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Chris Hill, Very Confused

9:22 AM, Mar 27, 2009 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Did Christopher Hill, Barack Obama's nominee to serve as Ambassador to Iraq, lie under oath during his confirmation hearing on Wednesday? One exchange he had with Senator Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, deserves considerable scrutiny.

Wicker read Hill a passage from the piece I wrote about Hill for this week's TWS. That article focused on two incidents in which Hill disregarded George W. Bush's policy of refusing to conduct bilateral negotiations with North Korea.

Wicker first read this paragraph: "Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had given Hill permission to meet face-to-face with the North Koreans but only on the condition that diplomats from China were also in the room. Although the Chinese participated in the early moments of the discussions, they soon left. Hill did not leave with them."

And then he read this passage, a direct quote from Meltdown, an exhaustively reported book on the North Korean nuclear crisis written by CNN reporter Mike Chinoy. "Although Rice remained supportive of reviving the diplomatic process, Hill had held the bilateral discussion with North Korean negotiator Kim Gye Gwan in defiance of her instructions."

Hill's response is incredible -- literally:

Well, thank you. Thank you very much.

Actually, what this was was the start of the -- this was in the summer of 2005, and this was an effort to get the six-party process going because the North Koreans had boycotted. And so what Secretary Rice agreed to do was to have bilateral -- a bilateral meeting with the understanding that the North Koreans would then announce at the end of the bilateral meeting their participation in the six-party process. But she wanted the Chinese to be there.

So which is it? Did Rice agree to "a bilateral meeting" with the North Koreans or did she want the Chinese to be there? They are mutually exclusive. Did Rice tell Hill he could simply disregard Bush administration policy? Unlikely. Chinoy, who interviewed Hill for his book and offers a sympathetic account of Hill's diplomatic work, explains it this way on page 239 of his book. "The North Koreans made clear that, while they were open to returning to the talks, they wanted a bilateral meeting with Hill before making any announcement. Hill's problem was that Rice and other senior officials, while willing to sanction a meeting, insisted that it be trilateral, with China participating as well." [Emphasis added]

They "insisted" that China participate as well. If that's right -- and it's consistent with my reporting, administration policy and at least part of Hill's answer -- then Rice did not "agreed to a bilateral meeting" with North Korea in the summer of 2005.

Hill continued his response to Wicker at the hearing:

The Chinese came, but the North Koreans were not willing to carry on the meeting with the Chinese. So I was there in the meeting room. The North Koreans were arriving, and the Chinese were disappearing. So the question I had -- and Secretary Rice was in the air in between Anchorage, where she had a refueling stop, and coming into Beijing. So the audible I had to call at that point was, do I continue the meeting or do I walk out?

That is, do I adhere to the stated policy of the president or do I freelance? Hill decided to freelance. And, as Chinoy points out, he did not have to call an audible at all. "He could have called Rice on her plane to ask for guidance. Instead, displaying the willingness to take risks and to stretch -- if not ignore -- his instructions that would characterize his modus operandi in the coming months, Hill decided to go ahead on his own and present her with a fait accompli."

More Hill, from the hearing:

Secretary Rice arrived that night in Beijing, and in the morning -- and I remember this very clearly -- she was quite angry, but quite angry with the Chinese for not having remained through the process. And she expressed that directly to the Chinese foreign minister in a meeting that I attended -- that is, the next morning. So that was the incident with respect to the meeting with the North Koreans.

This presents a question. If Secretary Rice had "agreed" to "have a bilateral meeting" with the North Koreans, as Hill testified under oath, why would she have been "quite angry" that the Chinese did not attend the meeting? On its face, Hill's testimony makes no sense.

Wicker concluded by asking HIll whether he and Rice had a confrontation about the "audible" Hill called. "Never," Hill responded.