US government threatened Foley family with prosecution

The parents of James Foley, the journalist beheaded by ISIS/ISIL, have given out some disturbing information. They say that a senior White House official threatened them with prosecution if they paid a ransom for their son’s release.

The mother of slain American journalist James Foley said she wasn’t necessarily surprised that the U.S. government threatened her family with prosecution should they raise money to pay her son’s ransom, but she was astounded by how such a devastating message was delivered.

“I was surprised there was so little compassion,” Diane Foley told ABC News today of the three separate warnings she said U.S. officials gave the family about the illegality of paying ransom to the terror group ISIS. “It just made me realize that these people talking to us had no idea what it was like to be the family of someone abducted… I’m sure [the U.S. official] didn’t mean it the way he said it, but we were between a rock and a hard place. We were told we could do nothing… meanwhile our son was being beaten and tortured every day.”

Earlier this week five current and former officials with direct knowledge of the Foley case confirmed the alleged threats were made.

The issue of paying ransom for hostages is a deeply fraught one. One can understand the argument that paying the ransom increases the chances of other hostages being taken. But it is a bit much for the government to expect the family of a hostage to take a dispassionate long-term view and be willing to sacrifice their family member for the hypothetical well-being of possible future hostages. For the family, this is the only hostage they care about.

It is one thing for the government to have an official policy against paying ransoms. But the family of a hostage should not be bound by that policy. One may discourage them but to go so far as to threaten them with prosecution is wrong. Family ties are very strong and anguished members want to feel they did everything they could to get their loved ones out of harm’s way.


  1. jedibear says

    I disagree. One reason we have laws is to discourage people from making emotional decisions that place others in danger. It is therefore *precisely* because this is the only hostage they care about that this sort of thing *is* appropriate.

    Or I guess alternatively we could accept the taking of hostages and the payment of ransom as a routine part of modern life. There’s a whole insurance industry to be built on this sort of tragedy.

    I feel sorry for them. That’s a terrible situation to be in, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say threats of prosecution are wrong, or that a prosecution after the fact would have been wrong.

  2. eddiejones says

    I dunno, I can see validity to both sides. However, the “long-term dispassionate view that paying the ransom increases the likelihood of another hostage being taken” is not applicable in this case.
    1) IS does not need the Foley’s money and it would be an insignificant amount compared to the resources they have
    2) IS did not kidnap Foley for ransom, they did so to use his death as a political statement and
    3) These arguments aside, when the likelihood of another hostage being taken is 100%, that effect of paying the ransom becomes irrelevant.

  3. Ed says

    I think the complaint was more about how the warning was given; as if the parents were considering making a donation to ISIS out of respect for it or something. There is a certain way you should talk to grieving people.

    I understand why it’s illegal to make such payments, but also could see fear for a close relative, especially one’s offspring, as an extenuating circumstance. There are also probably ways to interfere with an attempt at making the payment without punishing the person.

    Unless they are ultra-rich, or extremely clever with money laundering, someone suspiciously moving a large amount of money would be noticeable through fairly light, unobtrusive surveillance.

    Being too harsh with parents in this situation would be bad for public morale. It would be like trying a soldier for treason because they confessed information under torture. The other soldiers would know that they might not be able to hold out under torture either and this would effect their feelings toward the establishment.

    A government that can’t at least create the illusion of concern for its people in dire situations weakens itself.

    These are arguments supporting my natural moral intuition that punishing them would be wrong, but I think they make sense. They are not mere rationalizations, but are admittedly rooted in both thought and strong feeling. I’m not sure how much loyalty I could feel to a system that made such threats against me or anyone I cared about.

  4. says

    The issue of paying ransom for hostages is a deeply fraught one. One can understand the argument that paying the ransom increases the chances of other hostages being taken.

    The government’s actions, here, are so much reeking bullshit.

    For one thing, the government was willing to trade prisoners out of Guantanamo for Berghdal — so it’s pretty clear that they don’t have a problem with paying ransom for hostages. They only want to do it for soldiers, apparently.

    Secondly, the argument that paying ransom only encourages them may carry some weight but it carries the same weight as the argument that torturing prisoners in US custody is going to increase the likelihood that captured Americans will be tortured in return. Which, as we have seen, is pretty much right. The shitheads in Washington want to have it both ways, which simply doesn’t work.

  5. says

    PS – ISIS got about $500 million from the banks when they took over Mosul. They don’t need money. What they wanted was attention and acquiescence and to make the US Government look bad. If it was one of my family members, I would cheerfully provide all of those.

  6. dean says

    Is there any reason to believe that had the ransom been paid ISIS would have returned their son? These folks (ISIS) don’t strike me as the most reliable.

  7. sailor1031 says

    Absent any, any at all, action or even proposal by the US government to obtain freedom of hostages, I don’t think same government has any legitimate complaint about families doing whatever they can to help their kidnapped member. It’s past time to rein in the emperor.

  8. Mano Singham says


    According to the Guardian and the NYT, close to two dozen hostages from other countries have been released by the group after ransom was paid. Of course, the US and UK are seen as more of an enemy by the group so we don’t really know if it would have worked in these cases.

  9. lorn says

    I understand their distress and feeling put upon by the government but dealing with international terrorism is a national concern where a united front is vital. That said, I really doubt they would really go after them if they negotiated ransom through back channels and made the trade. Once done it is done.

    Unfortunately the Europeans have long made it a regularity that ransom are paid. Kidnapping and hostage taking are highly profitable and the profits typically go toward more kidnapping and gaining local power through violence. Warlords and insurgencies in the Philippines and Somalia make a good part of the money they need to keep their reign of violence going through piracy and kidnapping.

    Cutting their source of funds would go a very long way toward draining the swamp.

  10. Ed says

    I agree that there are places where hostage taking and ransom payments have become almost an accepted social and economic institution, but the higher level Jihadist groups are financed by wealthy patrons, religious organizations and governments. ISIS also has the power in certain areas to simply take what it wants by direct force.

    The constant executions and display of captives is unfortunately a big part of their method of operation. They may let a few families buy their people’s freedom, but much more than ransom money they need to keep up the killings as propaganda to impress their supporters and intimidate their enemies.

    Also, contacting them or an intermediary is presumably difficult and dangerous. It’s not like they have identifiable offices scattered around the world for convenient payment or a publicly available phone hotline (Visa and Master Card accepted).

    Persecuting a few desperate people who manage to make a deal with them would be a typical government diversion tactic. A manufactured moral panic to justify some new load of crap (the nice couple next door could be sending money to ISIS!!!!).

  11. says

    Is there any reason to believe that had the ransom been paid ISIS would have returned their son?

    Even if it’s just a battle of public relations, if you give them what they want and they kill the hostage anyway, they’re going to damage their credibility and be viewed less sympathetically.

    They should do press releases like the DoD does when it kills some ‘terrorist’ and a half dozen bystanders with a drone strike, instead of releasing the head-cutting videos. Because press releases is how civilized terrorists operate, apparently.

  12. says

    Cutting their source of funds would go a very long way toward draining the swamp.

    Idiot. ISIS got about $500 million from the banks in Mosul, and are using weaponry they were given by the US (via the Iraqi army) They are selling oil through Turkey — their balance sheets probably look pretty fair.

  13. Paulo Borges says

    I have a daughter and I gotta be honest, if I was ever in a similar situation, I would do everything and anything to get her back. I really doubt if in cases like these the threat of criminal prosecution will even make a dent on a parents resolution.
    From the state point of view I agree with the policy of non negotiation on hostage situations.

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