- Former U.S. Ambassador
- Husband of CIA employee Valerie Plame
- In 2002 was sent on a mission to Niger to investigate intelligence reports which suggested that the Iraqi government was actively trying to purchase uranium from that country
- Wilson reported that suspicions about an Iraq-Niger uranium deal were unfounded, thereby contradicting President Bush's public assertions; Wilson's version of events turned out to be untrue.
- Died on September 27, 2019
A U.S. foreign service diplomat between 1976 and 1998, Joseph Wilson was born in 1949 in California, into an upper-middle class lifestyle. His parents, freelance photo-journalists, regularly moved their son across Europe throughout his childhood, writing quaint society pieces for state-side newspapers. Following his college years at UC Santa Barbara, Wilson lived the life of full-time surf/ski bum and part-time carpenter. He then joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1976, which led to a 22-year career in public service that included embassy jobs in Niger, South Africa, and the Congo. He achieved some notoriety in 1990, when, as Deputy Chief of Mission in Baghdad, he met with Saddam Hussein on the eve of the Gulf War.
In 1997, while working for NATO, Wilson met his future wife, Valerie Plame, during a reception for the Turkish ambassador in Washington. On their third or fourth date, during a “heavy make-out session,” Plame revealed to Wilson that she was, in fact, a covert operative for the CIA. The new couple then returned to work in Washington, where Wilson advised on African affairs for the National Security Council (NSC) in the Clinton administration. There, Wilson was criticized by some on the NSC staff for being too deferential to African and European complaints about American policy. At that point, admittedly, Wilson’s own career as a government bureaucrat was on a “down-ward” spiral, leading to his retirement in 1998.
The saga of Joseph Wilson and the CIA begins in late February 2002, when he was sent to Niger by the Agency in order to confirm intelligence reports which suggested that the Iraqi government was actively trying to purchase uranium from Niger’s numerous uranium concerns. Landing in the capital city of Niamey, Wilson first conferred with the U.S. ambassador to Niger, Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick, who told him that she had personally “debunked” the Iraqi reports from her perch in the U.S. embassy. Wilson then got down to work:
_“I spent the next eight days drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people: current government officials, former government officials, people associated with the country’s uranium business. It did not take long to conclude that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place.”_How Wilson was able to ascertain these facts through simple interviews is unknown. He was essentially asking Nigerian officials to reveal their own involvement in corruption involving uranium shipments to Iraq, while offering them nothing in return for admissions of their personal perfidy.
Though Wilson was carrying out what was, in effect, a confidential mission for the CIA, he was not even required to sign a confidentiality agreement, an odd oversight for an agency usually obsessed with operational security. This preoccupation with security was especially prescient in the context of the Iraq-Niger connection, an area of interest that was protected by the highest levels of official secrecy available within the intelligence community. Perhaps, as has been suggested, some in the Agency hoped Wilson would act exactly how he eventually did: divulging his knowledge in such a biased and outrageous fashion that it would seriously damage the President, a goal that many CIA officials were obviously working towards in the lead-up to the war in Iraq.
An additional mystery surrounding Wilson’s mission was the impetus behind it. In an interview with Wolf Blitzer, Wilson identified an infamous set of forged documents — provided to the British and the CIA by a dubious “stringer” — as the sole basis for his trip:
“_The trip I went on was based upon a transcription of these documents that were later shown to be forgeries.”_The only problem with Wilson’s supposition is that the forged documents would not be in the hands of the intelligence community until seven months after he had been sent to Niger, a fact which directly contradicts his public assertions. When interviewed on the matter by staffers of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 2004, Wilson admitted to being the source of a front-page June 12, 2003 Washington Post story, written by Walter Pincus, in which Wilson — referred to as a “retired American diplomat” — stated that he knew the documents were false because “the dates were wrong and the names were wrong.” Senate investigators then reminded Wilson that it was simply impossible for him to have seen the documents, considering he had never been allowed access to them. Wilson later admitted that he may have “misspoken.”
Since Wilson’s charge that he had in fact seen the documents directly contradicted the sworn statement of several CIA officers, Senate investigators saw fit to dig deeper into his claims. Even after additional questioning, CIA officers in the Directorate of Operations (DO) were adamant: they had not provided Wilson with any of the documents he claimed to have read and dismissed as irregular. Asked again about the documents, Wilson could only suggest that Agency “sources” — which he was unable to identify — had given him his information.
One would expect that, given his purported findings — or lack thereof — Wilson would have left the CIA officials who he briefed upon his return with the impression that the Niger-Iraq story was categorically false. However, Wilson’s brief — which he never saw fit to write down — actually confirmed the Niger-Iraq connection in the eyes of the CIA officers who heard it. As Senate investigators would later report, the CIA deemed Wilson’s information meaningless, except for the confirmation that he provided that Iraqi officials had indeed visited Niger in 1999, and that a former Nigerien Prime Minister had told Wilson that he felt the Iraqis were interested in buying uranium. None of these pertinent facts were included in Wilson’s eventual public statements concerning his trip.
