The United States government now has an official Presidential envoy charged with helping manage the response to the taking of American hostages overseas. The Obama administration, which has faced criticism for its handling of negotiations and rescue efforts aimed at Americans held overseas by terrorist groups like ISIS and criminal organizations, named former State Department official Jim O’Brien to be the first Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs.
He will be charged with helping bring some organization to the sometimes scattered approach that the U.S. has taken to dealing with hostage crises, at a time when terrorist groups, and ISIS in particular, are publicly murdering some hostages and are ransoming others to create a major revenue stream.
O’Brien, who served under President Clinton as a Special Presidential Envoy to the Balkans during the crisis there, also served as Deputy Director of the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning and as a senior adviser to UN Ambassador and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Until his appointment, he served as vice chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group, a consulting firm.
In a statement released Friday afternoon, Secretary of State John Kerry called O’Brien a person of “proven diplomatic skill” and said he is “exactly the right person” for the job.”
One of the most prominent criticisms of the Obama administration’s handling of hostage situations has centered on interactions with the families of captured Americans. In the case of journalist James Foley, who was beheaded by ISIS, family members complained that they were threatened with prosecution if they attempted to pay ransom to ISIS. The United States government has a strict policy of not paying ransom for hostages.
Kerry noted that part of O’Brien’s task would be serving as a liaison with families.
“In his new position, Jim will be focused on one overriding goal: using diplomacy to secure the safe return of Americans held hostage overseas,” Kerry said. “To that end, he will be in close contact with the families of American hostages, meet with foreign leaders in support of our hostage recovery efforts, advise on options to enhance those efforts, participate in strategy meetings with other senior U.S. policymakers, and represent the United States internationally on hostage-related issues. The new Special Presidential Envoy will work closely with the interagency Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell that was also created as a result of the hostage policy review.”
In a blog post Friday, Lisa Monaco, the president’s advisor on homeland security and counterterrorism, characterized the creation of the new position as a natural next step in the evolution of the administration’s approach to the issue.
“The appointment of Jim O’Brien is an important milestone in the President’s enhancements of the United States’ response to hostage events and to implement the findings and recommendations of the review ordered by the President,” she wrote.
NOTE: The original version of this story incorrectly characteried O'Brien as the administration's "Hostage Czar," implying that he would coordinate a multi-agency response. In an emailed response, the White House, in an email, objected that O'Brien will not be in a position of control over other agencies, such as the FBI's Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell. The story has been corrected accordingly.