Congressman pushes for hostage czar to ensure coordination

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The congressman who represents the Maryland district of the family of an American captive killed in a drone strike is pushing for the creation of a hostage czar to coordinate government efforts to free those held.

Democratic Rep. John Delaney introduced the legislation on Friday, a week after President Barack Obama apologized for the accidental deaths of Warren Weinstein and Italian Giovanni Lo Porto in a January strike against an al-Qaida compound along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Weinstein had been held for more than three years.

"The tragic loss of Dr. Warren Weinstein should be a call to action, because our hostage rescue operations have to improve," Delaney said in a statement. "I firmly believe that improvement starts with a new hostage czar who can direct and coordinate our efforts across agency lines, a high-level official who can leverage all our relevant agencies in the service of one goal."

The legislation would create a panel within the National Security Council headed by the czar, who would reach across government agencies and unify efforts to find and release hostages.

The legislation specifically states that it does not authorize the government to negotiate with terrorists.

The White House has said the Obama administration is considering the creation of a fusion cell of the FBI, Pentagon, State Department and intelligence community to ensure close coordination.

The legislation comes amid a growing debate over ransom payments to terrorists. The United States maintains a ban on such practices although 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 Weinstein's family 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.

The FBI, as well, declined to comment on the Wall Street Journal report.

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."

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