By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - While U.S. policy bans federal officials from doing business with kidnappers, the FBI for years has used a secret exemption to government rules to communicate with hostage-takers and sometimes send money to them, U.S. government sources said.
Under a directive issued by President George W. Bush in 2002, the FBI can engage with suspected kidnappers, including on financial transactions, when the bureau has reason to believe it would be useful for an investigation or intelligence gathering.
The rules apply to both criminal situations inside the United States and international incidents such as kidnappings, two sources familiar with the rules said.
The issue has become contentious following a series of kidnappings of Americans by Middle East groups, including Islamic State militants in Syria, and amid anger among some family members about a strict U.S. policy against paying ransoms.
The government sources said one reason the exemption was inserted in the rules was to enable the Federal Bureau of Investigation, where appropriate, to use money as a "lure" during an investigation intended to catch hostage-takers.
But one of the sources said over the years the FBI had used the exemption so regularly that it has widened to the point where "you could drive a truck through it."
None of the government sources would discuss specific cases where ransoms were paid with the FBI's involvement.
The Wall Street Journal said on Wednesday that the FBI in 2012 helped the family of American hostage Warren Weinstein vet a Pakistani middleman who transported a ransom to al Qaeda in an unsuccessful attempt to get him released. Weinstein was killed inadvertently in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan in January.
After beheadings of a number of western hostages in Syria were posted on social media last summer, the U.S. government initiated a review of its policies for dealing with hostage incidents and hostage families.
It was unclear whether the exception for FBI engagement, including in financial transactions, was part of the review, which is being led by the National Counterterrorism Center.
Sources close to hostage families said that the FBI had been involved in negotiations to free hostages for "decades," and that the bureau had been involved in helping families to arrange and transmit ransom payments to kidnappers.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Wednesday that the government's "no ransom" policy was unchanged but added: "Speaking generally, helping with a ransom payment, to use your word, is not tantamount to paying a ransom."
A spokesman for Obama's National Security Council declined to comment on the policy exception. Spokespeople for the FBI, Justice Department and National Counterterrorism Center had no immediate comment.
Some families of U.S. hostages killed in Syria say a White House official threatened them with possible prosecution if they paid ransoms to militants who the U.S. regards as terrorists. The official has now left the White House, U.S. officials said.
In the future, they said, government officials will try to ensure that while the anti-ransom policy remains, no threats of prosecution would be directed at families.
(Reporting by Mark Hosenball; Additional reporting by David Rohde; Editing by David Storey and Howard Goller)