The U.S. government obtained intelligence on the possible location of American captives held by ISIS in Syria last year, but Obama administration officials waited nearly a month to launch a rescue mission because of concerns that the intelligence wasn’t conclusive and some of it had come from a foreign service, U.S. and British officials told The Daily Beast.
British officials, as well as private security contractors, said they were frustrated by Washington’s hesitance to give the go-ahead for a rescue attempt, which eventually was carried out on July 4, 2014, by which time the hostages had been moved. The following month, ISIS began beheading its American and British prisoners in a series of grisly Internet videos.
“They got the information. They just didn’t trust it. And they did sit on it, there’s no doubt about that.”
Toward the end of May, the British government had identified two or three locations in and around the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the so-called Islamic State, where the militants had moved hostages during the previous weeks and months. But the British were not absolutely sure in which location the Westerners were held. The captives included American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, as well aid worker Kayla Mueller. The information-based on debriefings of European captives who had been released, satellite and drone surveillance, and electronic eavesdropping-was not definitive in May.
Then, in early June, London had a “positive identification and that information was shared with Washington,” said a British source. The delay of nearly a month before the rescue bid was mounted remains a source of bewilderment for British officials.
But a U.S. official said that inside the White House, Obama’s senior national-security advisers were not willing to base a raid on intelligence developed by a foreign service. “The issue was that they didn’t trust it, and they wanted to develop and mature the intelligence, because it wasn’t our own,” said the U.S. official, who asked to remain anonymous when discussing sensitive hostage-rescue efforts.
“They got the information. They just didn’t trust it. And they did sit on it, there’s no doubt about that,” the official said.
Bernadette Meehan, National Security Council spokesperson, told The Daily Beast: “U.S. forces conducted this [rescue] operation as soon as the president and his national-security team were confident the mission could be carried out successfully and consistent with our policies for undertaking such operations.”
But Diane Foley, the mother of James Foley, who was the first American to be shown murdered on camera, also raised questions about the timing of the rescue effort, telling The Daily Beast that French officials had developed information about the hostages’ location as early as March, but that the U.S. government didn’t act on it.
“That was part of our frustration,” she said. “The State Department said they were connecting with the French and everybody at the highest levels.” And yet, there was no movement on the U.S. side. “Very specific information was available as early as mid-March. And that’s what’s been so tough for us as families, because apparently they were held in the same place all those months,” Foley said.
Last August, after the administration disclosed the failed raid, National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes pushed back against the suggestion that the United States hadn’t done enough to win the release of the American captives.
“I can assure you that we have done everything that we can possibly do to try to bring home our hostages,” Rhodes said during a press briefing on Martha’s Vineyard. “It’s an incredibly difficult circumstance in a place like Syria, again, where you have such a violent conflict raging. But we’ve used all of our military, intelligence, diplomatic resources that we can bring to bear to try to pull a thread to find out where our hostages are; to try to rescue them when we saw an opportunity; to try to work with any country that might have any means of locating them.”
U.S. intelligence agencies had also debriefed European hostages who were released after their governments made ransom payments. The Washington Post reported last August that the president had authorized a rescue attempt “earlier this summer,” citing a senior administration official.
“We had a combination of… intelligence that was sufficient to enable us to act on it,” the official told the Post, and the military moved “very aggressively, very quickly to try and recover our citizens.”
Read the full report at the Daily Beast.