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How the government carries out hostage rescue missions

In this May 27, 2011 file photo, American journalist James Foley, of Rochester, N.H., who was last seen on Nov. 22, 2012 in northwest Syria, poses for a photo in Boston.
In this May 27, 2011 file photo, American journalist James Foley, of Rochester, N.H., who was last seen on Nov. 22, 2012 in northwest Syria, poses for a photo in Boston.
Steven Senne/AP

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The Pentagon made a surprising announcement Wednesday regarding the James Foley case. It acknowledged that U.S. ground troops had attempted, but failed, to rescue several American hostages, including Foley, earlier this summer in Syria.

The statement revealed the mission was not successful because the hostages weren't present at the targeted location. Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator and found of Black Swan Group, which consults businesses on negotiation tactics, explains more on when and why the U.S. government will intervene in a hostage situation. 

Below, read some highlights from the interview:

On whether he approves of the Obama administration revealing to the public that the Foley rescue mission had failed:

I was heartened to hear that they made the attempt. It’s not like the terrorists don’t know that the rescue attempt was made and who made it. So the terrorists are aware that the U.S. is going to come out and if we get the opportunity, that special forces are going to land close by. … I don’t think that by stating publicly that we revealed anything to the bad guys. I was actually happy to see that the Obama administration had decided to make that move.

On why kidnappings in Syria presents different circumstances than those in more stable countries:

The governments are are always open to rescuing hostages. In a place like Syria, which is actually a war zone, it’s a little less complicated compared to if someone is kidnapped in a country where there is a functioning government that everyone recognizes the legitimacy of. Then there are diplomatic problems then. But western European governments are always keeping an eye out to do a rescue.

On the frequency of these types of operations:

It’s one in a thousand. It would have to be a palace where they can cleanly perform a rescue, and that is unfortunately rare.

On which parts of the government are responsible for rescuing international kidnapping victims: 

That is an ongoing bone of contention among the different agencies. They try to coordinate that with the National Security Council, but there are overlapping jurisdictions in terms of assigned responsibilities and legal responsibilities. But principally is a combination of the department of defense, the department of state and the FBI (as part of the department of justice).

On what factors the government considers before staging a rescue attempt:

The rescue is principally in the domain of the department of defense. They have to consider whether they can get out. A rescue operation is very much like kicking over a hornet’s nest; it might be easy to get in, but it might be very difficult to get out. In fact, they have to consider how the person [became a hostage] in the first place. If someone had no business being in a country, then the American government is not willing to put as much on the line for them. In the case of a journalist, clearly the United States views that as a legitimate mission.