An Imperfect Hero Joseph Wilson's War

Former US diplomat Joseph Wilson was the first senior government official to expose the lies upon which the Bush administration was building its case for war against Iraq. Politics and the media destroyed Wilson's reputation, but history has proved him right in the end. Now he is fighting to restore his good name.

By Alexander Osang


Outed CIA agent Valerie Plame, with her husband Ambassador Joseph Wilson in July 2006.
DPA

Outed CIA agent Valerie Plame, with her husband Ambassador Joseph Wilson in July 2006.

Former US diplomat Joseph Wilson these days meets with visitors to Washington in hotel bars. His venues of choice in the US capital are the Mayflower and Four Seasons, both places where cigars are still allowed. Wilson is passionate about his cigars, and he is probably one of the few opponents of the war in Iraq who occasionally quotes the magazine Cigar Aficionado. It is late September, Wilson is sitting in the bar in the Four Seasons with his Palm Pilot deposited on a cocktail table next to a bowl of salted almonds and a mobile phone earpiece clipped to his ear. Our appointment isn't for another 15 minutes, but he appears to have been sitting here for hours. It's always this way, even when one arrives an hour early. Wilson is always there first, as if he lived in these hotel bars. Has anything changed since our last meeting?

"I'm surviving. We must win this war. History isn't written by losers," says Wilson.

And who exactly is the "we" he's talking about?

"Valerie and I."

He has been consumed by this war for more than three years now, this war that began as such an enormous undertaking. Wilson was one of the first to state publicly that the American government's reasons for going to war with Iraq were based on falsehoods. He fought against the war, against the White House, for democracy, for world peace and for truth. But nowadays he seems to be fighting only for himself and his wife.

In February 2002, the administration sent Wilson, a former ambassador, to Niger to find out whether then Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was buying or intended to buy 500 tons of yellowcake. Yellowcake is a substance that can be used in nuclear weapons production, and there are uranium mines in Niger. Wilson, who still maintained strong contacts on the African continent from his days there as a diplomat, wrote in his report to the administration in Washington that he had found no indications of illegal uranium transactions.

A few months later, despite the information in the Wilson report, US President George W. Bush used the alleged yellowcake deal in Niger as justification for the war against Iraq. Specifically, Bush used 16 words in his address to the nation, 16 words that Joseph Wilson found so outrageous that he wrote an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times in the summer of 2003, in which he described his trip to Niger and explained that the United States had entered the Iraq war under false pretenses. The Bush administration promptly admitted that the 16 words did not satisfy the standard for an official government statement. But unable to assail Wilson's argument, the administration decided to attack the man instead.

It leaked a rumor to the Washington press that Wilson's wife Valerie had arranged his trip to Niger. Valerie Wilson was working as an undercover CIA agent under her maiden name, Plame, as the journalist Robert Novak disclosed in his column in the Washington Post. Agent Plame's cover had been revealed. Whoever disclosed her name to Novak was guilty of a crime under US law. The Department of Justice assigned US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald to investigate the matter. Joseph Wilson, buoyed by public outrage and the good intentions of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, announced that he would not rest until Bush's spin doctors and Novak's friend Karl Rove, who Wilson suspected was behind the affair, were escorted from the White House in handcuffs.

Hero for a summer

For almost an entire summer, Joseph Wilson was an American hero. He dined with Robert De Niro, who seemed interested in shooting a film about his life. John Kerry made him a member of his team of advisors. It was rumored that he would speak at the Democratic Party convention in Boston. He wrote a book called "The Politics of Truth." He appeared on all the major TV networks.

At the peak of his fame, Vanity Fair published a photo showing Joseph Wilson in his Jaguar convertible. The top was down and his wife Valerie, wearing a white head scarf and large sunglasses, sat in the passenger seat. Wilson said that when he checked his mailbox after a round of golf, during which he was forced to switch off his mobile phone, he had 80 messages from journalists. He didn't forget to mention his golf handicap, which was 12.

A short time later, the Democrats decided not to make the war in Iraq their key issue in the election campaign. Joseph Wilson was not invited to the Democratic convention. John Kerry lost the election, and Karl Rove was still there.

