Skip to comments.The Rise and Decline of Joe Wilson
Posted on 05/10/2004 3:35:32 PM PDT by swilhelm73
New York ON A THURSDAY they had the book party. It was a simple affair: just family, friends, coworkers, and journalists. They came to Ambassador Joseph Wilson's house, nestled in the ritzy Palisades neighborhood of Northwest Washington, to celebrate the release of his first book, The Politics of Truth. One thing Joe Wilson keeps track of is his "Notoriety Quotient," or the amount of attention he receives from the media. And that Thursday it seemed to be on the rise. For the past week The Politics of Truth was mentioned in the same breath as Ron Suskind's The Price of Loyalty and Richard Clarke's Against All Enemies. Like those books, it was said, Wilson's would contain damning charges against the Bush administration.
The media jumped on the story. On Friday the book would be released and Wilson would appear on NBC's Dateline. On Sunday he was booked on Meet the Press. On Monday, Larry King Live. And on Tuesday he was scheduled for his favorite: comedian Jon Stewart's satirical news program, The Daily Show.
Then the book tour would begin, with a trip to California ("my fiefdom," he calls it). After California he'd travel to Seattle ("where of course they love me," he says). And after Seattle he'll come back to Washington via Chicago. It's a packed schedule. Wilson says he is looking forward to it.
At the moment, however, three days after the book party, late in the afternoon of Sunday, May 2, Joe Wilson is sitting in a small bistro on New York's Upper East Side, his back to the Madison Avenue traffic, sipping Pellegrino with lime. He won't drink coffee until later this evening, a few moments before he talks with CNN political analyst Jeff Greenfield in front of several hundred people at the nearby 92nd Street Y. He needs to be "on" tonight, after all. He hopes the talk will be a repeat performance of this morning's Meet the Press. "I didn't see it," he says. "I just did it. But the response I've gotten is that it went very well."
Wilson is a big man, broad-shouldered, with a mane of perfectly coifed gray hair. He is 54 years old. Also, he is angry. He is angry because someone told journalist Robert Novak that his wife, Valerie Plame, worked under cover for the CIA. Others--including the CIA itself--confirmed this fact, and in July 2003 Novak used it in a column he wrote about Wilson's trip to Africa in February 2002. The CIA had sent Wilson to Niger, in West Africa, to investigate whether Saddam Hussein had ever sought uranium there. The idea behind Novak's column, it seems, was to explain why Wilson, who later turned out to be a vocal critic of the Bush administration's Iraq policy, was sent on the mission in the first place. This is what Novak wrote:
Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me his wife suggested sending Wilson to Niger to investigate the Italian report. The CIA says its counterproliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him.
Everything in the passage above is true. Wilson never worked for the CIA. And his wife was, until her cover was blown, an agency operative on nonproliferation. She still works for the CIA today, but in a different capacity. Two senior officials did tell Novak that Plame suggested her husband for the job. (Wilson, Plame, and CIA spokesmen deny that.) And the CIA says its own people asked Plame to act as a liaison between the Agency and Wilson. In fact, Wilson and Plame admitted as much to Vanity Fair reporter Vicky Ward last November. "[Wilson] was not unduly surprised," Ward wrote, "when, one evening in early 2002, his wife asked if he'd come in to discuss Niger and uranium--a subject he'd discussed with the CIA before."
The problem is that whoever told Novak about Plame may or may not have committed a federal crime. In 1982 Congress passed, and President Reagan signed, the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which makes it illegal to reveal the identity of a covert agent who "is serving outside the United States or has within the last five years served outside the United States." Maybe Plame fits that description. Maybe she doesn't. Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago, is leading a grand jury investigation into the matter. So far the grand jury has issued no indictments.
SPEAK TO WILSON, however, and he tells you he thinks the controversy over his wife's identity has been a distraction. He'd rather talk about other things. Like geopolitics. "I would've loved to have been talking about the catastrophe Iraq has become," he tells me. "After the story leaked," he says, referring to Novak's column, "I quit being Joe Wilson, the last American to meet with Saddam Hussein, and morphed into Mr. Valerie Plame. All people wanted to talk about was the leak and the status of the investigation. I had nothing to offer about that." He pauses. "I did do a couple of things with Wolf, however."
