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Weinstein death renews spotlight on U.S. hostage policy

The death of Warren Weinstein, the American man who was held hostage by al Qaeda and accidentally killed by a U.S. drone strike against the terror group, has raised fresh questions about what the U.S. government can do to rescue its citizens who are kidnapped abroad.

Weinstein was captured from his home in Lahore, Pakistan in 2011. He was the country director for J.E. Austin Associates, a U.S.-based firm that did aid work inside the country. In a statement after his death was made public, Weinstein's wife, Elaine, was very critical of the government's efforts to rescue her husband.

"Unfortunately, the assistance we received from other elements of the U.S. Government was inconsistent and disappointing over the course of three and a half years," she said. "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."

CBS News Senior National Security Analyst Juan Zarate, who used to oversee U.S. hostage policy for the White House as the deputy National Security Adviser under former President George W. Bush, said it is one of the hardest issues for officials to deal with.

"The U.S. government is in a position where it can't necessarily share all information with the families as to what's being done to try to locate and recover their loved ones," Zarate said. "At the same time, the family members have a right to understand what's being done and a right to demand of their government every possible means and effort to get their loved ones back."

Zarate said the latest crisis is likely to accelerate and amplify an ongoing review of U.S. hostage policy. President Obama ordered the review in November 2014 after several American hostages were beheaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The comprehensive review, according to Christine Wormuth, undersecretary of Defense for policy, will have a "specific emphasis on examining family engagement, intelligence collection, and diplomatic engagement policies. The review will seek to integrate innovative and non-traditional solutions to result in recommended actions to improve interagency coordination and strengthen the whole-of-government approach led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the State Department."

Zarate said the review should address the state of American intelligence gathering, its ability to recover hostages, and its policies for holding discussions with terror groups. Unlike many European countries, the U.S. will not pay ransom for its hostages who are taken captive by militant groups abroad.

"The reality is that in these crisis zones in particular, when Americans are in the environment, when hostage taking is part of the terrorist methodology and actual fundraising as well, that clearly puts any Westerner, to include Americans, at risk," Zarate said.

"When they know Americans can be used for propaganda purposes and as pawns, that sort of heightens the value of them, and so all of that has to be weighed as you think about a hostage policy review. You don't want to incentivize anybody to take Americans as hostages," he said.

The U.S. stance on hostages has been further complicated by a prisoner swap in 2014 when the American government traded five Afghan detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison for Bowe Bergahl, the only American soldier held prisoner in Afghanistan.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California, said in a statement Tuesday that Weinstein might have been returned to the U.S. as part of the deal that freed Bergdahl. But the person in charge of developing the mission was sidelined outside of the Pentagon, he said.

"Warren Weinstein did not have to die," Hunter said in a statement. "His death is further evidence of the failures in communication and coordination between government agencies tasked with recovering Americans in captivity--and the fact that he's dead, as a result, is absolutely tragic."

Hunter said the FBI is incapable of fulfilling its mission of leading hostage rescue efforts in hostile areas, and the CIA's focus is not on the successful recovery of Americans who are held captive. He called once again for an interagency coordinator to take the lead on hostage recovery "in order to ensure there's effective and constructive engagement at all levels."

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.