Wednesday, August 12, 2009

How Bill's Excellent Adventure Was Funded

While used to dealing with fallout from some of the folks in her husband's little black book, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton [above] might have underestimated the importance of Bill Clinton's non-dating contacts.

Not to pour cold water on Bill Clinton - although, God knows, if ever there was someone who needed a cold shower it is our 42nd President - but as details come out about his 'rescue' of two journalists from the hell that is North Korea, shades of arguments made against confirming Hillary Rodham Clinton as Secretary of State are coming to life. President Clinton's central role in the return of the two journalists 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. This after an incident, a few weeks ago, in which one of his business contacts very publicly had the ear of Hillary Rodham Clinton in her role as secretary of state during a visit to India, 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.

For her part, with a lifetime's experience of being upstaged by Bill, Hillary Clinton is used to this. While touring Africa while images of her husband meeting with Kim flashed on television sets around the world, Hillary Clinton felt compelled to address the conflicting images when she spoke from Nairobi. "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."

Of course, that's not what people were upset about: we know there's only one President and no one 'misread' Bill Clinton's journey as being a departure from the Obama Administration's foreign policy. What did upset people, though, was the appearance that diplomatic benefits are flowing from her husband's missions to his clients thanks to his wife's role as Secretary of State.

It is true that no taxpayer money was used to fund the North Korean trip, with the exception of the salaries of the Secret Service agents traveling with President Clinton. Since these salaries would have been paid if he'd been banging a secretary in Peoria or ogling a waitress in the restroom of a Denny's in Topeka, we won't count that as taxpayer money for the trip. Still, 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 - granted, a mere pittance by Clinton standards - 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.

Now, Bing is a heavy-hitter in Clinton fundraising. He is one of the biggest donors to the Clinton Foundation, with gifts totaling $10 million to $25 million. Bing will foot an estimated $200,000 bill for the fuel, the crew and other incidental expenses for the trip. The trip was especially difficult to arrange because Federal Aviation Administration [FAA] regulations prohibit U.S.-registered aircraft from landing in North Korea. The company that owns the plane received a call from Bing about the flight, and 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 Clinton's departure to Pyongyang.

As I mentioned in a previous post, 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. More importantly, he's not nearly the pain in the ass that bill Clinton is. Alas, North Korean officials made it clear that they wanted Bill Clinton and no one else.

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 Gen. James L. Jones asked Clinton to consider making the trip. Full assurances from Pyongyang were not secured until 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 interminable projects.

This is not the first time since her confirmation that Hillary has run into flak over her husband's [non-dating] Rolodex. On her trip to India last month, Hillary Clinton 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.

It will be interesting to see if Secretary Clinton lets that happen to one of President Clinton's clients.

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