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U.S. Clarifies Hostage Policy, Saying It Won't Prosecute Families Over Ransom

Better communication with the families of kidnapped Americans — and a pledge that those relatives won't face criminal charges if they pay ransoms — are at the heart of an update to the U.S. federal hostage policy, released Wednesday.

The updated policy follows a review of U.S. protocols sparked by high-profile hostage-taking in recent years. Saying that "a significant shift" in how criminal and terrorist groups deal with hostages "has challenged the ability of the U.S. Government to secure the safe recovery of American citizens," the report stated: "Simply put, our approach has not kept up with this changed environment."

More than 30 Americans are currently being held hostage overseas, the White House says.

President Obama is discussing the changes at a midday event at the White House. We'll update this post with news from that event.

Update at 12:35 p.m. ET: Families Face 'Nightmare,' President Obama Says

Saying that more than 80 Americans have been taken hostage since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President Obama describes what he calls a "nightmare" that families and hostages endure.

Of these more than 80 cases, more than half have come home — but, the president said, "Tragically, too many others have not."

Obama says he has heard complaints from families of hostages who have been frustrated as they navigate a warren of federal agencies — and who have sometimes been confronted with the threat of criminal charges, due to the idea that paying ransom provides material support to terrorists.

"That's totally unacceptable," Obama said.

He later added, "These families have suffered enough, and they should never feel ignored or victimized by their own government."

Obama's announcement today came after he and other senior advisers met with both family members and former hostages who took part in a broad review of the U.S. policy.

The president quoted Diane Foley, the mother of slain freelance journalist James Foley, who said after her son died, "As Americans, we can do better."

"I totally agree," Obama said. "We must do better."

Our original post continues:

The Obama administration says the federal government will continue to try to prevent hostage situations, and to resolve them — but the Justice Department also clarifies that it "does not intend to add to families' pain in such cases by suggesting that they could face criminal prosecution."

The agency adds that it "has never used the material support statute to prosecute a hostage's family or friends for paying a ransom for the safe return of their loved one."

NPR's Scott Horsley reports, "Several families say they've been threatened with that in the past, making a painful ordeal that much harder."

Much of the new updates have to do with better communication and coordination with hostages' families.

Scott says Obama "signed a policy directive setting up a new office within the FBI to coordinate efforts throughout the government to win release of hostages."

The government says it will "work closely with a hostage's family in a coordinated manner and will proactively share as much information as possible with the family," given the security and investigative constraints under which it operates in abduction cases.

The White House says the policy updates follow recommendations made after a comprehensive review of U.S. policy was ordered at the end of 2014.

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