Middle East Turmoil

White House denies threatening kidnap families over ransoms

David Jackson

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough is denying claims that the administration threatened legal action against the families of kidnapped Americans if they paid ransom to their captors, the Islamic State.

McDonough hit a series of Sunday interview shows to promote the administration's counter-terrorism plan against the Islamic State, including a plea to Congress to fund anti-IS forces in Syria.

The families of James Foley and Steven Sotloff -- American journalists beheaded by the Islamic State -- said the government objected when they considered ransom payments, and even threatened prosecution.

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"We didn't threaten anybody, but we made clear what the law is," McDonough said on Fox News Sunday. "That's our responsibility, to make sure we explain the law and uphold the law."

Ransom payments are prohibited under U.S. law, on the theory they would encourage terrorist groups to kidnap more Americans.

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McDonough said he sympathized with the Foley and Sotloff families, and noted that the administration attempted a hostage rescue in Syria.

"We took every effort -- and will continue to take every effort -- to secure people," he said.

In discussing the counter-terrorism plan, McDonough urged Congress to fund anti-IS fighters in Syria, and said the U.S. is "obviously" at war with the militant group.

The interviews aired a day after the Islamic State beheaded a third hostage, British aid worker David Haines

The plan that Obama announced Wednesday includes the prospect of U.S. airstrikes in Syria, while expanding ongoing strikes in neighboring Iraq.

Read MoreBritish aid worker beheaded in new ISIS video

Obama, McDonough, and other aides say the plan features assistance to local forces in Iraq and Syria to carry the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS.

In his round of interviews, McDonough echoed Obama's pledge to avoid using U.S. combat troops, and to rely on forces in Syria and Iraq.

"That's why the Syrian opposition is so important," McDonough said on CNN's State of the Union, later adding that "it's going to be Iraqi and other boots on the ground that are bringing this fight to ISIL."

On ABC's This Week, McDonough said that "what we want to make sure happens is that we have committed partners who can take the fight to ISIL on the ground. And they will have not only support from us from the air, but they'll also have training and equipment support from us."

Lawmakers and analysts have questioned Obama's plan, saying that the United States will have to get more involved -- including the prospect of ground troops -- if the Islamic State is to be defeated.

Obama's ISIS objectives

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Fox News Sunday that the Obama administration is "delusional" about its plan.

"It is our fight," Graham said. "It's not just their fight. This is a radical Islamic army that's pushing a theory of a master religion ... It's about protecting millions of people throughout the world from a radical Islamic army -- they're intending to come here."

Graham also said of Obama: "This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home."

Administration officials have offered different descriptions of the administrations's plan, ranging from "counter-terrorism operations" to outright "war."

On NBC's Meet The Press, McDonough said that "as much as we've been at war with al Qaeda since we got here, we're at war with ISIL."

It is "a complicated effort," McDonough said, and "success looks like an ISIL that no longer threatens our friends in the region, no longer threatens the United States -- an ISIL that can't accumulate followers, or threaten Muslims in Syria, Iran, Iraq, or otherwise."

Secretary of State John Kerry, who has disputed the use of the term "war," told CBS' Face The Nation that "there's frankly a kind of tortured debate going on about terminology ... What I'm focused on, obviously, is getting done what we need to get done to ISIL."