The following script is from “The Hostage Policy,” which aired on Jan. 8, 2017. Lesley Stahl is the correspondent. Rich Bonin and Ayesha Siddiqi, producers.
In the long, bloody history of terrorism, few acts of violence have been more savage or shocking than those carried out by ISIS, including the beheadings of young American hostages in 2014. The videos went viral and catapulted ISIS onto the world stage.
For the parents of one of those Americans, Art And Shirley Sotloff, the murder of their 31-year-old son Steven was shattering, because of the brutality of his execution, and because they think he could’ve been saved if not for what even the White House now admits was its own ineffectiveness in dealing with the crisis. But what really sealed their son’s fate, the Sotloffs believe, is the government’s policy against paying ransom.
[Video: I am Steven Joel Sotloff. I’m sure you know exactly who I am by now and why I am appearing before you.]
Steven Joel Sotloff was beheaded by ISIS. His execution, on September 2, 2014, was seen around the world on a video.
Lesley Stahl: Did you ever watch it?
Art Sotloff: I have viewed Steven’s body with his head on his chest.
Shirley Sotloff: I had to see that ‘cause I needed to be sure that that was him.
Steven was born and raised in Miami, attended college in Israel, and became a freelance journalist, reporting from war zones where information was scarce, like Yemen, Benghazi, Libya and Syria where he went in the summer of 2013.
Just before he crossed into Aleppo, he called his dad.
Art Sotloff: He contacted me and told me not to worry, and, but if I don’t hear from him within four days, that I should get in touch with one of his colleagues.
Lesley Stahl: Oh, that’s ominous.
He didn’t hear from his son. Not just for four days. It was four excruciating months. Then, finally they got a ransom letter with demands for the government to free all the Muslims in U.S. custody.
Note to readers: In reporting our story on Steven Sotloff, we spoke with, among others, the family of American photojournalist Luke Somers. Just a month after Sotloff was captured by ISIS in Syria in 2013, Somers was seized in Yemen by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Like Sotloff, Somers tragically died in late 2014 while in captivity. Along with a South African teacher, Somers was shot by his captors during a Navy SEAL rescue attempt.
Shirley Sotloff: “Then there is a last option. €100 million will secure Steven’s release.”
Lesley Stahl: --which is something like 100--
Art Sotloff: $137 million.
Lesley Stahl: What was your reaction?
Shirley Sotloff: Reaction was how the hell are we going to get this money together?
They thought the U.S. government would help them, but they were bewildered and then infuriated when they say they met a stone wall, the U.S. policy forbidding the paying of ransom.
Lisa Monaco: It’s some of the hardest work that I’ve done.
Lisa Monaco, assistant to President Obama for counterterrorism, oversaw the hostage crisis.
Lisa Monaco: These are horrible choices. On the one hand, if you don’t pay a ransom, you are putting an innocent life at risk. On the other hand, if you do, you’re fueling the very activity that’s put them at risk in the first place.
Lesley Stahl: Did you feel ever that the policy might be wrong?
Lisa Monaco: The policy that’s been a decades-old policy of not paying ransom, I think is the right policy.
Lesley Stahl: So you didn’t question that.
Lisa Monaco: We didn’t. We believed that that was important to maintain.
But with the exception of the UK, most European countries do pay ransom -- without publicly admitting it. Steven was held with 22 other hostages, including the three Americans James Foley, Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller, who were all killed. Once the European governments paid ransom, ISIS released their citizens, one of whom smuggled out this letter from Steven.
Art Sotloff: He was speaking how he can’t stand seeing all the captives leave from all different countries. How could the United States just stand by and not do anything?
As the European hostages came out and spoke of mock executions and waterboardings, the Sotloffs decided they would try to raise at least some of the money themselves. But then they and the other U.S. families attended a meeting in Washington with officials on the National Security Council.
To learn about where to receive support for hostage victims and their families, visit Hostage US, an independent nonprofit that offers guidance during and after a kidnapping.
