WASHINGTON (AP) — Despite a U.S. ban on ransom payments to terrorists, the White House said Thursday that federal officials helping to facilitate a payment is not the same as actually paying a ransom.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest made the distinction as he declined to confirm a Wall Street Journal report that the Federal Bureau of Investigation helped the family of al-Qaida hostage Warren Weinstein pay a $250,000 ransom in 2012 in an unsuccessful bid for his release. The newspaper reported the FBI vetted a Pakistani middleman to deliver the ransom and provided intelligence to enable the exchange.
Weinstein was not released and President Barack Obama announced last week that he was accidentally killed in drone strike on an al-Qaida compound. The FBI declined to comment on the Wall Street Journal report.
Earnest defended the U.S. ban on ransom payments as a way of stopping payments to extremists to fund their terror activities. Asked whether facilitating a payment is tantamount to saying it's OK to pay ransom, Earnest replied, "Helping with a ransom payment, to use your word, is not tantamount to paying a ransom."
He said the FBI and other federal officials provide expert advice to families to bring their loved ones home.
"I'm not going to be in a position to talk in any detail of the tactics or tools that are employed by the FBI or the intelligence community or our counterterrorism professionals as they support these families," Earnest said. "But what's also true, what's undeniable is that the families, again, that are in this terrible situation are relying heavily on these government experts."
The Weinstein family also would not confirm the Wall Street Journal report. But a family spokesman issued a statement that said: "Over the three-and-a-half-year period of Warren's captivity, the family made every effort to engage with those holding him or those with the power to find and rescue him. This is an ordinary American family and they are not familiar with how one manages a kidnapping. As such, they took the advice of those in government who deal with such issues on a regular basis and were disappointed that their efforts were not ultimately successful."
U.S. law also prohibits families from paying ransom to terrorists, although it's unclear whether the Justice Department would enforce the law against desperate relatives. Earnest has declined to say whether Obama would oppose or support a change in the law and says prosecutorial decisions would be made by the Justice Department, not the White House.
"This is a painful policy, particularly if you have a family member that's being held overseas," Earnest said last week. "And the notion that by offering a concession or even a payment, that that could result in the release of your loved one, that seems like a rather attractive option. Unfortunately, this is a policy that's in place because considering options like that — paying ransom or offering a concession to a terrorist organization — may result in the saving of one innocent life, but could put countless other innocent lives at greater risk."
Associated Press writer Brett Zongker contributed to this report.
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