President Obama appointed former State Department official Jim O’Brien to fill the new position of special envoy for hostage affairs. The White House made the announcement on Friday. The creation of the special envoy for hostage affairs post was a result of a hostage policy review that was completed in June. The review followed criticisms from families of hostages who said they were left confused by government guidance while their loved ones were being held abroad.
The Obama administration announced the change in course for its hostage rules earlier this summer, on the heels of brutal executions of Americans held by ISIS. While the government itself still bars paying ransoms to hostage-takers, new rules allow it to communicate with terrorist groups and otherwise serve as a conduit for people trying to free their loved ones. Family members have claimed that the government often stonewalled them from learning about a hostage’s fate and threatened criminal charges for paying ransoms to secure their release.
In addition to creating the new hostage position, President Obama also created a new office to coordinate response to hostages, which will work O’Brien and will be overseen by the FBI. O’Brien served as special presidential envoy for the Balkans during the tumultuous late 1990s, and was a deputy director with the State Department and a senior adviser to Madeline Albright, the State Department said. Secretary of State John Kerry released a statement praising the appointment of O’Brien.
Jim is exactly the right person for a job that demands a high level of diplomatic experience and the ability to analyze and find effective remedies to complex problems,”
As part of the new hostage policy, Obama said the administration will no longer threaten to criminally prosecute families of hostages who pay ransom to get loved ones back. O’Brien will be part of a “fusion cell,” — also announced in June — made up of officials from the FBI, the State Department, the Pentagon and CIA, and he will have “one overriding goal: using diplomacy to secure the safe return of Americans held hostage overseas,” Kerry said.
O’Brien’s formal title will be “special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.” But despite calls by some hostage families and members of Congress to create a hostage “czar” with broad power across government agencies, the position will not report directly to the president. Instead, O’Brien will answer to the secretary of State and work with a “fusion cell” of representatives from the FBI, the military, the Treasury Department and intelligence agencies. White House Homeland Security Adviser Lisa Monaco said O’Brien’s job would be to “synchronize diplomatic efforts in support of comprehensive strategies to bring home American hostages” and to communicate those efforts directly to the families of hostages. O’Brien is currently Vice Chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group, a global business and strategy consulting firm.