '90s and up until 2003, when I retired, we were able to be far more engaged and supportive of families, even when they chose to pay a ransom. The prohibition, in my view, should really be directed against the government paying money. We should not attempt to prohibit families from doing so, because that's often the only means through which you can effect the safe and timely release of a victim.

AARON MATÉ: Gary, what accounts for this change in policy? You say that before 9/11 things were different.

GARY NOESNER: Yeah, and actually beyond that a ways, but I think beginning with the events of 9/11, I think, clearly, the whole landscape of counterterrorism changed. Far more agencies, extraordinarily greater amounts of budgetary dollars, many more players came into the equation. Prior to then, the FBI, with some interface with State Department, a few other agencies, would pretty much manage these kidnappings. And now there’s literally a host of thousands of people in the government involved.

And sadly, politicians and government officials want to be seen as unyielding and uncompromising in the face of terrorism, so they’ve overly interpreted this no-concessions policy to become a no-negotiations policy. In the reality, there’s a great deal of space between capitulating to demands and a refusal to negotiate. And that’s the problem, I think, that we’re seeing now, that that concern of being perceived as acquiescent has prevented them from pursuing things that we used to be able to pursue in the past that often led to successful outcomes.

AARON MATÉ: And, Philip Balboni, before the break and before we lost you on the satellite—I think we have you back now—


AARON MATÉ: —you were talking about your contacts with the captors.

PHILIP BALBONI: Yes. So, that series of emails that came between late November and late December laid out, initially, the simple fact that they had Jim, and then they gave us the opportunity to get proof of life. We were able to do that successfully, and that was, you know, a true milestone, that we knew that Jim was alive and we knew who had him. But the negotiation around a definitive amount that they would accept for Jim was never consummated. It never moved off that 100 million euros.

But you have to remember that the Islamic State came under attack from other jihadist groups right around that period of time and were driven out of Aleppo, where they had previously headquartered, and they were forced into eastern Syria, ended up in Raqqa, which is their current headquarters. They began recommunicating, but they concentrated on the European hostages. And they knew about the United States policy and the British policy, and they—we knew from feedback from intelligence we gathered that they intended to leave the Americans and the British to the end. But they never resumed the negotiations.

And I agree with my colleague from the FBI that their private negotiations, family decisions—and this has happened in the past—should be allowed to proceed, and the Bureau has helped families in the past do that. And, unfortunately, that did not get to play out in Jim Foley’s case.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Sarah Shourd into this discussion. Sarah, you’ve written about this for The Daily Beast. You co-wrote A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran. You were imprisoned in Iran for 410 days. Can you first talk about your own experience and how ultimately you were freed? And respond to what the U.S. policy has been for hostages in other countries and held by other groups.

SARAH SHOURD: Yeah, of course. It’s great to be here, Amy. Well, a lot of the recent stories coming out about the mismanagement of these hostage cases ring very true to me in my own experience. In our own experience, we were often caught between the State Department and the White House. After I was freed after 410 days, I was in the center of negotiations for my now husband, Shane Bauer, and my friend, Josh Fattal, and there were dozens of high-level meetings in the State Department and White House. And what it felt like to us after a while was infighting, finger pointing and just complete mismanagement of our case.

AMY GOODMAN: And when you saw what happened with Peter Kassig, with Jim Foley, talk about your response and what you feel needs to happen now.

SARAH SHOURD: Well, obviously, this is a—you know, it’s a very emotional topic. And it’s a huge moment, because finally these stories are coming out of missed opportunities. When we were in the center of this, we had no one to turn to, no one to guide us. And we were absolutely, you know, flabbergasted by how things just seemed to get lost in the shuffle and never moved forward, and it was this eternity of waiting and misinformation.

I mean, I came on your show several times, and—during the time that we were fighting for Shane and Josh’s freedom, and I was—I felt strangled. I felt like I couldn’t talk about my frustrations with my own government, because, in pretty direct terms, the State Department told us if we criticized our government’s inaction, the Iranian government could take that out on Shane and Josh. So there were threats. There was mismanagement.

And what I’m seeing now is that consistently our government does negotiate. First of all, the way that this whole policy is addressed is dishonest from the get-go. There are negotiations that go on, but I think that it’s very unequal and inconsistent who actually gets negotiated for, what they’re willing to do for who. And—

AARON MATÉ: Could you say that—

SARAH SHOURD: I’m sorry. Are you still there?

AARON MATÉ: Yeah. Well, Sarah, in your case, could one say that your case was different because you were held by a foreign government as opposed to a militant group like ISIS?

SARAH SHOURD: Of course. Of course there are differences. But we got the same—the same problem was that our government said, “We don’t talk to terrorists. We can’t talk directly.” So, a third party was used in our case. The Omani government eventually ended up paying a thinly veiled ransom—half a million dollars for each of us. And I think that’s an extremely important point, because our government says that they have this no-concession policy and that ransom is never paid, but there was tacit approval for the Omani government to pay our ransom. I know that for a fact, because I worked very closely with them. What difference does it make if money is, you know, getting into the hands of rogue governments or terrorist groups through a third party or directly? The money is still getting into those hands.

