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Obama Appoints First Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs

The new position is designed to help secure the safe return of American hostages, and follows criticism from families that not enough was being done.
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President Barack Obama appointed a former State Department official to the new position of special envoy for hostage affairs, the White House announced Friday.

Jim O’Brien will work with foreign governments to secure the safe return of American hostages, according to a statement from Lisa Monaco,the President's Advisor on Homeland Security and Counterterrorism. O’Brien will also work directly with the families of hostages.

"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," said Secretary of State John Kerry, who O'Brien will report to.

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.

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 information we received over three and a half years was inconsistent at best and utterly disappointing," Elaine Weinstein, the wife of Dr. Warren Weinstein, an American hostage who was mistakenly killed by a U.S. drone strike, after his death was revealed in April.

The mother of Kayla Mueller, who was killed while being held by the terror group ISIS, accused the Obama administration of putting its policy of not paying ransoms to captors "in front of American citizens' lives."

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.

In addition to his role in the Balkans, O'Brien served as deputy director of the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning and as a senior adviser to United Nations Ambassador and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. He is currently Vice Chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group, an international business and strategy advisory firm.