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November 17, 2021
In a move straight out of a movie, a former US governor helped free an American journalist sentenced to prison in Myanmar. Learn about this master negotiator in today's Wrap..
Last week, Myanmar sentenced US journalist Danny Fenster to 11 years in prison. Within days, he was freed. The person responsible was former New Mexico Governor, Bill Richardson.
Perhaps the most recognized hostage negotiator in the US, Richardson is known for traveling to nations with which the US has poor relations to free detained Americans. Fenster, the one just released, had spent 5+ months in a Burmese jail. He had been running a news outlet in Myanmar when the military overthrew the government last winter.
Richardson became a renowned government negotiator while a New Mexico congressman from 1983 to 1997. After privately facilitating a major trade agreement with Mexico (NAFTA), he became a go-to US envoy for difficult diplomatic missions.
Richardson has helped secure the releases of American prisoners from Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and elsewhere, having held talks with Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un. During the Clinton administration, he earned the nickname “Undersecretary of Thugs.”
Richardson attributes his negotiation skills to his time as a congressman. His district included 28 sovereign Indian tribes, a large Hispanic population, and the state's richest and poorest counties. “After participating in over 2,300 town meetings, you learn to negotiate on your feet," he once said. "Having negotiated with all these tribes over the years, you learn patience.”
Eventually he went on to become ambassador to the UN, energy secretary, and governor of New Mexico. While in public office, he continued to meet with hostage-takers around the world. As governor of New Mexico in 1996, he traveled to North Korea to negotiate the first release of a US civilian there since the Korean War.
Richardson’s career hasn’t been without criticism. In 2011, he launched a foundation to facilitate prisoner releases that led to controversial trips to North Korea, Myanmar, and elsewhere. In 2013 the US government criticized a “humanitarian visit” he made to North Korea with Google chairman Eric Schmidt.
Richardson has also been accused of having ties to Jeffrey Epstein, whose New Mexico mansion he visited at least once. Richardson’s name appeared in Epstein’s “little black book,” which contained the contact information of hundreds of high-profile individuals, and one Epstein victim accused Richardson of sex crimes. Richardson denies all accusations, and a spokesperson has said that "they did not know each other well."
Yet Richardson has helped free many Americans from being locked up abroad. Journalist Danny Fenster joined that group on Monday, saving him from 11 years’ imprisonment. “We cannot wait to hold him in our arms," Fenster’s family said, adding, “We are tremendously grateful to all the people who have helped secure his release, especially Ambassador Richardson.”
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