Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Blago On the Hunt for Osama?

Did Rod Blagojevich seriously think he could track down the al-Qaeda mastermind? It’s not as farfetched as it sounds: it wouldn’t have been the first time the former governor had come face to face with a notorious villain on the world stage.

Rod Blagojevich’s lawyer Aaron Goldstein wants the jury to believe that his client’s captured-on-tape musings about the benefits he could reap from particular appointments to Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat were totally wacky—a loopy but essentially honest guy just shooting off  his big mouth. So on the fifth day of Blago’s testimony Goldstein asked, “Did you discuss the idea of appointing yourself [to the Senate]and going to Afghanistan to hunt down Osama Bin Laden?”

“Yes,” Blago answered.

When I heard the news, I immediately thought that boy Blago might actually have thought he could accomplish that. He had, after all, earlier in his career—when he was a U.S. Congressman—come face to face with a foreign villain.

In 2003, seated in his office in the Thompson Center, the new governor told me the story of his encounter with Slobodan Milosevic, the internationally reviled Serbian president of Yugoslavia. Blago obviously relished the memory of having had a starring role on the world stage.

Here’s the story, containing several familiar names, including Jesse Jackson, Jr. and Blago buddy and Yugoslavia traveling companion John Wyma—the same Wyma, now a familiar presence on the witness stand, who approached the FBI and began cooperating in its investigation of Blago.

NATO had launched air strikes against Yugoslav troops under Milosevic’s command. Meanwhile, Milosevic was holding three American POWs, and Jesse Jackson, Sr., wanted to go to Belgrade to meet with Milosevic and plead for the freedom of the Americans. As the only Serb in Congress, he knew he could get that meeting, and that his fluency in Serbian would help in negotiating. He approached Jackson through his son, Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. Arrangements were made to go, despite the opposition of the Clinton administration, which stressed that the safety of Jackson and Blagojevich could not be guaranteed and that NATO would not stop bombing just because they were there. “You have no business doing this and are likely to be killed,” an aide to then-National Security Adviser Sandy Berger warned them.

One former colleague in the Illinois House called him shortly before he left to wish him good luck.  He told her he was “really happy. It was getting boring here in Washington, just like Springfield…. This makes people deal with me.”

Before dawn on their first night at the Hyatt Belgrade, a precision bomb “took out a huge building,” Wyma, then Blago’s chief of staff, told me. The men were staying at opposite sides of the hotel, and at 3 a.m. Blagojevich awoke Wyma with a phone call.  “Are you seeing this, man?  Are you seeing this?” Wyma went to Blagojevich’s room, where he found the Congressmen in his running shorts watching the destruction out his window as if it were a special effects extravaganza.  

At 4:45 that morning, accompanied by a cameraman from HBO—the cable channel planned to make a documentary on the trip but scraped it when the cameraman was not allowed in the meeting with Milosevic—the congressman and his chief of staff went running through the streets of Belgrade. Despite the danger, Blagojevich says he found the experience full of poignancy. He couldn’t stop thinking, “I’m standing probably where my father [had stood].”

The next day they had their meeting with Milosevic, who offered to release just one G.I. According to friends of the governor’s, Milosevic seemed far more interested in Blagojevich than in Jackson, which allegedly irritated the civil rights leader. “Why are you all taken with him,” Jackson asked. “He’s your homey and he voted for the bombing and my son voted against the bombing.” For the next half hour, Blagojevich tried to explain to Milosevic the meaning of the world “homey.” 

Eventually, Milosevic released all three POWs. Blagojevich told me that he knew he’d be elbowed out of the way by Jackson as soon as the TV cameras rolled, and he professed not to mind. But Mell minded a lot. “Rod didn’t hog the front page like he could have and should have because Rod put it all together,” Mell told me.

But Blagojevich was looking to the future, and he understood that the successful trip would help him in a run for governor. As one former alderman who has been active in local politics says, “When Mell came around asking people for contributions, [he’d boast], ‘This isn’t just some child. This is the guy we see on the front pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post.’" 

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