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President Obama Announces Change in Hostage Policy; South Carolina Honors Clementa Pinckney As He Lies In Repose In State Capital Building. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired June 24, 2015 - 12:30   ET


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: For their families and for their friends, it's an unrelenting nightmare that the rest of us cannot even begin to imagine.

[12:30:01] As a government, we should always do everything in our power to bring these Americans home safe and to support their families.

Dedicated public servants across our government work tirelessly to do so.

Our military personnel risk their lives in dangerous missions, such as the operation I authorized last year that attempted to rescue Americans held in Syria and Yemen. And there have been successes, such as the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips, held by Somali pirates, and Jessica Buchanan, rescued from Somalia.

Of these more-than-80 Americans taken hostage since 9/11, more than half have ultimately come home, some after many years. Tragically, too many others have not, and at this very moments, Americans continue to be held by terrorist groups or detained unjustly by foreign governments. For them, the nightmare goes on, and so does our work day and night to reunite them with their loved ones.

As I've said before, the terrorist threat is evolving. The world's been appalled by ISIL's barbaric murder of innocent hostages, including Americans.

Moreover, the families of hostages have told us, and they've told me directly, about their frequent frustrations in dealing with their own government, how different departments and agencies aren't always coordinated, how there's been confusion and conflicting information about what the government is prepared to do to help, how they've often felt lost in the bureaucracy and how, in some cases, families feel that they've been threatened for exploring certain options to bring their loved ones home. That's totally unacceptable.

As I've gotten to know some of these families and heard some of these stories, it has been my solemn commitment to make sure that they feel fully supported in their efforts to get their families home and that there is a syncing up of what I know to be sincere, relentless efforts within government and the families, who obviously have one priority and one priority only, and that's getting their loved ones back. These families have already suffered enough, and they should never feel ignored or victimized by their own government.

Diane Foley, whose son, Jim, was killed by ISIL last year said, "As Americans, we can do better." I totally agree. We must do better. And that's why I ordered a comprehensive review of our hostage policy.

I want to thank everybody who contributed to this review inside and outside of government, some of whom are here today. I especially want to thank the former hostages and families who contributed. I've come to know some of these families, often under the most heartbreaking of circumstances.

When her son, Peter, also known as Abdul-Rahman, was being held in Syria, his mother, Paula Kasig wrote me a letter, and in it, she described how, on clear nights, she and her husband would look up at the stars and the moon and wonder if perhaps their son might be able to see them, too, a reminder of the bond they might still share.

I've called these families to offer our condolences after they've received gut-wrenching news no parents ever want to hear. I've visited with them. I've hugged with them. I've grieved with them.

I just spent time with some of the families as well as some of the former hostages here at the White House, and needless to say, it was a very emotional meeting.

Some are still grieving. I thank them for sharing their experiences and their ideas with our review team. In fact, many of the changes we're announcing today are a direct result of their recommendations.

I acknowledged to them in private what I want to say publicly, that it is true that there have been times where our government, regardless of good intentions, has led them down. I promised them that we can do better.

Here's how:

Today, I'm formally issuing a new presidential policy directive to improve how we work to bring home American hostages and how we support their families.

I've signed a new executive order to ensure our government is organized to do so, and we're releasing the final report of our review which describes the two dozen specific steps that we're taking.

Broadly speaking, they fall into three areas.

First, I'm updating our hostage policy, making it clear that our top priority is the safe and rapid recovery of American hostages,

[12:35:00] and to do so, we will use all elements of our national power.

I am reaffirming that the United States government will not make concessions, such as paying ransom, to terrorist groups holding American hostages. And I know this can be subject of significant public debate. It's a difficult and emotional issue, especially for the families.

As I said to the families who are gathered here today and as I've said to families in the past, I look at this not just as a president but also as a husband and a father, and if my family were at risk, obviously, I would move Heaven and Earth to get those loved ones back.

