Debra and Marc Tice, parents of freelance journalist Austin Tice, arrive for a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 5, 2015.

Debra and Marc Tice, parents of freelance journalist Austin Tice, arrive for a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 5, 2015. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

House Passes Amendment Requiring Obama To Pick a Hostage Coordinator

As the White House continues to review its policies concerning kidnapped U.S. citizens, the House may force its hand.

The article has been updated.

A bit more than one thousand days into the captivity of American journalist and Marine Corps veteran Austin Tice, the House passed an amendment late Thursday to require President Obama to pick a coordinator to manage hostage recovery across federal agencies.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., perhaps the loudest critic of the Obama administration’s strategy toward hostages, pushed hard for the bipartisan proposal, which passed on a voice vote as an amendment to the House's version of the annual defense authorization bill, or NDAA. It would create a federal “Interagency Hostage Recovery Coordinator” to “coordinate efforts to secure the release of United States persons who are hostages of hostile groups or state sponsors of terrorism.”

Hunter introduced the proposal as a separate bill in March. The House's fiscal 2016 NDAA, which now carries the measure, will be conferenced with its counterpart in the Senate. The NDAA is considered must-pass, must-sign legislation.

The U.S. government has established a policy of “not negotiating with terrorists,” or paying for the release of U.S. citizens taken hostage, arguing that such payments would simply lead to more kidnappings.

But this policy has drawn increasing criticism in the wake of high-profile killings of hostages taken by the Islamic State and other terrorist groups — and most recently, the inadvertent killing of two hostages, one American, by a U.S. drone strike. Hunter and other critics have derided the government’s efforts to free hostages as insufficiently resourced, poorly organized and insensitive to the families of kidnapping victims.

The amendment seeks to establish and maintain “correct lines of authority” for a central, inter-agency “fusion cell” of personnel overseeing each hostage situation. It also would require a plan to keep family members informed in such a way that doesn’t “compromise the national security of the United States.” The authority of the leading officer would be limited to “countries that are state sponsors of terrorism and areas designated as hazardous for which hostile fire and imminent danger pay are payable to members of the Armed Forces for duty performed in such area.” The coordinator would be required to report to Congress quarterly on the status of hostage cases.  

While the White House has defended its hostage policy, the administration announced in April it had undertaken a review. A few weeks ago, White House spokesman Josh Earnest announced the administration is considering a similar “fusion cell,” a team made up of officials from the FBI, Defense Department and Intelligence Community to both communicate with the families of hostages and work toward their release.  

On Tuesday, National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan marked Tice’s 1,000th day in captivity, saying, “The United States government will continue to work tirelessly to bring Austin home to his parents, Debra and Marc, and his brothers and sisters, who have endured anguish and suffering since Austin’s abduction.”

In a Thursday speech on the Senate floor, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the majority whip, indicated some support for legislative reforms to the U.S. hostage policy. “I join the Tice family encouraging the federal government to do everything we can to possibly secure Austin's safe return home,” he said. “And I also want to say once again to his family: We haven't given up, we will continue to stand by you, and we will never give up until we find your son and bring him safely home.”

Tice’s case, in particular, is complicated by the belief he may be held by the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, as indicated by Meehan’s thanks to the Czech government’s work on the U.S. government’s behalf. The Czechs serve as the U.S. protecting power in Syria, as the U.S. has broken off diplomatic relations with Assad.

In answer to security concerns and perhaps anticipating opposition from intelligence agencies such as the FBI, under whose purview many hostage cases fall, Hunter’s amendment included the following language: “Nothing in this section shall be construed as authorizing the Federal Government to negotiate with a state sponsor of terrorism or an organization that the Secretary of State has designated as a foreign terrorist organization.”

In March, Defense Secretary Ash Carter told Hunter, "We do need a choreographer when that time comes to bring all those pieces together.”