WASHINGTON — 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.
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.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was touring Africa while images of her husband meeting with Kim flashed 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 wavered, 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.
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 a Boeing 737 jet provided by Hollywood producer Steve Bing.
Bing, 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 trip, said Marc Foulkrod, chairman of Avjet in Burbank, which manages the plane.
The administration had wanted to send former Vice President Al Gore, 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 came July 18, when the reporters 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 Jones asked Clinton to consider making the trip. One senior administration official said full assurances from Pyongyang were not secured until Sunday.
For his part, Bill Clinton is not resting on his laurels. His office has announced that he and "leading drug manufacturers" will make "a major announcement" in Harlem today.