As president, I also have to consider our larger national security. I firmly believe that the United States government paying ransom to terrorists risks endangering more Americans and funding the very terrorism that we're trying to stop, and so I firmly believe that our policy ultimately puts fewer Americans at risk.

At the same time, we are clarifying that our policy does not prevent communication with hostage takers by our government, the families of hostages or third parties who help these families and, when appropriate, our government may assist these families and private efforts in those communications, in part, to ensure the safety of the family members and to make sure that they're not defrauded.

So my message to these families was simple. We're not going to abandon you. We will stand by you.

Second, we're making changes to ensure that our government is better organized around this mission. Every department that is involved in our national security apparatus cares deeply about these hostages, prioritizes them and works really hard. But they're not always as well-coordinated as they need to be.

Under the National Security Council here at the White House, we're setting up a hostage response group comprised of senior officials from across our government who will be responsible for ensuring our hostage policies are consistent and coordinated and implemented rapidly and effectively, and they will be accountable at the highest levels. They'll be accountable to me.

Soon, I'll be designating as well a senior diplomat as my special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, who will be focused solely on leading our diplomatic efforts with other countries to bring our people home.

At the operational level, we're creating, for the first time, one central hub where experts from across the government will work together side by side as one coordinated team to find American hostages and bring them home safely. In fact, this fusion cell, located at the FBI, is already up and running, and we're designating a new official in the intelligence community to be responsible for coordinating the collection, analysis and rapid dissemination of intelligence related to American hostages so we can act on that intelligence quickly.

Third and running through all these efforts, we are fundamentally changing how our government works with families of hostages.

Many of the families told us that they, at times, felt like an afterthought or a distraction, that too often the law enforcement or military and intelligence officials they were interacting with were begrudging in giving them information.

And that ends today. I'm making it clear that these families are to be treated like what they are, our trusted partners and active partners in the recovery of their loved ones. We are all on the same team, and nobody cares more about bringing them these Americans than their own families, and we have to treat them as partners.

So specifically, our new fusion cell will include a person dedicated to coordinating the support families get from the government. This coordinator will ensure that we communicate with families better with one clear voice and that families get information that is timely and accurate.

Working with the intelligence community, we will be sharing more intelligence with families, and this coordinator will be the family's voice within government, making sure that when decisions are made about their loved ones, their concerns are front and center.

Everyone who deals with these families on a regular basis will be given additional training to ensure families are treated with the dignity and compassion that they deserve.

In particular, I want to point out that no family of an American hostage has ever been prosecuted for paying a ransom for the return of their loved ones.

[12:40:03] The last thing that we should ever do is to add to a family's pain with threats like that.

So the bottom line is this: When it comes to how our government works to recover Americans held hostage we work with their families, we are changing how we do business. After everything they've endured, these families are right to be skeptical, and that's why it's so important as I told them today that we will be setting up mechanisms to ensure accountability and implementation.

I've directed my national security team to report back to me, including getting feedback from the families to make sure that these reforms are being put in place and that they are working. In the course of our review, several families told us they wanted to spare other families the frustrations they endured.

Some have even created new organizations to support families like theirs or to honor their loved ones, such as the memorial foundation for Steven Sotloff, who wrote "Everyone has two lives. The second one begins when you realize you only have one."

As a government and as a nation we can learn from the example the strength of their lives, the kind of strength we've seen in all these held hostages, including Kayla Mueller. Kayla devoted her life to serving those in need around the world, to refugees in Syria who had lost everything, she was a source of comfort and hope. Before her tragic death she was held by ISIL in Syria for a year and a half. And during her captivity Kayla managed to smuggle a letter to her family.

She said, "None of us could have known it would be this long, but I know I'm also fighting for my side in the ways that I am able, and I have a lot of fight left in me. I'm not breaking down and I will not give in no matter how long it takes."

Today my message to anyone who harms Americans is that we do not forget. Our reach is long; justice will be done. My message to every American being held unjustly around the world who is fighting from the inside to survive another day, my message to their families who long to hold them once more, is that the United States of America will never stop working to reunite you with your family. We will not give up no matter how long it takes.

