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David Rohde Details Taliban Kidnapping In 'A Rope And A Prayer'

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The White House says more than 30 Americans are currently being held hostage overseas. The policy of the U.S. government is not to pay ransoms for any of them. But yesterday, President Obama announced the White House is updating its policies in order to drop the threat of prosecution that now hangs over the families of hostages who want to pay ransoms.

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BARACK OBAMA: No family of an American hostage has ever been prosecuted for paying a ransom for the return of their loved ones. The last thing that we should ever do is to add to a family's pain with threats like that.

MONTAGNE: David Rohde is one person whose family knows that pain. In 2008, as a reporter for The New York Times writing a book about Afghanistan, he was kidnapped by the Taliban. He was taken across the border to Pakistan and held for months before he escaped. He and his wife, Kristen Mulvihill, wrote a book together about their joint ordeal called "A Rope And A Prayer."

Good morning.

DAVID ROHDE: Good morning. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Just briefly - the story of how you actually became a hostage.

ROHDE: You know, competitiveness and ambition among journalists, I went off to interview a Taliban commander who had done interviews three other times in the past. As soon as I arrived for my interview, he abducted me and my two Afghan colleagues and quickly took us into Pakistan.

MONTAGNE: So what was the moment that you thought, wow, I'm in real trouble here?

ROHDE: I thought that immediately. We arrived at the meeting point for the interview and immediate - you know, gunmen run up to the car and ordered us to get in the back seat. And we had knew the worst had happened, and I just felt incredible regret and still do.

MONTAGNE: This was a different time. It wasn't absolutely obvious to everyone that the kidnappers would ask for ransom. At what point did you think that this might be an issue?

ROHDE: They immediately asked for these crazy ransoms, and it was very clear to me they were sort of delusional. They believed that the U.S. government would pay a ransom, and they asked for $25 million in cash for me and the release of 15 prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. When we escaped seven months later, they wanted roughly $7 million and seven prisoners. The difference was my family was actually privately told by U.S. officials to offer a ransom. I've worked with families in other kidnappings since then, including the Foley family - James Foley, who was kidnapped in Syria - and they were told not to offer ransoms. They were told they could be prosecuted if they did offer a ransom.

MONTAGNE: The theory is that to keep everybody safe and also not to fund these terrorist organizations, it is a core principle not to pay ransom. Would you have wanted the U.S. government to pay a ransom?

ROHDE: I - and I'm only speaking for myself and not any other captive - but I did not want the U.S. government to pay a ransom. The U.S. government estimates that European governments have paid roughly $200 million in ransoms to different Islamist groups across the Middle East between 2008 and 2014. And this is the core problem - the only thing that would bring people home is payment of ransoms. As long as European governments are doing it, the only way you're going to bring Americans home is by paying ransoms, very large ones.

MONTAGNE: When you were being held, it wasn't as if you were in constant communication at all with your wife or anybody at The New York Times, right? This was a very rare moment when they let you communicate.

ROHDE: Yeah, there was a call and a letter back and forth. The Times at first refused to offer any ransom, and they offered a small one. The Taliban essentially laughed at it. It was nowhere near the millions of dollars they were demanding and that Times had no control of any prisoners to release. And, you know, I was lucky enough to escape, so I've avoided that dilemma. And it's awful. This is an awful crime. It's a very personal crime, where you've made this huge mistake. You feel terrible you've put your family in this position. And your captors are not just toying with you and your life. They're toying with your family, and they're making the family feel that they could save the captive if they could somehow come up with this money. And, you know, I just loathe them for what they did to me and my family.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much.

ROHDE: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: David Rohde and his wife, Kristin Mulvihill, chronicled his kidnapping in the book "A Rope And A Prayer." He's now an investigative reporter for Reuters. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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