WASHINGTON — When the United States became aware late last month of a video showing an American woman and a Canadian man pleading to be saved from their Taliban captors, the government did something it had not done well in the past.
Before the video became public, a new hostage team led by the FBI alerted the couple's families to brace for the chilling footage.
The effort reflected a sweeping change in how the government handles hostages, a shift ordered last year by President Barack Obama after hostages' families complained of officials' callousness and poor communication. The new hostage team faces no small task as Americans continue to move through the world's many war zones.
Officials say that more than 70 hostages who are Americans or legal permanent residents of the United States have been freed since the revamped effort came together at the FBI headquarters, but it is unclear whether there has been any change in the rate that captives have been rescued. Members of the FBI-led team and their hostage affairs counterparts at the State Department are still trying to bring home more than a dozen people, officials said.
Last week, the Pentagon said Navy SEAL personnel had led an unsuccessful raid in August to save an American university professor and his Australian colleague who were kidnapped recently in Afghanistan. Before that mission, the government spoke with the family of the American, a 60-year-old Pennsylvania man, whose fate remains unknown.
The improved communication in the cases of the professor and the missing couple underscores the administration's progress. Through the FBI-led team, the government has tried to handle hostage situations with greater sensitivity, better coordination and quicker action toward a resolution. And while the administration has continued its policy of not paying ransoms, it has now pledged not to criminally charge families if they decide to pay one.
But the two cases are also a grim reminder of the work still to be done. It is one thing to reach out to families, but quite another to actually win a hostage's release.
The kidnapping of the couple held by the Taliban, Caitlan Coleman, 30, and her husband, Joshua Boyle, 33, has bedeviled the government for nearly four years. Their situation shows the difficulty officials face in trying to free hostages while dealing with emotionally strained families and their expectations of what the government can accomplish.
The couple were backpacking in Wardak province, an insurgent stronghold near Kabul, in late 2012 when they were kidnapped. Coleman was pregnant with her first child at the time, officials said, and she later gave birth to a second child.
They have since become a pawn in a tussle between Afghanistan, the United States and the Haqqani militant group, the Taliban faction that seized them.
In 2014, Anas Haqqani, a commander of the Haqqani network, was captured, and the Afghan government recently sentenced him to death. The group threatened to kill Coleman, Boyle and the children if the Afghans followed through with the execution. The United States is in a difficult position: Despite providing billions of dollars in aid to Afghanistan, it cannot dictate to Afghan courts what to do.
Coleman's family declined to comment.
Many of the government's changes since then have been largely bureaucratic, but the differences appear meaningful.
While the government in the past refused to share intelligence with families, they now get regular briefings. Officials said hundreds of sensitive cables had been declassified as part of this effort.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the FBI-led team said, "This is the interagency government coming together to bring home U.S. persons held captive overseas."
Perhaps most important, the government has designated officials — many of them senior — to talk with the families. During the period starting in mid 2014 when the Islamic State was beheading large numbers of captives, family members repeatedly complained that they did not know who in the U.S. government was in charge or whom to call with questions. Many times, they received conflicting information.