Robert Novak’s July 2003 identification of Ms. Plame as an employee of the CIA immediately raised the question: had she played a role in procuring the assignment for her husband? Wilson and his allies adamantly denied that Plame had anything to do with having sent him to Africa. Spokesmen at the CIA concurred, responding to press inquiries by stating, “she did not recommend her husband to undertake the Niger assignment.” Still, the mystery lingered, especially since even a cursory reading of Wilson’s resume reveals that he possesses no background whatsoever in weapons of mass destruction. Why then, observers wondered, did the Counter-Proliferation Division (CPD) of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations see fit to send him to Niger in the first place?
Finally, a full year after the controversy first erupted, the Senate Select Committee report provided some answers. Its findings indicated that Wilson had lied to reporters and interviewers, as his wife was shown to have played an instrumental role in procuring the assignment for her husband. According to the committee report, Plame had initiated the process by authoring a memo addressed to the Deputy Director of the CPD on February 12, 2002, in which she alluded to her husband’s “good relations” with government officials. In order to further stoke the CIA’s interest in utilizing her husband, Plame then facilitated a meeting between Wilson and a senior CIA officer.
Plame’s integral involvement in Wilson’s selection evidently troubled some in the CPD, who doubted that his trip would be in any way beneficial, with one officer noting “it appears that the results from this source will be suspect at best, and not believable under most scenarios.” Others voiced concern over the fact that nepotism had played such a clear role in selecting Wilson for the assignment, disappointment expressed in the Senate report, which stated, “it was unfortunate, considering the significant resources available to the CIA,” that Wilson “was the only option available.”
Ms. Plame’s role in the Niger investigation is further called into question by comments she allegedly made to her husband when first approaching him with the assignment. She told Wilson in early February that there was a “crazy report” that connected Iraq to the Niger’s uranium mine. This sort of prefacing of intelligence by a high-ranking analyst, similar to the disbelief voiced by U.S. Ambassador Owens-Kirkpatrick, represents direct violation of the basic analytical skill-set, which is designed to overcome personal biases. Obviously, from the very beginning, Ms. Plame was personally and adamantly against the idea that the story itself was valid.
With all of the details concerning his trip still classified and the definitive objections of the Butler Report and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence months in the future, a gap in public knowledge formed that allowed the story of the Niger investigation to be defined solely from Wilson’s standpoint. As the United States began to accelerate its plans for war, Wilson used this vacuum to begin his own conflict with the White House, using a pliant press as his weapon. Perhaps no more pliant journalist existed than liberal New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof, who used Wilson’s leaks as the basis for his May 6, 2003 column which quoted an unnamed source as telling him, “In February 2002, according to someone present at the meetings, that envoy reported to the CIA and State Department that the information was unequivocally wrong and that the documents had been forged.” Wilson later justified the leak by claiming he had been stirred by the 16-word reference to the Niger intelligence that had been included in President Bush’s State of the Union Address, compelling him to fulfill his “civic duty” by passing the information to Kristof.
Wilson’s subversion campaign continued in the pages of The New Republic, which on June 19 published a piece quoting “a former ambassador” — Wilson — as suggesting that the Bush administration “knew the Niger story was a flat-out lie.” As would be borne out in later investigations, Wilson’s comments to Kristof and The New Republic were blatant falsehoods. However, by this point, for whatever reason, Wilson had decided to use his small amount of knowledge regarding the Niger-uranium case to slander the White House, a campaign that stirred Karl Rove and Lewis “Scooter” Libby (Chief of Staff to Vice President Dick Cheney) to action in an attempt to discern exactly who was spreading disinformation in the media.
Perhaps unhappy with his inability to harm the administration through leaked invective, Wilson finally put a name to his allegations, writing a solemn op-ed for the New York Times on July 7, 2003. Entitled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” Wilson in this piece made it clear that, after an exhaustive search, he had found no evidence of Iraqi attempts to procure uranium in Niger, stating additionally: “I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.” Wilson has always refused to explain how — given his minute role in determining the extent of the Iraqi threat — he could justify such far-reaching statements on issues with which he was never involved.
Wilson’s campaign against the Bush administration hit the ideological stratosphere once the identity of his wife was revealed in Novak’s column. The former ambassador quickly put himself in the role of the victim, seizing the opportunity to denounce the administration’s “attacks” on him and his wife, while observing a massive and broad conspiracy behind the revelation of her identity. At the head of this plot, charged Wilson, was Karl Rove, who he hoped to see “frog-marched” out of the White House in chains.
