Spy Games

11.08.14 6:24 PM ET

To Free American Prisoners, America’s Top Spy Goes to North Korea

Matthew Todd Miller and Kenneth Bae are free. But why was James Clapper the man chosen to pick them up from Pyongyang?

What was the U.S. Director of National Intelligence doing in North Korea on Saturday? One thing, for sure, was picking up two American citizens, Matthew Todd Miller and Kenneth Bae, whom Pyongyang has been holding. If there was another goal, the Obama administration is keeping mum about it.

After prolonged negotiations for the release of the Americans, the administration’s decision to send DNI James Clapper to pick them up was highly unusual. Historically, Washington’s emissaries involved with prisoner releases have been an ex-officials, including former presidents, or retired diplomats.

“DNI Clapper traveled as an envoy of the President and went on the Administration's behalf,” a senior State Department official told the Daily Beast. “We do not want to speak for the North Koreans, but apparently they did not object to his traveling to Pyongyang.”

Clapper has spent his entire career in the intelligence community, and North Korea has been a major concern for U.S. intelligence agencies that seek to monitor the progress of its nuclear weapons program. The two Americans who were released—just one day before President Obama embarks on a trip to Asia—had been convicted in North Korean courts of crimes against the state and espionage. Bae, a tour operator, had spend two years in prison, Miller had been in for seven months. Both had been accused of acts hostile to the North Korean state.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether Clapper gave the North Koreans any assurances about what the two men had been doing in the country.

The State Department official said that Clapper’s visit doesn't signal a thaw in U.S.-North Korea relations, particular over the status of its nuclear weapons program and its human rights record

The official added that Clapper “was not there to negotiate” with North Korea. “DNI Clapper was prepared to listen to what North Korea has to say on the nuclear issue, and to reiterate our long-standing nuclear policy,” the official said. “North Korea knows what it needs to do if it wants a better relationship with the international community and wants to end its isolation and pariah status. North Korea must show it is serious and prepared to abide by its commitments, particularly concerning denuclearization. And they must take significant steps to improve their human rights record. The release of our citizens is unrelated.”

Clapper’s visit to North Korea caught much of Washington by surprise. The official said the State Department notified “relevant congressional leadership once DNI Clapper’s visit was underway.” U.S. allies and partners were also told “so that they understood that this trip was undertaken for the purposes of obtaining the safe release of our citizens,” the official said.