For Families Of U.S. Hostages, New Policy May Bring New Hope This week, President Obama announced changes to the government policy on Americans abducted abroad. A former FBI hostage negotiator explains what this means for the hostages — and for their families.
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For Families Of U.S. Hostages, New Policy May Bring New Hope

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For Families Of U.S. Hostages, New Policy May Bring New Hope

For Families Of U.S. Hostages, New Policy May Bring New Hope

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Imagine a loved one has been taken hostage by terrorists. The captors demand a ransom. Don't pay and your loved one could die. Do pay and you could be prosecuted. That was the dilemma faced by some families in the U.S. But a recent surge in high-profile hostage cases prompted a review of U.S. policy. And this week, the Obama administration announced some changes. Gary Noesner is a former chief negotiator for the FBI. He participated in the government's review. He says the changes could make an important difference for the more than 30 Americans currently held captive abroad.

GARY NOESNER: I think the new policy helps to streamline the process to give the family information on a more timely basis to declassify information so additional data can be shared with the families and stepping up the coordination within the government. In the past, there were too many different entities talking to the families and sometimes unwittingly transmitting different messages and creating some confusion.

RATH: And one of the policy changes is that the government will not be prosecuting families who pay ransom to get their loved ones back. How much will letting families pay ransoms increase the chances they will get their loved ones home?

NOESNER: I think it could have a significant impact. The government never has prosecuted a family member for paying a ransom. And it's extremely unlikely that they ever would have. However, the confusion, you know, that the families had over hearing these admonitions from the government I think really stifled some of their efforts to try to reach out and open a dialogue with kidnappers. You know, typically, kidnappers are looking for money - even terrorist kidnappers. And shutting that off as a line of discussion has not been helpful in the families' efforts to find additional information or even perhaps resolving an incident. So I think this will give families greater latitude in how they try to resolve these situations and get the safe release of their loved ones.

RATH: You left the agency in 2003. But based on your experience in the past, how would having the ransom option - how would that have strengthened your hand in earlier negotiations?

NOESNER: Well, I have a very clear record of that. You know, from 1990 to 2003, the unit that I headed, the Crisis Negotiation Unit, managed over 120 of these kidnappings. And we had a 98 percent success rate. In almost all of these cases, a ransom payment was made by a family or a company. In those days, the FBI would assist the families, not by giving them the money but by helping them do it in a smart way, both with the negotiations and - and their other interactions with the kidnappers. And we moved away from that in the last decade or so and had absorbed a more restrictive view of what the government could do to help families. And this appears to me to be a step back towards the successful way we did it in the past, and I think that's welcome.

RATH: We've seen reports that many European governments not working with those restrictions have successfully exchanged ransoms for hostages. Do you think, bottom line, this change in policy will mean more American hostages will be coming back home alive?

NOESNER: Well, I certainly hope so. I do not agree with what some foreign countries have done in terms of making very, very large ransom payments that do materially benefit a terrorist group. And I think that's a very dangerous slope for a government - a slippery slope for a government to go out on.

However, when families are faced with no alternative to get the safe release of their loved one, their flexibility needs to be what hopefully it will become now. And the expectations of kidnappers will be significantly less than if they were expecting to get a huge payoff from a government. Families just don't have those kind of financial resources. You know, no one wants to see kidnappers benefit from crimes. However, the reality is that absent the payment of money in most cases, your loved one simply is not going to come out alive. And that puts families in a tremendous dilemma.

RATH: Gary Noesner is a former chief negotiator for the FBI and author of "Stalling For Time." Gary, thanks very much.

NOESNER: You're welcome, Arun. It was a pleasure.

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