Trump Poised to Name Long-Awaited Hostage Czar

As Trump celebrates the return of Americans held in North Korea, advocates for hostages in Iran, elsewhere continue to press for action

Robert O'Brien
Robert O'Brien / Wikimedia Commons
May 10, 2018

The long-awaited Trump administration appointment of a hostage czar to coordinate its efforts to win the freedom of Americans imprisoned overseas is expected to be coming soon on the heels of the White House celebration of North Korea's release of three American hostages.

White House and State Department officials have been interviewing candidates for months and have recently selected Robert O'Brien, an attorney who served in the George W. Bush administration's State Department and as the top partner at law firm Arent Fox's California offices, according to knowledgeable sources.

Robert O'Brien is not to be confused with Jim O'Brien, who served several years as the Obama administration's hostage czar, officially called the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.

A National Security Council spokesman in February told the Washington Free Beacon that the administration is trying to find the "right, qualified candidate for this important role, and we will."

A different NSC spokesman on Wednesday said, "We have no personnel announcements at this time."

"The president's commitment to securing the release of detained American citizens and hostages have been made amply clear by his track record," the spokesman said.

President Trump repeatedly pledged to stop the unjust detentions of Americans abroad while on the campaign trail, and while in office has continued to amplify his administration's efforts to win the hostages' freedom as a major commitment.

Trump on Wednesday hailed the release of "3 wonderful gentleman that everyone is looking so forward to meeting," in a tweet and planned to welcome them home personally when they arrived at Andrews Air Force Base with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at 2 a.m. Thursday morning.

Kim Jon Un's regime released Kim Hak-song, Kim Don-chul, and Kim Sang-duk, also known as Tony Kim, on Wednesday after the trio spent up to two years in North Korean labor camps.

Tony Kim's family publicly posted a note of gratitude for "all those who have worked toward and contributed to his return home," and thanked President Trump for "engaging directly with North Korea."

"Mostly, we thank God for Tony's safe return," the Kim family said in its statement.

However, other family members and advocates for Americans who have been tortured and maltreated for years and remain behind bars in Iran's most notorious prisons, as well as those other U.S. hostages held by other dangerous regimes around the world, remain heartbroken over their family members' continued detention.

Several advocates for different prisoners who remain in Iran's notorious Evin prison have previously given high marks to Trump's national security team, especially former national security adviser Dina Powell, who they have met with several times, as well as U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. Powell left the administration in December.

Still, the advocates and family members say, having a designated Trump administration official solely dedicated to working the return of Americans held hostages abroad, would give them even more confidence that the administration is following through on Trump's pledge to prioritize their safe return.

Iran continues to hold at least seven American citizens or legal permanent U.S. residents, as well as numerous other hostages from U.S. allies, against their will.

Jared Genser, a human-rights attorney representing the Namazi family, whose father and one of their sons have been held in Iran for years, said that since Trump was inaugurated the Namazi family has had five different points of contact with the administration.

The plight of Baquer Namazi, a seriously ill, 81-year-old Iranian-American who has suffered several severe health crises while being held in Evin Prison, earlier this year focused new attention on the Trump administration's efforts to engage Tehran and secure both Namazis' release, as well as the release of several other Americans held there.

The Iranian government rebuffed multiple Trump administration attempts in December to reach out and engage on the issue of the American hostages held in Tehran.

Babak Namazi, Baquer's son who lives in Dubai and has publicly advocated for the safe return of his father and brother, told reporters Wednesday that he wants to make sure that his family members' return remains a high priority for the Trump administration as the relationship between Washington and Tehran takes a turn for the worse.

Babak Namazi, who met with several White House officials earlier Wednesday about his father's and brother's continued detention in Iran, was referring to Iranian leaders' denunciations this week of Trump's decision to pull out of the nuclear deal and try to see if there's a way to re-negotiate it on better terms.

While urging the Trump administration to continue to do everything in its power to secure their release, Namazi avoided any effort to criticize Trump's decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action .

Asked repeatedly whether Trump's decision to pull out of the pact reduces his family's leverage to win his father's and brother's freedom, Namazi said: "From my perspective, I have no views on the JCPOA."

"All I can say, is the moment the JCPOA happened, this nightmare began for my family," he said.

Genser noted that Babak Namazi delivered a laminated copy of Trump's tweet during the campaign in which he pledged that the hostage-taking that took place during the Obama administration, when the Namazis were detained, wouldn't occur on his watch.

Namazi previously has said it would be extremely helpful to have one person in the Trump administration spearheading the Trump administration efforts to engage Iran and other regimes holding Americans.

"There needs to be a person at the very top who needs to be responsible for these kinds of actions to seek a negotiated resolution," he told reporters in February.

An attorney for Nizar Zakka, a permanent legal U.S. resident, who was first arrested by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the fall of 2015, issued a statement saying he remains convinced that the Trump administration is doing everything it can to try to secure his clients' release.

Jason Poblete, the lawyer who represents Zakka, said he had a briefing with senior Trump administration officials on Tuesday about the impact of the JCPOA decision and its impact on American hostages in Iran.

"I'm confident that much is being done by the Trump administration to help secure the unconditional release of Americans and other [U.S. legal permanent residents] unlawfully detained in Iran," he said in a statement.

"Mr. Zakka and his family deeply appreciate all the U.S. efforts to successfully resolve this humanitarian matter," he said. "It's time for Iran and other stakeholders to do the right thing and release Nizar, who should be home with his family, not in Evin."

Human rights activists also are organizing a vigil set for this Friday night at Princeton University to rally in support of the release of Princeton student, Xiyue Wang, a U.S. citizen who has been held in Evin prison for nearly two years on what his lawyer says are trumped up espionage charges.

Rep. Chris Smith, (R., N.J.), a leading human rights champion in Congress, is expected to attend the Princeton rally.

"As stakeholders in Washington, D.C. and around the world this week talked about the #IranDeal, also known as the #JCPOA, policymakers must not forget the Americans, [U.S. legal permanent residents], and other innocent persons unlawfully detained in #Iran," says a Facebook post from the Global Rule of Law & Liberty Legal Defense Fund, which is helping organize the rally.

Obama's administration had a mixed record on handling American hostage crises overseas. Obama created the position of hostage envoy in 2015 in response to criticism by families of Americans held hostage by terrorist groups that the administration had failed to keep them informed or response to their inquiries.

The family of James Foley, an American beheaded by ISIS, said the Obama administration had threatened legal action if family members chose to try to collect money to pay ISIS ransom for their son.

The family of Kayla Mueller, a humanitarian activist held prisoner by ISIS, also said after her death in February that they were disappointed in the Obama administration's handling of her years-long detention.

The hostage envoy position Obama created included a "fusion cell" that could serve as a conduit for myriad government agencies' communications with families.

Published under: Donald Trump