The Obama administration asked former President Bill ClintonBill ClintonHarvard spat between Clinton, Trump camps proves Dems can't accept Trump's improving Trump flirts with Dems for Cabinet Ark. lawmaker wants Clintons' names removed from Little Rock airport MORE to travel to North Korea meet with leader Kim Jong-Il to negotiate the release of two American journalists who were imprisoned for entering the country illegally, according to a congressional source briefed on the matter.
This counters what the White House said earlier in the day, when White House press secretary Robert Gibbs
characterized Clinton’s trip as a “private mission” and declined
"While this solely private mission to secure the release of two Americans is on the ground, we will have no comment. We do not want to jeopardize the success of former President Clinton's mission," Gibbs said in a statement.
But a former Clinton administration official told The Hill that a
former president traveling to North Korea surely had Obama
behind his mission.
"You don't deploy somebody of that magnitude without an understanding of what's going on," said Robert Hunter, a senior adviser at RAND Corp. who served as NATO ambassador under Clinton. "Clinton didn't show up in an airplane and just land; that's not something you do.
"The former president wouldn't go unless he had the backing of the president and there was a clear understanding that the journalists would be released," Hunter said. "The risk of embarrassment is too great if he came back empty-handed."
Risking criticism for engaging with North Korea soon after it undertook
a series of belligerent actions, President Barack ObamaBarack ObamaHarvard spat between Clinton, Trump camps proves Dems can't accept Trump's improving Wrestling mogul McMahon could slam her way into Trump administration Obama promotes bipartisan cures bill MORE took a
calculated gamble and won Tuesday afternoon when North Korean officials
announced they would pardon the two journalists.
North Korean media reported Tuesday that Kim had pardoned Americans Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who were convicted of entering the country illegally and "hostile acts." The two journalists were working for former Vice President Al GoreAl GoreStein’s recount effort is important — here’s why The power of paper Trump's victory margin smaller than total Stein votes in key swing states MORE's Current TV when they were arrested March 17 near China's border with North Korea. Lee and Ling were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor.
Republicans criticized Obama during the 2008 campaign for pledging to personally engage rogue leaders such as Kim and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“I think it sends the wrong message to continue to talk to them and treat them as a responsible country when they haven’t acted like a responsible country,” Sen. Kit Bond (Mo.), the senior Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said before the release of the two journalists was announced.
Bond said sending Clinton was a “half-way” compromise to Obama sitting down with Kim himself, describing Clinton’s trip as “half a bad step instead of a full bad step."
Other Republicans took a softer tack.
Sen. John McCainJohn McCainA Cabinet position for Petraeus; disciplinary actions for Broadwell after affair Meet Trump’s ‘mad dog’ for the Pentagon Wrestling mogul McMahon could slam her way into Trump administration MORE (Ariz.), who as the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee criticized Obama on the campaign trail for expressing willingness to meet with rogue leaders, declined to question the president Tuesday.
“All I know is that President Clinton is trying to secure the release of two American citizens and I hope his mission succeeds,” McCain said before news broke that the journalists had received pardons.
State Department spokesman Darby Holladay declined to comment on Clinton’s trip.
Bridget Johnson contributed to this report.