AMY GOODMAN: Gary Noesner, when you look at Sarah Shourd’s case, in the case of the Omani government paying the half a million dollars for each of the three of them—I think at the time it was like called “bail”—why were—why did the U.S. deal with this differently?

GARY NOESNER: Well, I wasn’t involved, and I don’t know the particulars of that. But, you know, I think we have to be careful, too, that resolving these cases, in my view, is not best served simply by throwing a big pot of money at the kidnappers. That certainly will encourage more. However, outright refusal to negotiate does not protect Americans from being victimized and does little to help effect their safe and timely release. These are very complex and challenging cases, and we have to have a whole range of tools and options available to deal with them. And what sadly has happened, in my opinion, is there’s been an overly restrictive interpretation of what is appropriate for the government to do in support of families and businesses. And that’s the issue that I hope this review will take a hard look at.

AARON MATÉ: Well, Gary, what about the issue of lost opportunities? This New York Times piece on Sunday called “The Cost of the U.S. Ban on Paying for Hostages” has a tidbit about Theo Padnos, a U.S. captive in Syria, and he says that his iPhone was taken by his captors. Now, he assumed it was—that they removed the SIM card, it was never used. But he found out after he was released that his captors used his iPhone, but U.S. officials never looked for it using the, you know, Find My iPhone option.

GARY NOESNER: Well, again, I can’t speak to that. I have no knowledge of what happened in the specifics of that case. But I would say this. I think when we say “negotiation,” that is a broad range of activities. And FBI personnel, negotiators will, when deployed in assisting a family or trying to secure the safe release of a hostage victim, will look at a whole range of information available to us to gather information about the perpetrators and how we might open contact with them. So, this certainly would have been something that I would have assumed was done. If it was not, I have no explanation for that.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, Sarah Shourd, as you watched these—as you watched journalist after aid worker beheaded by ISIS, what did you feel, having been freed yourself, of course, facing death, but having been freed yourself, as Shane and Josh were, were the steps that needed to be taken?

SARAH SHOURD: Well, first of all, I think that we should review our policy on the level of mismanagement and incompetence, but also I think it’s worth taking a second look at ransom and our no-concession policy, as well, which I also think is dishonest. I mean, it’s clear that our government is willing to do prisoner swaps for servicemen and women—I mean, Bob Bergdahl, the recent trade with Cuba. And there’s also cases such as the case of Raymond Davis in Pakistan, who was a Blackwater CIA operative that murdered two people, and he was facing charges in Pakistan, and then a blood money was paid to the family of the murdered, and he was released just a week after he was arrested. There were reports that that money was paid by the Pakistani government and that the U.S. government was going to pay it back. Of course, a lot of these reports can’t be confirmed, but the point that I’m trying to make is, when the U.S. wants to get its people out, they get their people out.

But what we see consistently is that the work of journalists and humanitarian workers is not safeguarded by our government, that our government doesn’t have their backs. And when the issue of ransom is raised, the argument is often “we need to see the greater good, we need to prevent more cases like this from happening.” I completely agree with that argument. We do need to look at the greater good, and we need to look at each case separately.

And the Islamic State is not al-Qaeda. We’re not looking at the same kind of organization here. The Islamic State, for one, has its own revenue. From their so-called government and business activities, they make a million dollars a day. So a $6 million ransom, which is what they’re asking, I believe, for the last American hostage, this young 26-year-old humanitarian worker, a $6 million ransom for the Islamic State is—it’s not going to make or break the organization. It’s a good day for them, but they have their own revenue. And you can argue that the propaganda that’s come out of these horrific beheadings, the loss of life, has been able to gain them recruits that are perhaps more valuable and have done more damage in escalating violence than any ransom ever could have done.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Philip Balboni, what do you want to see happen?

PHILIP BALBONI: Well, I’d like to remind your viewers and listeners that there are three hostages still being held by the Islamic State as we’re talking this morning. You’ve referenced the young American woman. Jim’s traveling companion, the British journalist John Cantlie, is still being held. And there is a third woman whose identity and nationality is being protected. They are facing the same horrible fate as Jim and Steven and Peter and the others. And I remain in touch with two of those three families. And the same, I would say, relatively feckless procedures are playing out, and there is not a definitive plan in place to secure their release. So—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to continue this discussion after break. Our guests are Philip Balboni, president and CEO of GlobalPost—James Foley worked for the GlobalPost when he was taken hostage in 2012; Gary Noesner, former chief of the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit; Sarah Shourd, one of three Americans imprisoned in Iran—ultimately Oman helped to negotiate their release, paying half a million dollars for each of them.

When we come back, we’ll be joined by New York attorney Stanley Cohen, who attempted to negotiate the release of an American, Peter Kassig, before he was beheaded. It looked like things were moving along, until the sheikh who was working as the intermediary was arrested by the U.S. ally, Jordan. And we’ll hear that story in a moment. Stay with us.

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