The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Overreach? Clinton campaign says conservative group’s latest email release actually deals with a successful diplomatic mission

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, at a rally in Philadelphia. (Matt Slocum/Associated Press)
Placeholder while article actions load

A new trove of Hillary Clinton-related emails was released Thursday by a conservative research organization, and the group said they revealed requests for State Department action from Clinton Foundation employees and a key donor in 2009, seeming to add fuel to the notion that the Clintons provided favors to friends and supporters.

"Bill Clinton/Doug Band Sought State Department Favors for Foundation Supporters," said a headline in Thursday's news release from Judicial Watch.

In fact, many of the emails touted by Judicial Watch concern a once-secret mission to North Korea by former president Bill Clinton that led to the release of two American journalists who had been sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for spying. The highlighted emails centered around a moment widely considered a Clinton success, providing the campaign an opening to chide a longtime antagonist whose ongoing litigation against the State Department has produced a series of embarrassing revelations.

"Judicial Watch is now attacking State Department officials and the 42nd President of the United States for rescuing two American journalists from North Korea," said campaign spokesman Josh Schwerin, calling the release "a new low even for this right-wing organization that has been going after the Clintons since the 1990s."

The featured item in Thursday’s Judicial Watch release includes a request from longtime Clinton aide Doug Band for coveted diplomatic passports, which provide easy transit for State Department and other top-level government employees. The request, which was never fulfilled, was part of planning a mission that is generally considered a triumph for American diplomacy and the post-White House career of Bill Clinton.

“Need get me/ justy and jd dip passports,” Band wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s longtime aide, Huma Abedin, in a July 27, 2009, email. “Okay. Will figure it out,” Abedin wrote back moments later.

At the time, Clinton, Band and two aides to the former president — Justin Cooper and Jon Davidson — along with several other advisers and friends were planning the secret trip to Pyongyang, North Korea, in consultation with Obama administration national security experts.

The private Clinton visit was designed to convince aging Korean leader Kim Jong Il to release the two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee. The pair had been arrested near the Chinese border five months earlier while filming a documentary about the trafficking of North Korean women to China. The two were working for a television network then owned in part by former vice president Al Gore, who was not on the Clinton trip but consulted on rescue efforts.

After arriving in Pyongyang on Aug. 4, Clinton attended a banquet with Kim and talked with him privately for several hours. North Korean state media distributed images of the two men, showing a smiling Kim and a grim-looking Clinton. After their meeting, the North Korean leader pardoned the two reporters, who tearfully joined Clinton and his entourage for a trip to Los Angeles where the journalists were reunited with their families.

Since North Korea did not have diplomatic recognition from the United States, the effort to rescue the reporters occurred through private channels with the Clinton Foundation leading the way.
The flights back and forth to North Korea had been arranged by Band using private planes, one a corporate jet used by the chief executive of Dow Chemical, and another, the private jet of longtime Democratic donor and philanthropist, Steve Bing.

After the journalists were safely on American soil, the Obama administration acknowledged that it had been aware of the privately arranged trip.

There was criticism after the trip. Former U. N. ambassador John Bolton, who said that the involvement of a former president in such a rescue mission could appear to reward “dangerous and unacceptable behavior.” He also wondered whether it would set a new standard for the release of detained Americans.

The head of Judicial Watch continued his criticism of the Clintons in an interview Thursday, even after being told of the reason for the Clinton trip.

“If that’s true, it’s further indication that the State Department was outsourcing the foreign policy of the United States to the Clinton Foundation,” said Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch.“It suggests that the foundation and its donors were part of the bench the State Department went to on sensitive issues abroad,” he said.

“We’re trying to figure out where the foundation ended and the state department began. ... That’s why Mrs. Clinton promised to keep the foundation out of government business and vice versa,” he said.

The Clinton party included high-powered individuals with a wide range of experience. Among them: David Straub, a former head of the Korea desk at the State Department then teaching at Stanford University, and John D. Podesta, who had served as Obama’s chief of transition after the 2008 election and gone on to the lead the Center for American Progress. Also on the trip: Band’s brother, Roger.

Among the emails released on Thursday is one suggesting that Bill Clinton wanted his wife to meet with Dow Chemical chief executive Andrew Liveris at a State Department dinner in 2009.

“Wjc wants to be sure hrc sees Andrew Liveris, ceo of dow tomorrow night,” Abedin wrote to State Department scheduler Lona Valmoro. The emails show that Clinton's staff arranged for a brief meeting on the sidelines of an official dinner that Liveris was set to attend. Dow Chemical has been a major donor to the Clinton Foundation, and on its face the email exchange might suggest special access. However, Liveris had provided one of the airplanes that was used to ferry Bill Clinton to the North Korean negotiations, and a Dow Chemical spokeswoman said the meeting concerned the North Korea expedition.

Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.