Author: By David Usborne, US Editor
Bing, an erstwhile playboy and certified FOB, or Friend of Bill, lent Mr Clinton the all-white plane that ferried him across the Pacific. And nor was Bing the only player to help make a mission of huge value to the American government into a credible freelance operation.
Yesterday’s revelations on how the trip was secretly assembled revealed the extent of Mr Clinton’s sometimes murky network of contacts. Once considered problematic given the position of his wife as Secretary of State, they give him a unique edge to mediate in crises where the US government might prefer to keep its distance.
Vital on this occasion was his long-standing relationship with Mr Bing, the property development heir and film financer who had a brief brush with the tabloids after a dispute over whether he had or had not fathered a child with the British actress and model Elizabeth Hurley. (He had.)
A reliable donor to Clinton’s foundation, Mr Bing’s recent film projects include The Polar Express and Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Stones documentary Shine A Light.
With special permits issued at the last minute by the Federal Aviation Authority, the all-business class Boeing 737 ferried the former president and a small coterie of aides across the water to North Korea with two refuelling stops. The cost of filling its tanks, put at $200,000 (£120,000), will be paid by Mr Bing.
Thanks were given to Mr Bing by Al Gore, the former vice-president. Mr Gore is a co-founder of the news channel, CurrentTV, for which the two women, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, were working when they were arrested in March. “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.
Not to be forgotten, meanwhile, are Dow Chemical and its chief executive, Andrew Liveris. Also Clinton donors, Dow laid on the plane that carried Mr Clinton from his home in New York to Burbank, California, where the Bing aircraft was waiting.
US officials, up to and including Mrs Clinton who is in East Africa all this week, continue to separate the rescuing of the women from the nuclear stand-off with Pyongyang.
“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,” Mrs Clinton said during a stop-over in Nairobi. “Our policy remains the same.”
To suggest that Barack Obama had nothing to do with Mr Clinton’s mercy mission at all would not be strictly accurate, however. It was the White House that approached the former president about attempting the mission. Mr Clinton agreed, but was said to have left with strict instructions from President Barack Obama’s National Security team to stick rigidly to his brief.
Analysts doubt whether Mr Clinton stuck entirely within those limits. If nothing else, he had a rare opportunity to note the physical health of Kim Jong-il, whose exact condition is a matter of great interest to the US authorities who started to debrief Mr Clinton yesterday. Whatever else, though, the fact of the meeting having happened gives both sides a chance to continue talking.
“The North Koreans had a terrific face-saving opportunity,” noted Jack Pritchard, a former US envoy to the country. “If they didn’t take advantage of this to send positive signals to Mr Clinton, then there’s really no hope for them.”
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