Thank you very much, everybody.

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN HOST: The president outlining some pretty bold and sweeping new policies, not the least of which the hostage recovery fusion cell a brand new way that this government is going to deal with the reality. There are Americans being held overseas and there are family members back here, desperately struggling to figure out some way to either pay for their freedom, negotiate their freedom, or at least get some very big shoes behind to help in the process.

And the president suggesting right now at the very least, there will no longer be prosecutions, or at least threats of prosecutions for families who decide to try to pay ransom. Not suggesting they'll be any substantive confessions being made and the government will not pay ransom, but that the government will now be allowed to communicate and negotiate with terrorist groups who are holding Americans hostage.

There are also some technical aspects to this new fusion cell. A director, essentially from the very beginning will be hailing from the FBI, deputies coming from the state department of the pentagon and it doesn't come without controversy.

The critiques suggesting, there are other ways of leadership, there are pulls from which to pull. And there those who feel the state department should be involved as well.

I want to bring in David Rohde, he's not just a CNN analyst and Pulitzer prize winning journalist. He also was held hostage by the Taliban for seven months before he was able to escape.

David, I want to get your initial reaction to this new set of policies.

DAVID ROHDE, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: It's a good step forward, it's an improvement. I think, the president spoke about knowing that re-victimize these families and this help do that. But the bottom line is these cases are very difficult to solve and European governments are paying millions of dollars in ransoms.

So even with the changes announced today, American families, if, you know, a loved one is kidnapped by a militant group is looking at anywhere from 1 to $2 million in ransom. You know, it's virtually impossible for most American families to come up with that kind of money.

BANFIELD: We're looking at pictures, the president mentioned them in particular, Kayla Mueller, and James Foley, Steven Sotloff, those who died having been held in captivity for lengthy periods of time.

I wanted to drill down on a specific piece of language with you. And see if we can get some resolution on what this is going to mean ultimately for the greater problem of hostage taking. And that is that that the president says that the United Sates government will not make "Substantive confessions."

[12:45:09] So in this new notion that the government can negotiate with these terrorists groups holding American hostages it will not make substantive confession. Do you have any idea what that truly mean?

ROHDE: That means the U.S. government will not pay ransoms. And that's again what this is about, I mean, the estimate by the U.S. government is that European governments, France, Italy, Germany and Spain had paid up to $200 million in ransoms between, you know, roughly the last ten years. And the U.S. has refused to do that, Britain doesn't pay ransoms, Canada does not pay ransoms.

And the argument is that you're reducing the incentive to kidnap an American. But there's such publicity value and getting in American that the kidnappings continue and again I think these steps are possible (ph) help. But until there's a more coordinated response between the U.S. and Europe this is going to make a big difference.

BANFIELD: So suggesting now that the threat of prosecution on the materials support provisions that the justice department often will announce when those who arrested on support of any kind of for terrorists groups.

These are the kinds of things that some family members have said, that they had heard that they would be potentially facing prosecution on the materials support statute. Suggesting now that will not happen. Will this embolden the taking of additional hostages or is that going to happen anyway no matter what the policy is here.

ROHDE: I think that people are going to try to take American hostages no matter what. And I think it's a -- it was a mistake the people in the administration have told me this there were two officials in particular one is the NSC and one of the state department that threaten these Syria families of prosecutions that hadn't happen for decades the government turned a blind eye, they -- there's never been a family prosecuted.

Those officials I've been told have been moved out to their jobs. But, you know, the issue here is our ransoms going to be paid or not. And I think it's an American -- an idea that if a family wants to do it privately, if a company wants to privately pay ransom, it's their right as individuals to try to save their love one. And, you know, I think many Americans would object to the idea that government can block a private ransom. BANFIELD: Yeah, and just to be clear the DOJ setting out a statement today that the department has never used materials support statute to prosecute a hostages family or friends for paying a ransom for the safe return of their love ones. But are you are absolutely right.

