An amendment passed by the House of Representatives Thursday would require President Barack Obama to name an official to oversee the handling of Americans held by terrorists abroad.
The amendment affects the annual defense budget, and would create an “Interagency Hostage Recovery Coordinator” to rescue Americans held abroad. The House’s version of the budget bill, called the National Defense Authorization Act, passed Friday.
California Rep. Duncan Hunter, the amendment’s sponsor, has criticized the government’s approach to hostages held by terrorist groups since the case of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl first came to light in 2013. Joe Kasper, the California Republican’s chief of staff, told The Daily Caller News Foundation that “within that context, we were able to see very closely how dysfunctional things were” as various government agencies scrambled to manage Bergdahl’s extraction from Taliban captivity with little coordination — “all freelancing and doing their own thing.”
In the case of Bergdahl’s imprisonment, Kasper says, government action was relatively straightforward: his extraction was the responsibility of the Department of Defense, since “he wore the uniform of the United States.” But the White House instead opted to pursue the prisoner-swap option that the State Department advocated, according to Kasper.
Since then, the plights of several American citizens have strained government resources. The FBI has formal jurisdiction over hostage cases involving all U.S. civilians anywhere in the world. But when intelligence or diplomacy considerations get in the way, rescue plans or communication with families can break down. (RELATED: American Deaths Spark Dispute Over Official Hostage Policy)
In the most recent case of an American hostage’s handling going awry, 73-year-old U.S. aid worker Warren Weinstein died during a CIA drone strike on the al-Qaida compound where he was held prisoner. Kasper suggested to TheDCNF that if the CIA were able to share its planned strikes with the FBI officers tracking his whereabouts, Weinstein’s death might not have taken place: “the tragedy is that there was no communication or coordination.”
The Wall Street Journal reported shortly after Weinstein’s death announcement that the FBI helped his family pay a ransom to al-Qaida, which may contradict longstanding U.S. law that forbids direct government negotiation with terrorists.
Hunter has said that the Department of Defense is uniquely well-equipped to help free Americans held by, as his amendment describes them, “hostile groups or state sponsors of terrorism.” In previous statements, he has highlighted the work of Lt. Col. Jason Amerine, an Army veteran who helped shape the Pentagon’s plan to free Bergdahl.
Kasper told TheDCNF that Amerine would be a suitable candidate for the proposed job, though he pointed out that the coordinator would head a “fusion cell” in which various agencies would share intelligence and resources.
He also insisted that the proposed official would not be a “czar” with an extensive office of his own. “We’re not keen on czars,” he said, “and we didn’t need to create more layer of bureaucracy.”
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