Art Sotloff: All of us were saying, “Well, why can’t we try to save our kids? And they said, “Because it’s against the law. We do not negotiate with terrorists.”
Lesley Stahl: Did they say you would be prosecuted?
Art Sotloff: They said, “You could be prosecuted, and also your donors could be prosecuted.”
Lesley Stahl: So if I gave you money, I could be prosecuted?
Shirley Sotloff: Yes--
Art Sotloff: Correct.
Lesley Stahl: Did anybody say, “Are you kidding me?”
Art Sotloff: Yes, they did. Yes, they did.
Lesley Stahl: So it was a little bit contentious.
Art Sotloff: Oh yeah. We kind of verbally fought back.
Lesley Stahl: They were threatened that they could be prosecuted. Is that true?
Lisa Monaco: So what’s true is that some families felt threatened. And that was unacceptable. And that should never have happened.
Lesley Stahl: Are you suggesting they may not have been threatened?
Lisa Monaco: No. What I’m suggesting is, I wasn’t present when any threats were made, but what matters, Lesley, is that these families felt that way as they were going through the most horrific time they will ever encounter.
Lesley Stahl: But was that the policy? Was that true? Could they have actually been prosecuted? Could someone who contributed to pay ransom also be prosecuted?
Lisa Monaco: So what’s true is that the Justice Department has never prosecuted a family or friends of a family that has paid a ransom.
Lesley Stahl: But was it the policy?
Lisa Monaco: Well, what’s, the, the policy is the United States Government will not pay ransoms or make concessions to terrorist hostage takers.
That policy is based in part on a presumption that paying ransom invites more hostage taking. But that is refuted by a new study that examined the case of every known Western hostage taken since 911. It was co-authored by Peter Bergen, a counterterrorism expert, for the non-partisan New America Foundation.
Peter Bergen: They don’t know necessarily you’re American when they take you. It’s sort of a target of opportunity. So some countries are known to pay ransom – the French, the Germans, the Spanish.
Lesley Stahl: Even though, they don’t admit it.
Peter Bergen: They don’t admit it, but they do. Their citizens have much better outcomes than Americans. Americans are huge outliers here. You’re twice as likely to have a negative outcome compared to every other Western hostage.
Lesley Stahl: You say negative outcome. You mean murdered.
Peter Bergen: Murdered, die in captivity or just remain in captivity.
Fourteen of the European hostages held with Steven made it home. Those from countries that don’t pay ransom didn’t: four Americans and two Brits died.
Lesley Stahl: I keep playing in my own head this horrible situation where the American hostages watched the other ones be set free. And I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better if, if our government did what the European governments did, which was pay ransom but then deny it in order to save their citizens. Why couldn’t we have done that?
Lisa Monaco: We’d still be fueling their terror activity. Whether it’s hostage taking or whether it’s terrorist plots, to kill Americans here in the homeland or elsewhere, is not activity that the United States government should be in the business of funding.
Lesley Stahl: What do you say to critics of the policy of not paying ransom? That the beheadings of the Americans ended up having more value to ISIS than any money would have been. That’s really what put them on the international map. These beheading videos were a gold mine for ISIS. Do you, do you see it that way?
Lisa Monaco: I don’t. And-- I think it’s giving brutal, murderous thugs too much credit.
Lesley Stahl: What about the argument that if you pay ransom you’re just encouraging them to kidnap more? But also that the money is going to go toward terrorism. And so what’s the come back to that? It’s a hard thing.
Art Sotloff: Going back to what President Obama said to us in person that he would do anything in his power to save his children if he was in the same situation. And I say that he should put himself in the same situation. And I think that the government has a responsibility to protect its citizens in whatever way that they can.
Lesley Stahl: What do you say when you hear people argue that Steven knew he was putting his life at risk by going into Syria at that point and, you know, kinda the burden’s on him?
Art Sotloff: Steven was driven by truth. That he had to report the truth. He saw that there wasn’t information coming out of these areas. And that’s really what drove him.
In the summer of 2014, nearly a year after Steven was abducted, President Obama ordered a military operation to rescue the hostages.
