On July 6, 2003, Joseph Wilson transformed himself from low-profile Beltway insider to leading critic of President George W. Bush's foreign policy.
That was the day Wilson, a retired former ambassador to Gabon and the senior American diplomat in Iraq at the beginning of the first Gulf War, had an op-ed published in The New York Times shooting holes in W's rationale for invading Iraq.
Having traveled to Niger on the CIA's dime to investigate whether that African country sold uranium to Iraq, Wilson was in position to cast serious doubt on the infamous "16 words" in Bush's 2003 State of the Union address. "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," Bush had said.
The payback unleashed more authentic weapons of mass destruction. Bush's allies blasted Wilson and outed his wife, covert CIA agent Valerie Plame, and did significant collateral damage to freedom of the press.
The misdirection strategy worked: In the recent flap over whether New York Times reporter Judith Miller should have gone to jail or revealed who told her about Plame, many have forgotten the original issue.
WW interviewed Wilson during his recent visit to Oregon.
WW: Are there things people get consistently get wrong about you?
Joseph Wilson: The big thing is that people have kind of lost sight of the fundamental issues. One is, who put 16 words in the State of the Union Address and why? In other words, why would the president be put in a position where he was misleading Congress and the American people in something as fundamental as the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction in a debate over whether or not we should go to war? The second issue is this whole issue that some senior official or officials compromised national security by leaking my wife's identity.
Who do you think leaked your wife's name, and why?
It's now very clear that the two sources of the information were [deputy White House chief of staff] Karl Rove and [chief of staff to Vice President Cheney] Scooter Libby.
And the leaks' purpose was to divert attention from your report?
Right. My article didn't pretend to be the definitive statement. It just recounted my trip. I make very clear that maybe they weren't talking about Niger or had other information I wasn't aware of, but on the face of it, it would appear they didn't have the case to be made in the State of the Union. But the day after the article appeared, the White House said the 16 words did not warrant "inclusion in the State of the Union address." That pretty much ended their statement, and then everything else was designed to divert attention away from the 16 words to, as one reporter told me, "Wilson and his wife."
Your op-ed must have been a hard decision for a career diplomat-to take on the administration.
That was not the difficult part. I had spent three months trying to encourage the administration to correct the record. All I got was essentially [then-National Security Advisor] Condoleezza Rice going on Meet the Press and saying maybe somebody in the bowels of the agency knew something about this, but nobody in her circle. Which of course we now know was absolutely false. At the time I wrote the article, my name was becoming known within journalistic circles. The only way to put the story back into the box was to write it myself.
You served under the first President Bush, are a registered Democrat and consider yourself a centrist. How do you feel having been adopted by the Democratic Party and Bush critics?
This administration operates so far outside the parameters of generally accepted American political behavior, that it is not me who has veered. It is the politics of the Republican Party. There needs to be some reckoning inside the party over who owns it. Is it what I call the theo-con, neo-con axis, or is it those moderates who have historically led the party? I don't think the party will have that fight until it is defeated or it implodes, which it may well be on the road to doing now.
Are you tired of the limelight?
The limelight has never been the issue. What has been unfortunate is that I entered this debate to provide a somewhat different perspective on U.S. policy toward Iraq. I brought a rather extensive experience in Iraq dealing with the most senior levels of Saddam's government. And since the opening of the investigation into Valerie's identity, all anybody has wanted to talk about is Valerie and this case. I'd much rather be back in the debate on Iraq, and I don't give a shit about the limelight. I think we are so far astray and that there still are too few people with expertise or experience who appear prepared to come out and make counterarguments to those being put out by the administration. When and if the case is over, when and if the Iraq policy is over, I would welcome going back to a much more anonymous life.
To read more of this interview, please go to www.wweek.com.
Were you a registered Republican at one point?
I believe, if I recall correctly, I think I registered Republican for the first election I ever voted in, which was 1972, and I did so to have the opportunity to vote against Richard Nixon twice-once in the primary and once in the election.
But you subsequently changed your registration.
Yeah, I think I have been registered Democrat for most of the rest of my adult life. I voted for George Herbert Walker Bush [in 1992]-because after all, we had been to war together in the Gulf. The issues that have always driven my agenda as a Foreign Service officer have been international and national security issues. I thought, and I still think, that the management of the first Gulf War will be viewed by historians as a case study of how one should manage these types of international crises.
Have you ever heard, since this process began, I guess more than two and half years now, from George Bush Senior?
I have had a number of communications with him both telephonically and written. I have not talked to him in probably more than a year and a half, maybe a little over two years now.
Can you say what the gist of those conversations has been?
No, I have really tried not to characterize them other than to say that he has made it very clear that he is as upset about the compromise of identity of Valerie, as most other people are.
Do you and your wife feel vindication now that Judith Miller is out of jail?
No. With respect to Judy, I say this: Like most Americans, I deeply regret that she would have to spend time in jail standing on the principle that she felt was important to her. But the reason she languished in jail is because her source, who had been instructed by the President of the United States to cooperate fully with the Justice Department, declined to do so...and was too cowardly to step forward and acknowledge his responsibility for what he said to her until after she had spent that time in jail. I'm glad she's out of jail. I'll leave it to others to determine whether her actions or the way this has been handled benefit or really weaken the press.
Has this whole episode put stress on your marriage?
Um, certainly it would stress all relationships. But I think we are stronger for it. It has never compromised the marriage in any way. We both said recently that we think this has given us a deeper understanding of who we are both as people and as a couple.
Has your fame-in some people's eyes, notoriety-been hard on your consulting business?
I wouldn't quarrel with that. I think at the end of the day business is shy, particularly shy of somebody who is visible as an opponent of power. And it hasn't helped that the Wall Street Journal has devoted so much time in its editorial pages to defaming me.
Yeah, they seem to have that ready to roll on any slow day when they've got nothing else to talk about.
They sure do. But of course, as I pointed out in one speech, the Journal was wrong about World War II, it was wrong about Winston Churchill in his Iron Curtain speech, it was wrong about Vietnam, and it is wrong about Wilson and his wife.
Wilson came to Oregon to play golf with his brother-in-law, who lives in Portland. He says his handicap is 12.7.
He also addressed the Oregon Democratic Party summit in Sunriver on Saturday.