As part of the White House advance team, I traveled to Birmingham, England in April,1998 to help with President Bill Clinton’s schedule during the G-8 Summit, a meeting of the world’s leading economies. At Clinton’s behest Russia became a member of the G-8 the previous year. Assigned to manage arrangements for Clinton’s bilateral meetings, I learned the most important was with Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
For ten consecutive days before the summit began, I tried to meet with my Russian counterpart at the Russian headquarters hotel. The Russians use KGB officers rather than civilian advance teams. Our U.S. Secret Service generally doesn’t commit resources until these tentatively scheduled meetings are established. Even though the press speculated Boris Yeltsin was too ill to attend the G-8, the U.S. was working hard to accomplish this bilateral as a show of Russia’s support for the latest nuclear non-proliferation agreement.
Finally we got word President Yeltsin would meet President Clinton upon the Russian president’s arrival at the hotel, 24 hours after the start of the G-8. That signaled the KGB to admit me to the secure floor of Russian command. I was escorted into a space with long tables and chairs extending all the way down the hallway through every room. The hotel rooms walls had been removed, and tangles of wires dropped from the exposed ceilings to telephones, fax machines, computers, cameras and ominous electronic components. I announced my name and asked for my contact.
The nearest of the twenty-five or more Russians laughed out loud. “We know who you are,” one said.
Wide-eyed at the cornucopia of visual information, I gawked at the long stretch of KGB agents wearing headsets and staring at video screens. One ferret-looking guy strutted around glancing over the others’ shoulders. My Russian contact approached, and we proceeded to the room on the mezzanine reserved for the off-the-record meeting. I called my Secret Service counterpart and the three of us performed our walk-through, agreeing to the safest route for both presidents through the hotel, with enough exposure for the media to observe the two men strolling together.
The day Boris Yeltsin arrived in Birmingham, he fell down the stairs getting off the plane and was carried to his car. He was helped into the hotel elevator but lumbered on his own down the exposed hallway to greet Clinton. My job completed, I left for the staff room in the U.S. headquarters hotel where I saw a televised report that Yeltsin appeared inebriated and the two presidents may have had a less than fruitful conversation.
I met the Russian team once more, a year later in Auckland, New Zealand during the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Though Russia is not a part of APEC, Vladimir Putin flew to Auckland to secretly meet Bill Clinton. I secured a space and told the Russian team when and where to bring Putin. When I briefed President Clinton on the logistics of the clandestine meeting, he told me Putin was a real bad guy. I asked why he was meeting him. Clinton said, “He’ll soon be the next President of Russia.”
I led Clinton to the undisclosed site and saw Putin for what I thought was the first time. Later, in the staff room, it struck me that Putin had been the KGB puppet master in that room in Birmingham the year before.
Vladimir Putin became Acting President of Russia seven months later in December 1999, when Boris Yeltsin abruptly resigned.