Lisa Monaco: This involved a number of, a large number of military service members and special operators who—
Lesley Stahl: Putting their lives on the line.
Lisa Monaco: Putting their lives on the line. Going into the heart of ISIL territory in Syria. And as we were monitoring the operation, word came back, some very devastating words: “It’s a dry hole,” which meant that they weren’t there.
[Jihadi John: This is James Wright Foley.]
About seven weeks later, James Foley became the first of three American hostages beheaded. Steven appears at the end of the video.
[Jihadi John points knife at camera: The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision.]
The Sotloffs then received an audio message that sounds like Steven was forced to record, designed to pressure the U.S. government. It was given to them by the FBI.
Art Sotloff: This is always tough for me, because it’s actually his voice. And it just makes me feel like he’s still in the room with us.
“To Mom, I do not have much time and will probably not get this opportunity again so I would like to get straight to the point. My life depends on Obama’s next decision. Mom, please don’t let Obama kill me. Mom you can still save my life just like the families of my previous cellmates whom I’m sure you’ve met. Fight for me, I love you.”
Shirley Sotloff: Powerful.
Art Sotloff: I gotta blow my nose. I’m sorry. If I could excuse myself.
Lesley Stahl: It’s OK. It’s cruel.
Shirley Sotloff: Very. I don’t know what they wanted us to do.
Lesley Stahl: And always saying “mom” like that.
Shirley Sotloff: Mom.
Lesley Stahl: Mom, mom.
Shirley Sotloff: Yeah.
They learned of Steven’s death a few days after that.
Art Sotloff: And he’s in a much better place.
Shirley Sotloff: We know he’s in a better place.
Art Sotloff: And, you know, he isn’t suffering anymore.
A couple of months later, they met with President Obama.
Art Sotloff: I asked the president, I said, “How did you feel when my son was being held up by his neck and they were saying that this message is for you, President Obama. Steven’s life depends on your next decision. How do you feel about that?” And he looked down and he really couldn’t answer the question. I guess it’s a question that shocked him ‘cause it shocked me that I even asked him that.
Lesley Stahl: How do you feel now about what happened? Maybe your role with the families whose kids were beheaded.
Lisa Monaco: I feel like in many respects, we did not do right by these families. That we failed them.
Lesley Stahl: You feel you, you failed the families?
Lisa Monaco: We have Americans who were brutally killed.
After the beheadings, she put together a task force to review how the government handles hostage taking, that included a meeting with the families.
Lisa Monaco: It was a lot of raw emotion and a lot of frustration and grief.
Lesley Stahl: Anger at you?
Lisa Monaco: Anger at us. Anger at the loss of their loved ones. Anger at the government
One of the task force’s conclusions was that the various government agencies working on hostages were not coordinating with each other, which led to the creation of this new unit.
Led by the FBI, it brings together all the key agencies that work on hostages including the CIA, Defense and State Departments – in one place to work side by side, 24/7. They share intelligence and keep the families informed.
However, the no-ransom policy was not changed, it wasn’t even reviewed, though the Justice Department, in this public document, all but promised not to prosecute a family or their friends who do pay ransom to terrorists.
Lesley Stahl: Is it a good policy now? Are you happy with the way it has turned out?
Art Sotloff: It’s a better policy than what it was. I mean, now it gives at least people the opportunity to try to save their family members.
Lesley Stahl: Uh-huh (affirm).
Art Sotloff: But I think it’s far from really solving the problem because there is still money that has to be raised and paid. And the average family just can’t do that.
Lesley Stahl: And you think our government should.
Art Sotloff:: Absolutely.
Shirley Sotloff: It’s a human life. How do you let an American go like that, just let them be killed and murdered? Every human is valuable. Everybody has a family, and they want them to come home.
The Sotloffs have started a foundation in Steven’s memory called “2LIVES” that among other things funds safety training for freelance journalists traveling to war zones.
Today, there are still dozens of Americans being held hostage. In 12 days, Donald Trump will have to decide on the best strategy for getting them home.