Washington names first envoy for hostages

The United States named Jim O'Brien -- a former senior diplomat -- to work for the safe return of hostages

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The United States named a senior envoy Friday to work for the safe return of hostages after criticism of its response to the kidnap and murder of Americans held in Syria.

One year ago journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff were killed by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, triggering critical debate over Washington's handling of the crises.

President Barack Obama ordered a review of U.S. policy in hostage cases that led to new protocols for coordinating the national response and helping victims' families.

Foley's parents welcomed the naming of former senior diplomat Jim O'Brien as “First Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs,” attached to the State Department in a coordinating role.

Secretary of State John Kerry said: “Jim will be focused on one overriding goal: using diplomacy to secure the safe return of Americans held hostage overseas.”

“To that end, he will be in close contact with the families of American hostages,” said Kerry, in a nod to criticism from Foley and Sotloff's families that they were kept at arms' length.

After Foley's murder, his family complained the Obama administration had kept them in the dark about developments and had threatened to prosecute them if they sought to pay a ransom.

Parents Diane and John Foley, who have worked on hostage issues and supported hostages' families since their son's killing, including in collaboration with the U.S. government, hope O'Brien will save other families from the same heartbreak they suffered.

In a statement, they said they were “hopeful that under his leadership many of our American hostages will return home.

“We sincerely welcome him and look forward to working with him.”

The envoy will work with the newly created “hostage fusion cell,” which brings together diplomats, CIA spies and FBI agents to handle hostage cases.

Kerry said O'Brien will “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.”

O'Brien previously served as a presidential envoy to the Balkans, but has most recently been working for a private strategy group founded by former secretary of state Madeleine Albright.

In July, after a policy review, Obama announced the fusion cell and said families would not be threatened with legal action, but reiterated that it remains U.S. policy to make no concessions to kidnappers.

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