Is it time to rethink U.S. policy toward hostage negotiations?

A masked Islamic State militant holding a knife speaks next to man purported to be U.S. journalist James Foley at an unknown location in this still image from an undated video posted on a social media website. Reuters

Less than a week after journalist James Foley was killed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the news broke that Peter Theo Curtis, another reporter who had been held by an al-Qaeda offshoot in Syria since 2012, had been released.

Curtis was held by the Jabhat al-Nusra front in Syria, an al Qaeda-backed jihadist group, and his release was negotiated by the Qatari government, though it's not known exactly what the group's demands were nor whether any of their demands were met.

In the case of James Foley, ISIS attempted to extort more than $130 million in exchange for Foley's release. Denied, they beheaded him as apparent punishment for U.S. airstrikes against the militant group.

Curtis' mother Nancy asserted that a ransom wasn't involved in the release of her son, saying in a statement circulated by the White House: "While the family is not privy to the exact terms that were negotiated, we were repeatedly told by representatives of the Qatari government that they were mediating for Theo's release on a humanitarian basis without the payment of money."

White House deputy press secretary Eric Schultz added that "we continue to hold in our thoughts and prayers the Americans who remain in captivity in Syria -- and we will continue to use all of the tools at our disposal to see that the remaining American hostages are freed."

Whether those tools will ever include paying ransom is increasingly up for debate, but former U.S. officials say now is not the time to rethink the nation's policy toward hostages taken by terrorist groups abroad.

"The U.S. policy of not paying ransom to kidnappers is longstanding and it is sound. It would be a mistake of strategic proportions to change that policy," said Michael Morell, the former deputy director of the CIA and a CBS News national security analyst. "If we were to do so, many more Americans would be kidnapped...and we would be become an ATM for militant groups around the world."

Morell noted that many more Europeans than Americans are kidnapped abroad, a likely result of the fact that some European governments will quietly arrange to pay the hefty ransoms demanded for the hostages' release.

A New York Times investigation published last month found that al Qaeda and its affiliates had brought in at least $125 million through ransom payments since 2008, including $66 million in 2013. That money came largely from European governments.

Meanwhile, much of ISIS' funding is coming from extortion and "multiple kidnappings for ransom," a counterterrorism source told CBS News.

Echoing Morell, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey told CBS News that practice "inspires [ISIS] to take more hostages."

"They relish in their ability to negotiate with us," he said. "It makes them look like heroes throughout the Middle East.

But it can be a hard argument to swallow when a large cash payment might have saved someone's life. In an interview with Yahoo News, Foley's brother, Michael, said that "more could have been done directly on Jim's behalf."

"I really, really hope that Jim's death pushes us to take another look at our approach to terrorist and hostage negotiation," he said.

Gary Noesner, the FBI's former chief hostage negotiator, told CBS News Correspondent Holly Williams last week that prisoner swaps or humanitarian aid payments could sometimes be effective to secure a hostage's release.

"It's not a one-size-fits-all. And saying we won't negotiate does little to help resolve the situation, and it does even less to prevent Americans or others from being grabbed," he said.

But Jeffrey said that any policy which leads terrorist groups to believe they have leverage could be dangerous, in part because hostages can often be killed as they are being captured. The policy exists to protect the maximum number of American citizens, he said.

Additionally, "there is the moral slippery slope" if the U.S. decides to negotiate with a group like ISIS.

"What a terrorist organization wants to do is essentially destroy your or my world...force us to make a stark choice, join them or die, while at the same time not paying the price of total condemnation and total rejection that that kind of ideology deserves," he said.

ISIS is also one of the most extreme terror groups the U.S. has faced in a while - too dangerous even for al Qaeda, which disavowed the group because it felt it could not control it. It's "hard to imagine" being able to strike a deal with them, Jeffrey said, noting that the U.S. had much more success in securing the release of people taken by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

"I really have to underline the problems of humanizing inhuman monsters by negotiating with them on these things," he said.

He is even skeptical of the strategy of using intermediaries like Qatar, which he said likely intervened in Curtis' case in an attempt to prevent Jabhat al-Nusra from being considered as extreme as ISIS.

If the U.S. played a behind-the-scenes role in the release and it becomes public, Jeffrey said, "it's essentially almost as bad as if we were doing it ourselves."

U.S. officials have not yet revealed what role they played in driving the Qataris to secure Curtis' release. But Secretary of State John Kerry hinted that they might have encouraged it.

"Over these last two years, the United States reached out to more than two dozen countries asking for urgent help from anyone who might have tools, influence, or leverage to help secure Theo's release and the release of any Americans held hostage in Syria," he said.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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