The Cable

Behind Bill Clinton's rescue mission (UPDATED)

As the office of former U.S. President Bill Clinton announced that the two American journalists whose release he gained today from North Korea were allowed to fly out with him and were en route to Los Angeles, Washington Korea hands said the arrangement for their release was likely worked out in advance through the "New York" channel.

"It was a done deal before he stepped on the plane, otherwise he would never have gone there," a Hill foreign-policy staffer said, after news reports Tuesday that North Korea's Kim Jong Il had pardoned the women.

Clinton's spokesman Matt McKenna issued a statement Tuesday night saying, "President Clinton has safely left North Korea with Laura Ling and Euna Lee. They are en route to Los Angeles where Laura and Euna will be reunited with their families." Clinton's chartered aircraft from Pyongyang was due to arrive in Los Angeles early Wednesday morning, and was expected to be met by the journalists' families.  

The North Koreans made it clear "that they wanted a high level political figure" to come negotiate the journalists' release, said Korea specialist and former Clinton-era counselor of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency Donald Gross. "They have been insisting for a long time on a high-level [envoy]," he said. "It gives them a lot of face and ... prestige. It demonstrates a high-level commitment by the U.S. of working with North Korea. They wanted someone who could meet Kim Jong Il at his level."

There had been several contenders for the job, said Chris Nelson a veteran Washington foreign-policy watcher who covers Asia policy extensively in his daily newsletter, the Nelson Report. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "has been trying to send [U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy] Stephen Bosworth since March," Nelson said. "I know Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) has been trying to go. [Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations] Bill Richardson has been trying to go. They have been talking with and through the NY connection. ... So there was a lot of back and forth using the New York channel. [Senate Foreign Relations Committee Asia staffer] Frank Jannuzi was involved in a lot of this stuff on Kerry's behalf. So this goes back. They wanted to go and bring those girls home."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "always wanted to send Al Gore," Nelson continued, noting the two detained journalists worked for Current TV, a media company connected to the former vice president. "And apparently that was OK with Hillary and Obama, [whose wish was to] just get this out of the goddamned way."

"But here's where it gets interesting," Nelson continued. "I do not know how it was delivered. But 10 days ago, North Korea sent the U.S. a list of acceptable names. And I am very authoritatively told that not on that list was Al Gore. And Bill was on the list."

"This was the crystallizing event," Nelson said. "After they got the list, the White House decision at the end of last week was to send Bill."

Some reports have suggested Pyongyang's short list of acceptable envoys was conveyed by the North Koreans to the detained journalists who communicated it back to their families.

Secretary Clinton "was quoted a couple days ago saying there are many ways of communicating with North Korea," said Gross. "Their normal channel is the New York channel"  -- the North Korean mission to the U.N. in New York. "Normally, the Korea desk at State is in regular contact with that office."

What to make of the fact that just two weeks ago, North Korea was publicly insulting Secretary Clinton after her tough remarks on North Korea in Thailand late last month?

"It's a classic double-track strategy for North Korea," Gross said. "A week ago Monday, there was a report that North Korea wanted to talk to the U.S. And the U.S. said it would be happy to have bilateral talks in the context of the multilateral [Six-Party] talks, which has been the U.S. position."

Both Nelson and Gross noted that accompanying Clinton to Pyongyang today was David Straub, a retired U.S. diplomat who served as head of the Korea desk and head of the political section at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, and is now the associate director of the Korea Studies Center at Stanford University's Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. "My supposition is that, since this was a private visit, they couldn't send a current U.S. diplomat," so they brought Straub, Gross said.

Also among Clinton's delegation were former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta, who headed the Obama-Biden transition team and currently runs the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning Washington think tank.

"Jeff Bader has a very firm grip" on this mission through Podesta and Straub, said Nelson, referring to the National Security Council's senior director for Asia. The White House attempted to portray the trip today as a private mission, and adamantly denied North Korean press reports that Clinton had conveyed a message from the Obama administration.

Any significance for U.S.-North Korean relations going forward? "One thing to watch in the current situation is that Clinton and Kim Jong Il agreed today that they could settle issues through negotiations," Gross said. "Hopefully this will lead to North Korea coming back to the Six-Party talks," which Pyongyang has rejected in recent weeks.

"I am hopeful this may be a thaw in the overall relationship and we can get back to progress on the nukes stuff," the Hill foreign-policy hand said.

The Cable

Short takes: HRC in Kenya, Holbrooke-Petraeus Pakistan powwow, Brennan speech

7 countries in 11 days. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Kenya at noon, kicking off her longest trip yet in the job: Kenya, South Africa, Angola, DRC, Nigeria, Liberia, Cape Verde: 21,200 miles. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), the chair of the House Foreign Ops subcommittee, and Rep. Donald Payne (D-NJ), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, are accompanying Clinton on the trip.

Former President Bill Clinton arrived in North Korea on a private visit to try to gain the release of two American journalists. "While this solely private mission to secure the release of two Americans is on the ground, we will have no comment," White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a statement. "We do not want to jeopardize the success of former President Clinton's mission." Politico's Mike Allen reports the exclusive back story to the Clinton trip: "North Korean officials told relatives that they would release the women to Clinton, and the family then approached the former president. The White House approved the mission. Secret preparations went on for week." The WSJ adds: "According to a report from South Korea's Yonhap news agency, North Korean radio stations late Tuesday reported that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il hosted a dinner for former President Bill Clinton. The White House said Mr. Clinton did not carry a message from  President Obama to Mr. Kim, contrary to North Korean state media reports."

Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus and Special Rep Richard Holbrooke hosted an 11 hour Pakistan policy discussion at Ft. McNair Monday. "Everyone who works Pakistan policy" from the under secretary/assistant secretary level was there, a source said. Holbrooke has a meeting scheduled this morning with Vice President Joseph Biden, who has expressed his opposition to sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

The Wall Street Journal reports that White House counsel Greg Craig's job is at stake. "Mr. Craig has come under criticism from inside the administration and in Congress for a perceived failure to manage the political issues that have originated from Mr. Obama's decision to close Guantanamo, according to officials in the administration and in Congress. ... One administration official involved in Guantanamo matters defended Mr. Craig, saying he has been responsive and helpful when consulted. One member of Congress who has worked with Mr. Craig on detainee issues, called Mr. Craig 'a smart guy who understands Congress very well.'"

White House Counterterrorism advisor John Brennan is scheduled to give a counterterrorism speech at the Center for Strategic and International  Studies Thursday, The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder reports. "The speech will focus on the CT challenges facing the administration and the institutions the administration is building to contain them," he reports. "Aides say that Obama appreciates Brennan's blunt-speaking manner and his direct experience with the controversial issues with which Obama has had to contend, including renditions, detention policies and interrogations." It will be Brennan's first public address since Obama's inauguration.

The Los Angeles Times reports: "Iranian authorities are questioning three American nationals who strayed across the border into Iran from Iraq's northern Kurdistan region last week, Iranian state media reported today. The deputy governor of Iran's Kordestan province, Iraj Hassanzadeh, told the Fars news agency that the three were still being held in the border town of Marivan, after being arrested Friday in the Malakh-Khor border area. ... However, the State Department says it has still received no official confirmation from Iran that it is holding the Americans. ... Kurdish officials have identified the three as Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Joshua Fattal, all University of California- Berkeley graduates. Bauer and Shourd are reportedly freelance journalists from the Bay area who left their homes last fall to embark on a year of travel and reporting in the Middle East. Fattal had been living in Cottage Grove, Ore., and was also traveling in the region, news reports said."