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Yes, the U.S. government doesn't pay ransom for hostages

The United States doesn't typically pay ransom. However, the FBI is able to communicate and even negotiate with kidnappers.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — It has been a week and a half since a group of 17 missionaries was kidnapped by a gang in Haiti. Among them, a West Michigan mother and her four children.

Western countries, like the United States, traditionally don't pay for the release of citizens, but legal experts are saying this case is different.  

13 ON YOUR SIDE viewers reached out to find out if the government would get involved in this case.

THE QUESTION

Viewers have heard that the U.S. government doesn't pay ransom for hostages. Is that true?

THE SOURCES

  • Public Report of the Vice President's Task Force on Combatting Terrorism of 1986 
  • The USA Patriot Act
  • Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996
  • Michael McDaniel, Director of Homeland Law at the WMU-Cooley Law School. He previously served at the Pentagon as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Homeland Defense Strategy, Prevention and Mission Assurance. 

THE ANSWER

   

This is true.

Yes, the United States doesn't pay ransom to release hostages. However, there are ways for certain branches of the government to communicate and even negotiate with kidnappers.

WHAT WE FOUND

"America will never make concessions to terrorists," Former President Ronald Reagan said in 1985. "To do so would only invite more terrorism."

The rule against negotiating with terrorists is more of an executive policy than a legislatively created statute, but in the Public Report of the Vice President's Task Force on Combatting Terrorism, written in February 1986 by George H.W. Bush, the current policy was stated as follows:

The U.S. Government will make no concessions to terrorists. It will not pay ransoms, release prisoners, change its policies or agree to other acts that might encourage additional terrorism. At the same time, the United States will use every available resource to gain the safe return of American citizens who are held hostage by terrorists.  

About a decade later, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 added that section to the criminal code. The 18 US Code §2339B prohibits facilitating material support to designated foreign terrorist organizations when discussing no ransom nor negotiations with terror groups who kidnap US persons for money. 

"Before September 11, nobody really talked about homeland security," McDaniel said. "After September 11, everybody talked about."

Signed into law by former President George W. Bush in 2001, the USA Patriot Act was dedicated to strengthening homeland security, especially in relation to terrorism. In part, the legislation expanded surveillance, allowed interagency communication and increased penalties for crimes, according to the Act. 

So when 17 missionaries, 16 Americans and one Canadian, were kidnapped and are being held hostage in Haiti, how to retrieve the victims became the topic of every conversation about the crime. 

RELATED: 'Jaw-dropping': Vigil held for West Michigan missionaries kidnapped, held hostage in Haiti

"Under federal law, it's a crime to support a foreign terrorist organization that has been designated so by the federal government," McDaniel said. "So not only wouldn't the government assist in paying ransom, which they don't do, they wouldn't even assist in negotiations, because they would not want to be supportive of a foreign terror organization." 

But there are a few reasons why this specific case is different and deals a lot with the words "terrorist" and "support." 

Mawozo, the gang that kidnapped the missionaries, is not a U.S.-designated terrorist organization. Terrorists have the main goal of sending a message to a government or major corporation, McDaniel said. Whereas this gang falls into a criminal enterprise, as they're only seeking money. 

The group of missionaries is being held hostage with a $1 million ransom over each person, according to the White House. 

"So there are a couple of things for your viewers to understand," he said. "Even though the US government does not pay ransom, they will support the negotiations. So it's not the State Department, it's the FBI that is in the lead."

The State Department can't fund kidnappers' endeavors by paying ransom, but law enforcement can communicate with them. Due to a legal change in the kidnapping statute, the FBI has been behind the scenes in these types of cases for decades.

In 1995, the State Department reiterated that "the US government will make no concessions to terrorists holding official or private US citizens hostage." 

That includes paying ransom, releasing prisoners, changing policies or anything that could encourage this behavior, however the government hasn't always followed that policy.

Reagan, despite claiming to be against negotiating with terrorists during the time of the Iran-Contra affair, bargained with US-designated terror group Hezbollah. He provided weapons to the Middle Eastern paramilitary group in order to release seven American hostages.

In more recent years, changes in laws allow for communication and even negotiation with kidnappers. 

"In 2015, they created, within the FBI, a hostage rescue fusion center," he added. "The concept of a fusion center is that you have lots of different agencies providing information. So at the Hostage Rescue Fusion Center at the FBI Headquarters, they have a separate intelligence and communication center. 

"Whether it's overseas, or if it's in internal domestic to the United States, they're involved. So the reason for a fusion center is for this information sharing that means even if the FBI is the lead, they are going to call upon the State Department, they're going to call upon the Department of Defense, they can call upon the resources of any federal agency that has a global or international reach and might be of assistance, as well as work directly with our foreign partners."

So if there is more flexibility within the law, and numerous politicians have negotiated with terrorists anyway, why not just pay the ransom?

"That's one of the things that they're looking for, is to be able to show that they are holding the Great Satan (a nickname for the U.S.), at their arm's length," he said. "That they're able to negotiate with them as equal partners gives them greater credibility and assist with recruiting."

The US Military rarely intercedes in hostage rescues, as typically the FBI will work with the foreign country and their local police force to learn about the organization, locate the hostages and make contact with the kidnappers, he added. 

Just spending $17 million for 16 Americans and one Canadian doesn't seem like a ton of money for the Western countries to pay, but he says it is about principle.

"The reason is we're trying to keep the demand for US citizens as hostages to a minimum," he said. If I can analogize, like any merchant, they're trying to turn over their merchandise quickly, right? They're looking for a quicker profit, they don't want to drag things out for six months, the longer that negotiations last longer, they have to have some form of infrastructure in place to support the hostages."

For that reason, McDaniel believes the Haiti hostage victims are in a better position to be rescued alive than if they were being held by a terrorist organization. This group just wants a financial transaction, not to push a political agenda. Typically when hostages get killed, it is from a terrorist organization, he said.

If you have a question you want Morgan Trau and the 13 ON YOUR SIDE VERIFY Team to look into, email Verify@13onyourside.com. You can also text the word VERIFY to 616-559-1310.

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