"Wolf" is Wolf Blitzer, the CNN anchor, a man for whom Wilson has great respect. So too "Tim." And "Brokaw." And of course "Ted." In fact, "I have tremendous respect for all of the top national newscasters," he says. "I really do."
What he really doesn't have, on the other hand, is respect for the Bush administration. Or for Novak. The Bushies are "tougher" than anyone who worked for Nixon, he says. The vice president is a "lying son of a bitch." Karl Rove should be "tarred and feathered." And Novak--well, he says, his eyes narrowed, his mouth stretched into a sneer, "I tore Novak a new a--hole."
Wilson's profanity (he tosses f--s and bull--s around like loose change) is one way you can tell that his book was ghostwritten. The language in The Politics of Truth is scrubbed of all vulgarity, indeed of all personality. Another way you can tell the book was ghostwritten is that a well-known ghostwriter, Michele Slung, is mentioned in the acknowledgments. Wilson thanks her for her work as his "editor"--one of three "editors" who worked on the book. And still another reason it's obvious Wilson didn't write The Politics of Truth is the cavalier way he talks about it. "I don't think [Valerie's] read the whole thing from beginning to end," Wilson told the American Prospect's Tara McKelvey last week. "In fact, I'm not sure I have."
It's probably better that Wilson not read his book, because The Politics of Truth is an uneven mishmash of memoir, anti-Bush rant, and "investigative journalism." What Wilson did was take his newfound celebrity and use it as an excuse to rewrite and publish several hours of oral testimony about his foreign service career that he delivered to the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training in January 2001. Thus most of the book recounts Wilson's 23 years in government: from his time as a foreign service officer in Niamey, Niger, to his role as chargé in Baghdad during Operation Desert Shield, and concluding with his job as a member of Clinton's National Security Council. It was a varied career with many accomplishments. All of which Wilson shares with the reader at length. For example, he was indeed the last American official to meet Saddam Hussein (back in 1991) before the dictator was pulled from his spider hole in December 2003. He was the architect of President Clinton's tour of Africa in 1998. And he saved the New York Times.
Here's how that story is told in The Politics of Truth:
David Shipley [editor of the Times op-ed page] and I introduced ourselves when I stepped off the elevator and he escorted me to his office for a cup of coffee. En route, down a long windowless corridor with offices on either side, doors sporting the names of Times writers, we ran into veteran Timesman Robert Semple. David explained that I was 'the one who wrote the article on what he didn't find in Africa,' and Semple, turning to me, said, 'So you're the one who turned our paper around.'
That was in July 2003. Wilson had recently published an op-ed in the Times that told of his trip to Niger and how he found no evidence of uranium sales to Iraq there. Here's Wilson's reaction to Semple:
The Times had been mired in the scandal surrounding Jayson Blair, the fraudulent journalist whose reporting had been questioned by a number of colleagues. The turmoil in the media about the Times had diminished in the past several weeks, but I had not imagined that anyone at the paper would attribute their improvement to me or to my piece. For the second time that day, I was struck by the extent of the reaction to me and the article outside the confines of Washington, D.C.
(The first time Wilson was struck by the reaction to his article "outside the confines of Washington, D.C.," incidentally, was when he walked into an editorial meeting at the Nation magazine's New York offices and someone suggested the staff give him a "standing ovation.")
Self-congratulation is only one of the themes of The Politics of Truth. The other is rumor-mongering. Wilson doesn't know who leaked his wife's CIA identity--no one does, in fact, other than the leaker(s) and the leakee(s)--but that doesn't stop him from naming names. "I have sat at the information crossroads," Wilson tells me, as he leans back in his chair, his arms across his chest. What he means is that he talks to a lot of reporters. "Everybody who gets something calls me up to check it out." Unfortunately, "Nobody will tell me who their sources are." Which means that Wilson won't reveal his own.
This causes problems. For example, when Wilson suggests that Elliott Abrams, the National Security Council official, may have leaked Plame's identity to the press, his only proof is that Abrams's name "has most often been repeated to me in connection with the inquiry and disclosure into my background and Valerie's." Not quite the level of proof sought by a grand jury.
