Lawmakers ‘disappointed’ with hostage policy reforms push legislation – CNN
Washington (CNN)Capitol Hill lawmakers on Tuesday slammed the anticipated White House hostage policy review and are pushing for more aggressive oversight of efforts to free Americans seized abroad.
A bipartisan group of House and Senate members is charging that the White House — expected to release new guidelines Wednesday on how to support Americans held hostage by terror groups — isn’t going far enough.
Two Republicans and two Democrats are introducing legislation that would appoint an independent director to oversee an inter-agency task force focused on locating and recovering American hostages, a direct challenge to the White House’s plans to create an inter-agency cell that would be overseen by a senior FBI official.
The lawmakers believe an independent director with the ability to pull resources from any of the agencies currently involved — the State Department, FBI, Pentagon and CIA — should oversee the effort rather than the FBI.
Rep. John Delaney, a Democrat from Maryland whose constituents include the family of Warren Weinstein, a hostage accidentally killed in a U.S. drone strike in January, told CNN on Tuesday that he is “disappointed” in the White House’s plans.
Delaney’s Republican counterpart, Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, called the White House reforms “window dressing” and “a pathetic response to a serious problem” in a statement on Tuesday.
“I think it’s short-sighted,” Delaney said in a phone interview. “The report makes clear is that we haven’t done a good job here … When you have a problem you’ve got to stop with incremental solutions and you need more of a wholesale solution.”
The White House on Wednesday will unveil changes to its hostage policy designed to streamline communication with families and the government’s efforts to locate and free the hostages, a source briefed on the policy review and a senior administration official told CNN on Tuesday. It will also give the government more leeway to negotiate with terrorist organizations holding hostages, the source briefed on the policy review said.
President Barack Obama will also establish a “Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell,” an inter-agency body including officials from the State Department and Pentagon overseen by a senior FBI official.
Hunter and Delaney insisted, though, that putting the FBI — or any agency that is part of the taskforce — in charge of the inter-agency cell would do little to streamline the government’s efforts to free hostages, instead allowing bureaucratic logjams to continue.
The lawmakers, who were both interviewed by the hostage review taskforce, previously pushed the creation of the inter-agency task force in an amendment to the defense spending bill earlier this year.
“The fact that the FBI has retained the leadership role within the fusion cell ignores the long list of mistakes and grievances presented over the duration of the review,” Hunter said. “There needs to be a single person situated above the fusion cell, with the authority necessary to direct certain activities, isolate turf battles, and streamline the bureaucracy.”
Hunter added that “there’s no chance that the FBI will have the authority to direct either (the State Department or Defense Department).”
“Among all the issues I believed the White House could get right, this was one. I was wrong,” said Hunter, who has been highly critical of the administration’s swap of five Taliban prisoners for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
Sens. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, and John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, introduced the Senate bill Tuesday to establish an independent director of the inter-agency taskforce.
“The weeks, months and years of silence about a loved-one’s well-being are unbearable, and we need to do more to help those here in the U.S. waiting for answers and to ensure some unity of effort by the Federal Government,” Cornyn said in a statement.
“Too frequently, the suffering families of hostages were left in the dark, unsure who in government was working exclusively to ensure the safe return home of their loved ones,” Cardin said in a statement to CNN.
Cardin and his staff helped Weinstein family members navigate government agencies as they tried to free Warren.
“Maryland resident Elaine Weinstein and her family experienced incredible heartache while their beloved Warren was abducted and held by terrorists. There are no remedies to the pain the Weinsteins and other affected families have endured, but we must as a nation respond more effectively to these tragedies. That is why this legislation is so vital,” Cardin said.