FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Sen. John McCain said Friday that he considers the death of American Kayla Mueller by Islamic State militants one of the saddest moments of his life as he looked back on his work in trying to secure her freedom and the government's policy of not paying ransom to terrorists.
McCain discussed the Mueller saga during a news conference in Phoenix after a week that saw him take a spot on the national defense stage yet again following the confirmation of Mueller's death. McCain, himself a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, worked to get Mueller set free over the last 18 months after she was captured in Syria in August 2013. At one point, the Islamic State group demanded money for her release, but the U.S. has a policy of not paying ransom in hostage situations.
"It's a very tough issue. Your head tells you one thing, and your heart tells you something else. Your heart tells you that you want to do anything, anything to bring someone like Kayla Mueller home," he said. "At the same time, any outside objective expert will testify that when we ransom people like that, then it encourages more hostage-taking. So it's a very, very tough issue, and unfortunately, after a lot of thought, I have agreed that I don't think it's a good idea to ransom hostages. And that sounds great until I read Kayla Mueller's letter."
The confirmation of Mueller's death this week galvanized President Barack Obama's efforts to attack Islamic State. McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, and other Republicans have expressed unhappiness that Obama had chosen to exclude any long-term commitment of ground forces.
Mueller became interested in Syria after her boyfriend told about the struggles of refugees there, and she was captured after accompanying him on a trip to the country in August 2013.
Her relationship with her boyfriend helps paint a more complete picture of her final days before being captured.
A Mueller family spokesperson said she met a man in Cairo in 2010 who later became her boyfriend, and the two kept in touch through email and online video chats. He shared information with Mueller about the atrocities in Syria, and she decided to travel to the Turkish-Syria border to help out with the situation, the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson talked to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the person works in media relations for other families in Middle East hostage situations and wants to remain anonymous for safety reasons.
Mueller accompanied the boyfriend to a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Aleppo, Syria, in August 2013 after a company contracted by the organization sent him to fix the Internet there. The repair work took longer than expected, so they stayed overnight at the hospital in Aleppo because of safety concerns, Doctors Without Borders said in a Feb. 6 statement.
The statement said a team from Doctors Without Borders provided transportation for them to the Aleppo bus station so they could return to Turkey.
The family spokesperson said Mueller, the boyfriend, a driver and one other person from the hospital were taken captive on the drive. Mueller remained a hostage, while the others, who are Syrian, were released.
In the coming months, the U.S. government undertook efforts to secure her release along with other Islamic State hostages. The family was kept up-to-date by FBI agents who work in hostage negotiations.
At one point, the Islamic State group demanded ransom and a prisoner swap, but the U.S. refused. The U.S. government this week said her death was at the hands of the militants, while the Islamic State group says she died in a Jordanian airstrike.
FBI spokeswoman Lindsay Ram declined comment on details of Mueller's time in captivity and whether the agency had talked with the boyfriend.
McCain said that when he would visit the Middle East, he pressed leaders, including the emir of Qatar, to do what they could to help locate Mueller.
"The fact is I failed, I failed," McCain said. "Because I was unable to get her back, and I view it as one of the really sad things in my life that I was unable to. No one could read Kayla's letter without being, you know, it brings us all to tears."
Mueller's parents released a letter Tuesday that their daughter had written them while in captivity last year. In the undated letter, Mueller said she was, "in a safe location, completely unharmed."
A candlelight vigil for Mueller is scheduled Saturday evening at Northern Arizona University, where she graduated in 2009. Another candlelight memorial is planned in her hometown of Prescott on Wednesday at the courthouse plaza.
Associated Press Writers Brian Skoloff and Bob Christie contributed to this report from Phoenix.