APRIL 30, 2015
U.S. Said to Give Warren Weinstein's Family Ransom Advice
By MATTHEW ROSENBERG and MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT
WASHINGTON -- Nearly two years before Warren Weinstein, an aid worker kidnapped by Al Qaeda, was inadvertently killed in an American drone strike, the F.B.I. gave his family guidance about paying a ransom of $250,000 to the militants who were holding him, United States officials said on Thursday.
The F.B.I.'s assistance reveals a vast gray area between a United States policy of not paying ransoms and efforts by many families and organizations to buy the freedom of Americans abducted abroad. European powers commonly pay the ransoms, which have enriched Al Qaeda, and the issue has been the subject of a long-running debate about whether the United States should alter its policy.
Mr. Weinstein's case also raises legal issues -- providing support to Al Qaeda, even a ransom, is a federal crime. But the government does not appear to have prosecuted any families or private organizations for paying ransoms, and the White House suggested on Thursday that it did not regard giving advice about payments as necessarily in conflict with its anti-ransom policy.
"Helping with a ransom payment," said Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, "is not tantamount to paying a ransom."
"What we are trying to do is to aggressively enforce this policy, which we do, while also supporting these families that are relying on the expert advice and support of the F.B.I., other law enforcement agencies, and other national security officials that are trying to secure the safe return of their loved one," he added.
Still, Mr. Earnest declined to discuss contacts between the F.B.I. and the family of Mr. Weinstein, which were first reported by The Wall Street Journal.
But other American officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they decided to advise the family of Mr. Weinstein, who was kidnapped in 2011, when it became apparent that they were going to try to buy his freedom with or without the government's guidance. Mr. Weinstein's family declined to comment.
The officials said that the F.B.I.'s main contribution was reviewing the intelligence on a Pakistani middleman whom the family planned to use to carry the cash to the Qaeda operatives holding Mr. Weinstein, a resident of Rockville, Md.
"We weren't going to stop them," said a senior American official. "We did not facilitate the payment. After the family decided they were going to make it, we told them about what could go wrong and how they could be victimized."
The money appears to have been delivered, officials said, but Mr. Weinstein was not freed. He died on Jan. 15 in a drone strike in Pakistan that also killed Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian abducted in 2012, and an American affiliated with Al Qaeda, Ahmed Farouq. Government officials disclosed the deaths last week.
Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed reporting from Washington, and Declan Walsh from London.