The family of murdered American journalist James Foley says it was threatened by a U.S. official who warned that family members could be charged with supporting terrorism if they paid a ransom to his Islamist captors, ABC News reported on Friday.
ABC News quoted Foley's mother and brother as saying a military officer working for President Barack Obama's National Security Council had told them several times that they could face criminal charges if they paid a ransom.
The White House refused to discuss conversations that the family had with officials, but said they involved people from different government branches, including the White House, the FBI, the intelligence agencies and the Defense Department.
"I'm not going to get into who said what in the context of these individual conversations," spokesman Josh Earnest said, but he reaffirmed the U.S. policy not to pay ransoms because it can encourage further abductions.
Foley's mother Diane told ABC News they were told several times of the possibility of charges if a ransom were paid. "We took it as a threat and it was appalling," she said. ABC did not identify the official she was referring to.
"Three times he intimidated us with that message. We were horrified he would say that. He just told us we would be prosecuted. We knew we had to save our son, we had to try," Diane Foley said in an ABC interview.
ABC quoted a spokeswoman for the National Security Council as saying that the Foley family was informed of U.S. laws banning terrorism financing but denying the family was told they could face charges if they made a ransom payment.
Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, while not discussing the family's charges directly, said she had gotten to know Diane Foley in the last 18 months as she pressed the government to help secure her son's release.
"She’s just relentless in a good way, in a way any mother who wanted to do her utmost would. And I admire her very much, all that she did. As a mother, I can only imagine her pain," Rice told a group of reporters.
Secretary of State John Kerry said he was "taken aback" by the report. "I am totally unaware and would not condone anybody that I know of within the State Department making such statements," he told reporters during a visit to Istanbul to discuss international action against Islamic State.
A video of the beheading of James Foley by an Islamic State militant was posted on the Web on Aug. 19. Two weeks later a similar video showed another American journalist, Steven Sotloff, being beheaded.
The United States mounted an unsuccessful military mission to try to rescue Foley and other U.S. hostages held by the group in Syria this summer.
"We have found that terrorist organizations use hostage taking and ransoms as a critical source of financing for their organization and that paying ransoms only puts other Americans in a position where they're at even greater risk," Earnest said.
Islamic state is still holding a number of hostages from Western and other countries.