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Obama: "We should always do everything" for hostages

President Obama made a promise to families whose loved ones are taken hostage overseas: "We will not abandon you. We will stand by you."

After criticism that the White House didn't adequately consider the needs of U.S. hostages and their families, the president announced Wednesday a change to the way the United States deals with victims -- a change which could pave the way for hostages' families to pay ransoms.

"For these innocent men and women - tourists, journalists, humanitarians - it's a horror and a cruelty beyond description. For their families and friends it's an unrelenting nightmare that the rest of us cannot even begin to imagine," the president said Wednesday, addressing members of Congress and others who had provided input in the hostage policy review process. "As a government, we should always do everything in our power to bring these Americans home safe and to support their families."

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The president said that he had spoken with families of hostages that expressed "frequent frustrations in dealing with their own government." And after a review ordered last year, the president announced a new policy directive that would address some of those concerns, particularly in regards to hostage recovery efforts.

"Many of the changes we're announcing today are a direct result of their recommendations," Mr. Obama added, in a nod to his administration's communications with hose families. "I acknowledged to them in private what I wanted to say to them publicly - that it is true there has been times where our government, regardless of good intentions, has let them down. I promise them that we can do better."

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The presidential directive allows for the U.S. government to help facilitate communications with terrorists on behalf of the families, according to a White House fact sheet. The U.S. will continue, however, to adhere to its "no concessions" policy -- which includes directly paying ransoms to terrorists -- but emphasizes that "'no concessions' does not mean 'no communication.'"

"I firmly believe that the United states government paying ransom to terrorists risks endangering more Americans and funding the very terrorism that we are trying to stop," Mr. Obama said. "And so I firmly believe that our policy puts fewer Americans at risk."

Federal agencies will be able to communicate with "hostage-takers, intermediaries, interested governments, and local communities to attempt to secure the safe recovery of the hostage," and will also be allowed to assist in private efforts to communicate with hostage-takers.

The federal government intends to "collaborate more effectively with families by proactively sharing more information, ensuring coordinated, consistent interaction by professionals with specialized training, and that any relevant background regarding the family's particular needs is always taken into consideration," the fact sheet reads.

Though there is some confusion among families with regard to material support laws and whether families could be prosecuted if they pay ransom, a Justice Department official tells CBS News that these new changes make clear that families will not and shall not be prosecuted.

The president has also directed the creation of several new government entities to improve the government's response to hostage situations, including a permanent agency to coordinate the recovery of U.S. hostages abroad and a "family engagement team" meant to coordinate between the affected loved ones and government officials.

The president ordered the review last year after families complained about their dealings with the administration, saying they were threatened with criminal prosecution if they pursued paying ransom in exchange for their loved ones' release.

CBS News' Paula Reid contributed to this report.

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