Family members reported that they were threatened with it and that is terrorizing if you are in that situation.

David, I'm glad to have you with us today. I'm glad to have with us period. Thank you so much.

ROHDE: Thank you.

BANFIELD: Coming up next, a state, a nation honoring a state senator and a pastor, Clementa Pinckney, his body is lying in repose of the South Carolina Capital Building right now. And the president himself is making plans to travel to eulogize him in his funeral in the coming days.


[12:51:46] BANFIELD: I want to take you back live down to Columbia, South Carolina. We've been watching over the past hour as the casket has made its way through Colombia from a funeral home to the state house and right pass our Victor Blackwell who's covering the story for CNN.

Normally Victor I ask you to give me sort of the sights, the sounds, the color, the backdrop, the facts behind that story. And today I want you to do something very different, because you yourself snapped a photograph as the case on passed you and there is an enormous amount of significance to the photograph. And I want you to walk me through it.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's striking as that case on drown here by the horses which passing by on Main Street, it passed right by the Civil War Memorial and below the Confederate flag as it was being rectified the wind there. And it's striking that the context here of the work done by Clementa Pinckney and his views about the flag, his activism work inside and outside of the church.

And all the conversation from politicians including South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley who told the New York Times that it came down to her not being able to look her son or daughter in the face and defend that flag that that flag flew high above the capitol as the senator was taken in.

The symbol of course that was used by Dylann Roof held on his website, in the justification for killing Pinckney and eight others a week ago. So that image I think as I twitted it out was being received by so many people as - if there was a moment in which the governor could have taken this down for the passage of the case on or during this four hour period where people will start to file in at the top of the hour to pay their respects, this was the time to do it and she should've taken that opportunity that's what were hearing on Twitter.

The Governor says that, she doesn't have that legal authority, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: So that's -- yeah, and I'm trying to get my head around that because I'm seeing a lot of different view points weighing in on the actual code and the litigation that is surrounding this. For her part, her press secretary released a statement from the governor saying that, based on the 2000 law, she does not have this authority to remove the flag herself today or any day and rather than violate the law, she will continue to work to change it and yet there is this loop hole section 11010 that allows for a temporary take down of the flag to be cleaned or replaced for wear, is this not a good day for perhaps cleaning the flag, is there -- who's talking about this, or who's just saying, you know what, today let's talk about the senator, this is becoming a circus.

BLACKWELL: Yeah, we heard from representative James Clyburn, who represents the district here in South Carolina and he says that the governors certainly should take that down, he told that to our Alisyn Camerota this morning on New Day, in fact even before the tragedies of last week. Representative Clyburn, wrote about this in his 2014 book, blessed experience, in which he said the back in the 60s then Governor Robert Regnier took it down for a half day just to test what the responses would be.

[12:55:01] At that time he was above the capitol dome not at the Civil War Memorial. And according to Clyburn the funeral was so heavy, that he put it back up immediately and his excuse was, that it was just being cleaned.

So he said that there is President here and it should've come down.

BANFIELD: So Victor its not lost on any one that the President and the first lady will becoming to South Carolina. I don't know if their plans are to be anywhere near the state house from the capitol for Fridays plan to be at the funeral services. But effectively that Confederate flag would be flapping in the wind above an African- American President who is eulogizing an African-American State Senator Reverend who was killed for being African-American.

BLACKWELL: Well the funeral is going to be a closer to Charleston. So the President will not be here. But in the context of what we've heard from the president about race relations and racism in that podcast that has gotten so much attention. There is no doubt that the President will talk about that as Clementa Pinckney was known not only as a revered State Senator and a respected Pastor but his activism work throughout the state was also respected.

So in eulogizing the State Senator that is something we're likely to hear from the president.

BANFIELD: Our Victor Blackwell reporting live for us. Thank you for sharing that photograph with us. And thank you, everyone. My colleague Wolf starts after this break.