And when Wilson writes that I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, talked with Novak, he frames his accusation this way:
The man attacking my integrity and reputation--and, I believe, quite possibly the person who exposed my wife's identity--was the same Scooter Libby who, before he came into the new administration, was one of the principal attorneys for Marc Rich, former felon. . . . Libby is a consummate Republican insider who has bounced back and forth between government posts and his international law practice.
So Libby is quite possibly the man who exposed Plame's identity. But he may also quite possibly not be that person. Quite possibly Wilson has no idea what he is talking about.
Hence the harsh reviews of The Politics of Truth. Eli Lake, writing in the New York Sun, noted: "Much of this book consists of the same sort of thinly sourced speculation that, nearly a year ago, when it was indulged in by the White House, drove Mr. Wilson to go public on the New York Times op-ed page." What's more, "Mr. Wilson was a far better diplomat than he is an investigative reporter." Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times's chief book critic, wrote:
In the end the tabloidlike subtitle of the book, "Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife's C.I.A. Identity," underscores the trouble with this volume: its problematic conflation of the most substantive of policy issues with personal grievance and Mr. Wilson's efforts to turn one powerful moment, in which he stood up and challenged the administration's selling of the war and its use of intelligence, into a long, self-dramatizing pat on the back.
So it's possible--in fact, quite likely--that Joe Wilson will remember the publication of The Politics of Truth as the zenith of his "Notoriety Quotient." It's possible he'll be remembered more for what his book did not contain--any substantive charges against the Bush administration--than for the actual content of its 150,000 words. And it's also possible that Wilson's flop will overshadow how he came to be a published author in the first place. Which is unfortunate. It's an interesting story.
AS 2002 bled into 2003, Joe Wilson became an active critic of the impending war to overthrow the Iraqi regime. His status as the last American government official to meet with Saddam Hussein gave him cachet among television producers. So he appeared on cable talk shows. He attended plenary sessions and public debates. He wrote an op-ed for the San Jose Mercury News.
Passages in The Politics of Truth dealing with this period show Wilson eager--indeed, almost desperate--to participate in the debate over the war in Iraq. He writes unendingly about attending American Turkish Council symposiums and meetings of the Alliance for American Leadership. He catalogues each appearance on Paula Zahn, on Hannity & Colmes, on Buchanan and Press. An interview on Nightline is worth several pages. The story of how he emailed his Mercury News op-ed to General Scowcroft and former President George H.W. Bush takes up several more.
Wilson's antiwar stance won him new friends. Among them was David Corn, the Nation's Washington correspondent. Wilson met Corn in an unlikely lefty hangout: the greenroom of the Fox News Channel's Washington studios. In March 2003, Wilson, at Corn's invitation, penned an article for the Nation entitled "Republic or Empire?" It was a rhetorical question. Wilson wrote that "the underlying objective of this war is the imposition of a Pax Americana on the region and the installation of vassal regimes that will control restive populations." President Bush's talk about bringing democracy to the Middle East? Hogwash. "The new imperialists will not rest until governments that ape our worldview are implanted throughout the region."
The Nation article was a big success. It "led to a further series of appearances," Wilson writes, on "more substantive news programs," like--and he's serious--"NOW with Bill Moyers."
Also in March 2003, it so happens, the International Atomic Energy Agency determined that the documents reporting Niger's sale of uranium to Iraq were forgeries. This revelation threw into question 16 words of President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
Wilson was outraged. He knew all along that there had never been any sale of uranium. A year earlier his friends in Niger had told him so. But the president's speechwriters had used the British intelligence report anyway. So Wilson did what came naturally. He got himself booked on television. "I think it's safe to say that the U.S. government should have or did know that this report was a fake," he told a CNN anchor on Saturday, March 8.
He talked about his Niger trip with reporters, provided they used the information on background. In a May 6, 2003, column by Nicholas D. Kristof, for example, Wilson is identified as "a person involved in the Niger caper." In a June 12, 2003, Washington Post piece by Walter Pincus, he is identified as a "former government official." And in a June 30 New Republic cover story, he is a "prominent diplomat."
And yet the administration still would not listen. In a June 8, 2003, appearance on Meet the Press, Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, said only that "maybe someone knew down in the bowels of the agency," that the Italian documents could be forgeries, "but no one in our circles." Wilson thinks differently. "That was a lie," he writes in his book. "I knew it. She had to have known it as well."