The Fitzgerald investigation progressed slowly and behind closed doors. Joseph Wilson's war, which had begun so easily, was becoming increasingly complex. A number of respected journalists were involved in the affair. Administration officials had leaked Valerie Plame's CIA cover to Robert Novak, who was the first to disclose her identity in his column in the Washington Post, as well as to Pulitzer Prize winner Judith Miller, of the New York Times, Matt Cooper, the Washington correspondent for Time, and even Bob Woodward, the renowned journalist of Watergate fame.

Novak was a friend of Karl Rove, and Judith Miller had breakfasted with Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis Libby, so many times that they were rumored to be having an affair. And when Woodward appeared on TV talk shows, he behaved almost as if he were a member of the Bush cabinet. All had interesting stories. Wilson began getting fewer messages from journalists. Today it’s relatively easy to obtain an interview with him.

Wilson is waiting for things to come together as he watches the cumbersome American judicial system at work. He pays close attention to the respective fates of Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and Lewis Libby. Even during interviews, he maintains the same, consistent approach. He sits in alternating hotel bars in alternating cities, places his mobile phone on a table, gazes at the flat screen TVs behind the bars, keeps answering the same questions and waits for something to happen in the world outside.

President Bush, joined at right by his political adviser Karl Rove, calls an end to a cabinet meeting.
AP

President Bush, joined at right by his political adviser Karl Rove, calls an end to a cabinet meeting.

In early May, Wilson was waiting in the bar of New York’s Warwick Hotel, waiting for Rove to emerge from a hearing before the investigative committee after spending more than two and a half hours in a room with Special Prosecutor Fitzgerald. It was Rove’s fifth hearing. No one had been questioned so many times in connection with the case, a fact Wilson saw as a good sign.

He watched the TV screen in the bar, waiting for his mobile phone to ring, waiting to be the first to find out that they had Rove by the balls, as he called it. His wife had left the CIA, and 2,400 American soldiers had already been killed in Iraq. After drinking two double espressos, Wilson had to leave the bar before Karl Rove emerged from the hearing. He was in New York to attend Vanity Fair’s Tribeca Film Festival party that evening. As always, he sat at Robert De Niro’s table. He calls De Niro “Bob.”

It’s now the fall of 2006 and Wilson is sitting in the bar at the Four Seasons. The television news programs are full of the stories of a member of Congress and his improper correspondence with an underage boy. It’s only one of the minor scandals that constantly deflect interest from Wilson’s cause. He calls them needle bombs. The Iraq war has already claimed 2,700 American lives, says Wilson.

Proven right

It has since been revealed that former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was the one who first mentioned Valerie Wilson’s name. Armitage spoke with Novak and Woodward. Rove spoke with Novak and Cooper. Libby spoke with Judith Miller. Someone found a copy of Joseph Wilson’s New York Times Op Ed piece on which Dick Cheney had scribbled: “Did his wife send him on a junket?” It was all true. Wilson was right.

Joseph Wilson’s name appears in the index in every recent book critical of Bush. It appears most frequently in “Hubris,” the book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff, in which they describe how the White House sold the Iraq war. The book is at top of the bestseller lists. In fact, Wilson and his wife receive more mentions in the book than Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza, Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden combined.

The authors prove that Wilson’s wife played no role whatsoever in her husband’s trip to Niger. They describe in detail how the White House pressured the CIA to come up with arguments in favor of the Iraq war, a war it had decided to pursue long ago. They explain the web of a wide variety of interests of politicians, journalists and intelligence officials into which the Wilson’s fell. No other case demonstrates more clearly how unscrupulously, arrogantly, deceitfully and inconsiderately the Bush administration pushed its war plans. In fact, Corn’s and Isikoff’s book is really a book about Joseph Wilson and about his own war.

“I haven’t read it,” says Wilson, “I haven’t had the time.”

Or perhaps he wasn’t able to get past the introduction, where the authors write that Wilson is an imperfect critic of the Bush administration.

“I never said that I was perfect,” says Wilson. “But it wasn’t about me, damn it. It was about a war. They just made it look like it was about me. That’s the way Karl Rove operates. He attacks people’s character.”

