President Trump’s new national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, impressed the president with his ability to help negotiate high-profile releases of US prisoners around the world, and drew some admiration from colleagues for his competence.
However, according to multiple sources familiar with hostage negotiation, and O’Brien personally, his experience is still lacking for the particular demands and challenges of the national security adviser role.
One source — a staffer to a Democratic senator on the Foreign Relations Committee, worried that O’Brien would prove too deferential to Trump.
The staffer said: “We don’t get a say because this doesn’t require a Senate appointment but of course there’s concerns in the national security community that this guy — who lacks a background in national security affairs let alone in running an interagency process — will be nothing more than a yes man to the president.”
“He did not expand the power of the hostage mediator role particularly effectively. But, to be fair, I don’t think anyone can carve out a useful power base in this administration unless they work on illegal immigration,” said the Senate staffer.
Outside observers were skeptical too. Dave Rothkopf, a visiting professor in international affairs who published a book on the National Security Council, told Business Insider: “He is the least qualified person ever to hold the job, as close to a foreign policy nonentity as you can imagine. He got the job because of that not in spite of it — that and his knack for the kind of ‘Dear Leader’ flattery Trump loves.”
Trump has lauded O’Brien for what he claims is a 38-0 record in securing the release of Americans detained abroad.
But the family of an American missing in the Middle East said O’Brien — though pleasant to deal with — struck them as a policy lightweight with little knowledge of international issues.
“He returned phone calls and briefed us more than the Obama administration did,” said the family member. “But it was clear he was a lawyer from Los Angeles who was trying to score high-profile goals for his bosses.
The 38-0 claim also struggles to stand up to scrutiny, according to a private security consultant based in Dubai who specializes in kidnapping and ransom operations.
The source noted that O’Brien did manage to secure the release of Andrew Brunson, an US pastor detained in Turkey after the attempted coup there in 2016, and others held by governments around the world.
But, he said, there has been little progress on securing the release of Americans held by militant groups or rogue states around the world.
“Brunson happened on the highest levels — Trump talking directly to Erdogan — and some of the Yemen hostages they refer to as freed were actually rescued by other country’s operations, for example the UAE,” said the security expert.
“But on the tough cases —which generally aren’t public and thus seem to get little attention from a publicity-mad president — there’s no sign O’Brien had the ability to get the rest of the US government to pay attention and act on intelligence or opportunities.”
A European law enforcement official, who works closely on hostage matters in the Middle East, was not impressed with Trump and O’Brien’s efforts in the trial of rapper A$AP Rocky.
The official said: “Trump acts like he and O’Brien got that rapper out of Sweden but it’s not true, they just made a lot of noise as the Swedish justice system did what it was always going to do: Convict the guy for getting into a fight and then send him home.”
“I met with him twice and he seemed like a nice guy, which is important for the role he was in because connecting with the families is most of the job.”
“But I never sensed that he could organize anything in terms of bringing the various parts of the US government together —coordinating intelligence with diplomacy and even the military. That is also part of the job and it’s one that I never felt like he really understood.”
“There was a sense that his relationship with Trump was enough to make up for his lack of substance on national security matters,” the official added.
“But as a top adviser it seems implausible he will be effective, because he never grasped the key things that he will need to do in the new position.”