But the fact is that Wilson didn't know it. By his own account, he never saw the Italian documents before, during, or after his trip to Niger. Those documents were not determined to be forgeries until well after his trip. And the CIA felt his trip to Niger was inconclusive. No wonder senior officials like Tenet, Rice, and Cheney deny being informed of it.
Wilson's Times op-ed appeared on Sunday, July 6. That morning he was on Meet the Press. The next day the White House, after much internal debate, conceded that the president should not have uttered those 16 words about Iraq and African uranium. A week later Robert Novak's column appeared. Valerie Plame's identity was no longer a secret.
In August, Wilson got his book deal.
"I HOPE THERE WILL BE A MOVIE," Joe Wilson says. "A movie would provide another vehicle to get the message out." Over the last year Wilson has met many movie people. He and Valerie have dined with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, for example. He's become friends with Norman Lear. And he is from California. So he knows something about Hollywood.
Who would play you and Valerie? I ask. Warren and Annette?
Wilson laughs. He shakes his head no. "When we did the first Gulf War," he says, "we used to talk about a movie, and I always thought it would be Willem Dafoe." Someone else had another idea: "A friend suggested John Belushi, if he were still alive. John Belushi in his samurai mode. Yeah." He pauses. "There's lot of good stories in there."
Of course, a movie would interfere with Wilson's many obligations. There's his family, for one thing. There's his book tour. And there's also his involvement in the Kerry campaign.
Wilson is a Kerry guy. The campaign approached him in spring 2003. They asked if he'd like to sit on Kerry's foreign policy committee. He agreed. He had done the same thing for Al Gore in the 2000 campaign. In 2000 he'd have a brown bag lunch once a month with friends and talk about eradicating global poverty. The work is pro bono.
Recently he's become a more visible campaign surrogate. "After my Notoriety Quotient went up," he tells me, "I made a conscious decision to offer my services." The campaign was delighted, he says. He formally endorsed Kerry in a conference call with reporters in October 2003. He endorsed Kerry, Wilson told the media, because he and the candidate shared a "commonality of experience" standing up to their government. The difference was that Wilson stood up "at the end of a long and distinguished career" and Kerry stood up when he was only 27.
But he wants to be sure that people don't mistake him for the candidate. He didn't morph into Kerry, he says. And there's a reason why. "Because in my own life I'm something of a lightning rod and rather provocative." So he can't be "constrained by Kerry's talking points." After all, he isn't running for office.
But Kerry is. And suppose he wins. And suppose, further, that Kerry wins in part because Patrick Fitzgerald's grand jury determines senior Bush administration officials damaged national security when they leaked the identity of a CIA operative to the press. Wouldn't Kerry offer Joe Wilson a job in his administration? And wouldn't Joe Wilson accept?
Not necessarily. "First of all, it's a big cut in pay." And government workers have long hours. And he's "already been ambassador." The job would have to be important. "If there were a specific match between my skill set, my experience, and my international credibility," well, then he "would accept it."
But that's something he'll have to deal with in November. Right now Wilson wants to prepare for tonight's talk at the 92nd Street Y. He puts his blazer over his black T-shirt and shakes my hand. Then he heads out into the gray daylight. He has books to sell. His Notoriety Quotient won't be this high forever.
Not one time did Mr. Wilson's water-girl make mention of which phone line the caller called on (Republican or Democrat). I guess that made it easier to mislead the public.
This says it all.
No one considered his "evaluation" of the yellow cake incident valuable, or even viable.
It was inconclusive..
Iraq made inquiries, but was unable to get any consignments of yellow cake freed up.. therefore, no "purchases" were made.. but inquiries were..
Wilson is a nothing, and will be shown as such..
More than an operative, and less..
Valerie Plame, at the time of Wilson's trip, was Assistant Director of the CIA's Dept. on Weapons of Mass Destruction..
ANY government in the world would have already known who and what Valerie Plame was, as they would have known her position in the CIA..
Assistant Director is not a "secret operative" post.. It is an administrative position.
Thus, the ability to influence the assignment of a certain Joe Wilson for a little vacation jaunt to Niger..
C-Span is UNWATCHABLE!!!