AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Now, Theo Padnos was taken hostage in Syria in 2012. He was held for two years by al-Qaida before his release last August. His mother, Nancy Curtis, was at the White House this afternoon. She was there with other families, including former hostages. We asked her about her experience trying to obtain her son's release.
NANCY CURTIS: Initially, all we knew was that he had vanished, and we had no idea what had happened to him. I didn't know where to begin. I didn't know whom to call. I called family members. I began getting names and numbers. I called a friend who was a reporter who knew Theo and had been with him in the Middle East, and I started collecting names and numbers.
CORNISH: But you're basically cold-calling around the government.
CURTIS: I'm cold-calling. I had no idea who was in charge. And it took me quite a while before I figured out that I needed to talk to the FBI.
CORNISH: You've spoken positively of your experience with the FBI.
CURTIS: Absolutely. Yes.
CORNISH: Other families have not been able to speak so positively about their exchanges with the FBI in this process. Help us understand some of the challenges families face as they are going back and forth with the government and with whoever may be trying to help them negotiate the recovery of their loved one.
CURTIS: Well, I think there were a lot of conflicting messages. First thing we had to decide was were we going to go public with this and go to the media. And we decided absolutely not. That's what everybody told us, that it would be to your disadvantage and open you up to charlatans and undesired media contacts. But we went to Washington, and I met with the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs. And she mentioned that paying a ransom could open you to prosecution. But I was fortunately there with a lawyer from David Bradley's office - David Bradley of Atlantic Media. And she said, but no American family has ever been prosecuted for paying ransom. So I just didn't worry about that. I think other families got different messages.
CORNISH: What were some of the concerns you expressed in the review, the things you thought the government had to deal with?
CURTIS: I think that the lower-down bureaucracy, particularly in the State Department, was unresponsive. I kind of got the feeling that, I'm sorry to be bothering you. You know, your son has gone and gotten himself in trouble. I think these are intelligent, compassionate people who have experience. I think - in retrospect, I think they were shackled and didn't feel free to speak, whereas the FBI was able to share information with me. They worked with me and my team. The agent was very protective of me. So I was protected from the really grizzly stuff, and that kept me strong.
CORNISH: While the president, today, said that the government, going forward, would definitely be able to help families and their communications with captors and things like that, he reminded the public that the U.S. government would not offer any concessions to captors and would not pay ransoms. How do you feel about that policy not changing?
CURTIS: I was very moved by the president today. He spoke as a father and a husband. He said, I completely understand how the families feel about that, and I would feel the same way if that were to happen to me. I am also the president of the United States, and I am responsible for the safety of the American people. And we see that large sums of money paid to terrorists support terrorist operations and become a business model.
CORNISH: In the end, Theo Padnos was handed to U.N. peacekeepers when he was released. And I don't know if you want to talk about whether or not you were offered a ransom, whether you considered paying a ransom. Do you think these changes would have made a difference?
CURTIS: I - of course I would have paid a ransom. The amount of money I could have been able to put together was paltry. I understand - I knew about the American policy. I knew that wasn't going to change. It was hard - very painful to see the French and Spanish and Italian people getting out, and our kids were not, but I knew that that policy wasn't going to change.
CORNISH: You've called the president's announcement today a good beginning...
CORNISH: ...A good start.
CORNISH: Where would you have liked to have seen it go? Do you think he could have gone farther in how he went about some of these policies?
CURTIS: They were so honest in their concern about how things had gone badly for these families. They apologized over and over again. They said, yes, we can do better, and we are taking steps to make it be better. And let's just see how the policy works out as time goes on. I think that they are open to making adjustments, and I hope they will be less rigid in the future.
CORNISH: Nancy Curtis - her son Theo Padnos was taken hostage in Syria for two years before his release last August. We spoke to her about the president's announcement today. Thank you so much for talking with us.
CURTIS: Thank you for inviting me.
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