The Cable

Capping Months of Debate, White House Appoints Top Hostage Recovery Official

The White House announced Friday that former diplomat James O’Brien has been tapped for the role.


When the White House announced the findings of its long-awaited review of U.S. hostage policy in June, a key recommendation was the appointment of a presidential envoy to coordinate all of the efforts being made across the entire government to secure their release. That envoy now has a name, with the White House announcing Friday that former diplomat James O’Brien has been tapped for the role.

O’Brien is currently vice chair at Albright Stonebridge Group, a strategy and consulting firm. He held several roles at the State Department from 1989 to 2001, including serving as a senior adviser to then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and as a top official in the Office of Policy Planning, a kind of in-house think tank for Foggy Bottom. O’Brien also worked on the 1995 Dayton Accords, which ended the Bosnian War.

In a statement, Secretary of State John Kerry called O’Brien “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.”

O’Brien’s appointment is a part of the culmination of a painful piece of bureaucratic reckoning after the White House came under intense criticism for its inability to win the release of four Americans held by the Islamic State as well as one held inside Pakistan by al Qaeda.  

While the United States has refused to pay ransoms to militant groups holding Americans hostage, its European allies have repeatedly paid millions of dollars to bring their citizens home.

And as Europeans have walked free, Americans captured by militant groups have paid the ultimate price for their government’s hostage policy. The journalists James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and Abdul-Rahman Kassig were all executed by the Islamic State. The aid workers Kayla Mueller and Warren Weinstein were killed in airstrikes while in captivity. The Mueller family has recently said that government officials told them their daughter had been repeatedly raped while held by ISIS.

The families of these hostages have leveled withering criticism at the White House for its unwillingness to provide timely information on the plight of their relatives, and several have said they were told they’d be prosecuted if they tried to pay ransom money to the groups holding their loved ones. The families have described the efforts to recover their relatives as halting and poorly coordinated.

The hostage review released in June came in part as a response to that criticism. In announcing its findings, the White House said that families should not fear prosecutions for paying ransoms and announced the creation of a “fusion center” chaired by an FBI agent to coordinate hostage recovery efforts.

But Obama declined to appoint a so-called “hostage czar,” a senior official at the National Security Council to oversee the interagency process geared toward securing hostages’ release. The family members of some hostages and some members of Congress had called for such a position to be created in order to assign responsibility for the overall effort to a single senior official with the authority to adjudicate among the many agencies involved in hostage recovery.

Instead, the policy review recommended the creation of a “Hostage Response Group,” an interagency policy group to be chaired by the National Security Council’s senior director for counterterrorism.

So the appointment of O’Brien is another falling into place of the bureaucratic puzzle pieces of this entity aimed at bringing greater coherence to bear on hostage recovery efforts. “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,” Kerry said in his statement.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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