By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 6, 2009
Former president Bill Clinton's central role in the return of two journalists detained by North Korea has once again cast a spotlight on his vast web of financial and political contacts, a network that troubled senators who weighed whether to confirm his wife as secretary of state.
In the case of the detainees, Clinton tapped wealthy business people to execute a mission that, without a special federal waiver for the aircraft to travel to North Korea, would have been illegal. A few weeks ago, one of his business contacts had the ear of Hillary Rodham Clinton in her role as secretary of state, an uncomfortable reminder of the former president's far-flung interests and associates.
The intersection of power and connections blurred the exact nature of Bill Clinton's trip to North Korea. He agreed to meet with leader Kim Jong Il two days after North Korea called his wife a "primary schoolgirl" because she had likened the country to an unruly child. The Obama administration took pains to distance itself from the mission, though officials conceded they had repeated contact with North Korean officials in the days leading up to the trip to confirm the journalists would be released if the former president traveled to Pyongyang.
Hillary Clinton, who was touring Africa while images of her husband meeting with Kim flashed on television sets around the world, felt compelled to address the conflicting messages when she spoke with NBC from Nairobi on Wednesday. "I want to be sure people don't confuse what Bill did, which was a private humanitarian mission to bring these young women home, with our policy, which continues to be one that gives choices to North Korea," she said. "Our policy remains the same."
But, in a sign that diplomatic benefits may flow from her husband's missions, she averred, saying: "Perhaps they will now be willing to start talking to us."
No taxpayer money was used to fund the trip, with the exception of the salaries of the Secret Service agents traveling with Clinton. But the former president procured aircraft and crews by tapping companies and contacts that have previously underwritten his endeavors. With some assistance from the Obama administration, he handpicked the team that would accompany him, according to sources involved in the planning.
Dow Chemical, which has contributed as much as $50,000 to the William J. Clinton Foundation, provided the plane that ferried the former president from his home in Westchester County, N.Y., to Burbank, Calif. There, he boarded an all-business-class Boeing 737 jet provided by wealthy Hollywood producer Steve Bing. Clinton was accompanied by a team that included John D. Podesta, who was his White House chief of staff, and a former State Department expert on North Korea.
Bing, who is one of the biggest donors to the Clinton Foundation, with gifts totaling $10 million to $25 million, will foot an estimated $200,000 bill for the fuel, the crew and other incidental expenses for the trip, said Marc J. Foulkrod, chairman of Avjet in Burbank, which manages the plane for the executive. Bing, who is also a major donor to Democratic causes, declined to comment on his involvement in the Clinton trip, a spokesman said, saying Bing does not talk to the media.
Foulkrod said the trip was especially difficult to arrange because Federal Aviation Administration regulations prohibit U.S.-registered aircraft from landing in North Korea. He said that the company received a call from Bing about the flight either late last Thursday or early Friday, and that it took "an unprecedented level of cooperation" from the FAA and the State Department to secure the necessary legal and diplomatic approvals in time for Monday's departure.
The administration had wanted to send former vice president Al Gore to North Korea instead of Clinton; Gore is a co-founder of Current TV, which employs the journalists who were detained. But North Korean officials hinted that they wanted an envoy of Clinton's stature, sources said.
The breakthrough in the standoff over the journalists -- who were sentenced in June to 12 years of hard labor after being seized near the Chinese border in March -- came on July 18, when the women told their families in a phone call that North Korean officials had clearly stated that they would be released if Clinton came to Pyongyang.
U.S. officials immediately began to verify that statement with North Korean counterparts, and on July 24 national security adviser James L. Jones asked Clinton to consider making the trip. One senior administration official said full assurances from Pyongyang were not secured until Monday, the day the former president left Burbank on Bing's jet. At the time of departure, U.S. officials knew that Clinton was scheduled to have a rare meeting with Kim.
Gore praised Bing at a news conference after the plane landed. "To Steve Bing and all the folks who have made the flight possible, we say a word of thanks, deep thanks, as well," he said. The journalists thanked Bing and also Dow and Andrew Liveris, the company's chief executive -- who also is a member of the Clinton Global Initiative, another one of the former president's projects.
Bill Clinton's Rolodex is so vast that Hillary Clinton cannot help but bump into members of his network.
On her trip to India last month, she sat next to another one of her husband's donors, Mukesh Ambani, during a meeting in Mumbai with a group of Indian business tycoons. The European subsidiary of Ambani's Reliance Holdings contributed as much as $250,000 to the Clinton Foundation.
During the meeting, Ambani called for the establishment of joint institutions between the United States and India to develop "clean technology." As it happens, the Clinton Foundation is in talks in India with the provincial government of Gujarat to create the world's largest single solar-power project -- and Reliance is also lining up solar projects in the state. Complicating matters further, Reliance is one of the biggest suppliers of refined gasoline to Iran and could be targeted under congressional efforts to cut off Iran's supply of gasoline.
Bill Clinton in the meantime is not resting on his laurels. His office has announced that he and "leading drug manufacturers" will make "a major announcement" in Harlem on Thursday.