Obama admits government let down hostages' families

US journalist James Foley, who was beheaded by Islamic State.
US journalist James Foley, who was beheaded by Islamic State.REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US President Barack Obama admitted his White House had not always done enough for the relatives of hostages held abroad, as he took steps Wednesday to address poor government coordination.

"There have been times where our government, regardless of good intentions, has let them down. I promised them that we can do better," Obama said after hosting families at the White House.

Stressing that loved ones of the roughly 80 US hostages taken since 9/11 have faced an "unrelenting nightmare that the rest of us cannot imagine," Obama vowed to do better.

A start, he said, would be protecting families from threats of prosecution if they tried to raise a ransom, even when the government objects to it being paid.

The White House continues to argue that ransoms help fund extremist organisations like the Islamic State group and would make US citizens more of a target.

But some have complained that policy costs American lives and that hostages from some European countries are often freed because such payments are made.

Obama apologetically relayed a litany of complaints from victims who felt lost in government bureaucracy, facing uncoordinated departments and conflicting information.

"In some cases, families feel that they've been threatened for exploring certain options to bring their loved ones home. That's totally unacceptable," said Obama.

He earlier issued an executive order to deal with the increased threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other groups.

CAPTURED AND BEHEADED

"Today, my message to anyone who harms Americans is that we do not forget. Our reach is long, justice will be done," he said.

"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."

Many of the measures announced Wednesday are administrative, designed to adjudicate and delegate responsibilities between the FBI, CIA, Department of Justice, Pentagon and State Department.

Among them, Obama will establish an FBI-led "fusion cell" bringing together disparate government departments.

Diane Foley, the mother of James Foley, a journalist who was taken in Syria and beheaded by his Islamic State captors, has said she felt abandoned by the government.

"I think our efforts to get Jim freed were an annoyance," she told media weeks after his death.

"Jim was killed in the most horrific way. He was sacrificed because of just a lack of coordination, lack of communication, lack of prioritisation," she said.

"As a family, we had to find our way through this on our own."

Amid public outcry, the Obama administration launched a review in December.

In recent months, Obama has met some of the families of hostages at their homes as the policies were under review.