It is as a result of these character attacks that everyone now knows that Joseph Wilson wears Hermes ties, and that he loves Cuban cigars, surfing, skiing and golf. We know his handicap and that he has been married several times. We know that he likes to quote Thomas Jefferson and George Orwell when he talks about his case. We are familiar with his penchant for forceful language and celebrities. All of this combined doesn’t produce a likeable image, and that was precisely the point. When someone on the street asked columnist Robert Novak about the yellowcake affair, Novak’s only response was: “Joe Wilson is an asshole.” That was his only answer.

Going after the man

Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and Lewis Libby went after the man. They made him seem less significant, taking the same approach Republican candidates have frequently taken in dealing with their adversaries. When Texas Governor Ann Richards ran against George W. Bush in his first political campaign in 1994 and won, the Republicans told Texan voters that she was a lesbian, and when Vietnam veteran John Kerry ran for president, they made him out as a coward and traitor to his country.

“They throw shit into the wind and hope that some of it sticks,” says Wilson. And it worked. Plenty of shit has remained stuck to the walls of their respective adversaries.

When Valerie and Joseph Wilson filed a civil suit against Cheney, Rove and Libby this summer, CNN reported it as a sort of joke and ran James Bond music in the background. Three years after Joseph Wilson and his wife were the hottest news in Washington, they’ve now become open targets for every reporter’s jokes and disparaging comments. The Wall Street Journal called him Joseph “Yellowcake” Wilson, as if he were a comic figure.

“Oh, you know, I really couldn’t give a crap about the Wall Street Journal,” says Wilson. “But their Op-Ed pieces and lead stories did hurt me economically.”

How exactly does he earn a living these days?

“I’m working on two projects, although I don’t really want to talk about them, otherwise they’ll just destroy them again. Aside from that, I make a living with lectures and book sales,” says Wilson.

How many books has he sold?

“I don’t know,” says Wilson.

Did he underestimate the impact of his article in the New York Times?

“I misjudged how close politics and media have become in Washington. All the top reporters just sat on the information that had been leaked to them by the White House, and they didn’t use it. Ultimately, that was how they helped pull the Bush administration through the last election. And that’s the real disgrace,” says Wilson. “For two and a half years, Bob Woodward said nothing about the fact that Richard Armitage was the one who blew my wife’s cover. Two and a half years. The man who brought down President Nixon,” says Wilson. “Woodward became a part of the system he had once fought.”

Perhaps Wilson filed the civil suit because he no longer trusts anyone but himself. In spite of everything, Rove, Cheney and Libby are still out there walking around, after all this time.

Washington is a small city. Wilson lives only five minutes from downtown, and his next engagement, a fundraiser in Georgetown for a Democratic congressman, is nearby. Wilson drives his wife’s Toyota Prius through Washington’s measured afternoon traffic. The on-board computer supplies a confusing wealth of information about the small, environmentally friendly vehicle’s operation.

“I’m sorry I can’t offer you a ride in the Jaguar. But this car, of course, is much better for the environment,” says Wilson, which brings him to Al Gore.

“Who would have thought that Al Gore and a slide presentation would’ve produced a gripping documentary film,” he says, and laughs. And then he talks about what he has probably wanted to talk about all along, namely that at the last Sundance Film Festival, where Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” had its premiere, Gore invited Wilson and his wife to attend a dinner with the festival’s organizers.

“Al Gore introduced me as the man who was on the right side in both the first and the second Gulf wars,” says Wilson. He drives two blocks in silence, allowing his sentence to sink in. He was in favor of the American invasion during the Gulf War and against it in the war against Iraq, and by mentioning it he probably intends to show that he isn’t all that predictable. Then he adds: “I’ve known Al for 20 years. He’s a good friend.”

Men like Al Gore pop up in his speech like well-intentioned quotations on the dust jackets of books. The first president Bush invited him to the White House in 1991 because Wilson, then the deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Baghdad, had taken in hundreds of US citizens despite the fact that Saddam Hussein had threatened to execute anyone who refused to hand over foreigners. Wilson was the last American diplomat in Iraq, and Bush called him a great patriot. During former president Bill Clinton’s extended trip through Africa, the Senegalese president said to him: “Mister President, I am quite aware of the fact that we have Joseph Wilson to thank for the fact that you are here today.” Nowadays, Wilson uses these men to surround himself with a sort of protective shield.

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