Wilson then interjected himself into the 2004 Presidential campaign. He was embraced by the foreign policy team of Senator John Kerry, which invited Wilson to sit on its advisory committee. Wilson also joined the Senator from Massachusetts on the campaign trail, urging audiences to counter the influence of “the neoconservatives and evangelical Christians.”
Wilson’s fall from credibility was no less rapid than his ascent to political stardom. In July 2004, the British government released a report on the accuracy of pre-war intelligence. Chaired by Lord Butler, formerly the Cabinet Secretary in Great Britain, the committee’s report was largely critical of British and American intelligence concerning Iraq’s supposed WMD arsenals. On the Niger episode, however, the Butler committee stated categorically:
“The British government had intelligence from several different sources indicating that this visit [a reference to the 1999 visit of Iraqi officials that even Wilson had reported] was for the purpose of acquiring uranium. Since uranium constitutes almost three-quarters of Niger’s exports, the intelligence was credible.”
This fact came as a mortal blow to Wilson’s false narrative of an administration that had relied solely on the “forged documents” to authorize a CIA investigation into Niger’s uranium mines. In fact, the Butler report stated that British intelligence had been interested in the Niger uranium trade years before the documents were even available. The report also confirmed that the CIA, by 2002, had come to believe the British claim that Saddam Hussein had indeed been interested in procuring uranium from Niger, meaning that the Agency had either judged Wilson’s doubts as inconsequential or incorrect. Ironically, the committee confirmed that Iraq had been attempting to buy such materials as late as 2002, the same time period in which Wilson had interviewing Nigerien government officials.
Concerning the “16 words” controversy which had engulfed the White House, the Senate committee report — issued within days of the Butler report — found that President Bush had been fully justified in including the intelligence in his speech. With regard to CIA Director George Tenet’s apology that such information had been featured in such a momentous address, the report criticized the CIA for not having followed up on the initial charge sufficiently.A self-ascribed “centrist,” Wilson claimed in his 2004 book — The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity: A Diplomat’s Memoir — to have won an award for truth-telling. He neglected to mention that the honor came (in October 2003) from the hard-left journal The Nation.
Later that same month, Wilson publicly suggested that “neo-conservatives and religious conservatives have hijacked this [Bush] administration and I consider myself on a personal mission to destroy both.” He took to calling the Bush administration “a radical regime, not a Republican administration,” while also decrying its leading officials as “fascists,” and “the most oppressive crowd I have ever seen.” Wilson further theorized that the Bush administration had come to power through underhanded methods: “While I am not an expert in elections, I can see how people might believe the last two elections were stolen.”
Wilson’s opposition to the Iraq war also became more rancorous, once calling the war “a disaster, clearly carried out under false pretences.” He expressed sympathy with Iraqis forced to live under “occupation,” stating that “Iraq is a country that remembers its history, dating back millennia. [The Iraqis] will outlive this occupation.” Concerning America’s role in the region, he lamented that he was “ashamed” to see that his country had turned into “just another imperial power who has unleashed the dogs of war.”
Wilson soon became a fixture of the leftist media circuit, giving interviews to such outlets as AlterNet and delivering speeches at MoveOn.org gatherings. In addition, Wilson cooperated with faux documentarian Robert Greenwald in the latter’s Uncovered: The Whole Truth about the Iraq War. Wilson’s flirtation with the anti-war movement soon brought him into contact with David Fenton of Fenton Communications, who in 2004 created the “Iraq Policy Information Program,” a speaker’s bureau that coordinated leftwing attacks on the Iraq War in the media. Its most celebrated advocate was Joe Wilson.
Perhaps the most infamous example of Wilson’s fraternity with the far left came in June 2005, when he participated in the infamous Downing Street Memo conference held in a Capitol Hill basement and chaired by Congressman John Conyers. Fellow speakers included Cindy Sheehan and former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, who explained the motivation of the Iraq war through acronym: “O for Oil, I for Israel, and L for leveraging our land bases.”
In an October 29, 2005 _Los Angeles Times_ article entitled “Our 27 Months of Hell,” Wilson charged that “senior [Bush] administration officials used the power of the White House to make our lives a living hell.” These claims of persecution were then reiterated in the October 30th edition of 60 Minutes — featuring Wilson — which deemed the former ambassador a patriot who had been relegated to a tortured existence through the shadowy — if never enumerated — machinations of the Bush administration. During his interview with Ed Bradley, Wilson went so far as to claim his wife’s life had been threatened, stating that “there have been specific threats.”
Wilson commonly suggested to the media that his wife was devoted to secrecy, telling Tim Russert on Meet the Press that “she would rather chop off her right arm than say anything to the press and she will not allow herself to be photographed.” Reasoning from that premise, The New York Times profiled Ms. Plame as a woman who “has guarded her privacy” and “shunned publicity.” Far from shunning the limelight, the Wilsons cooperated with all sorts of media outlets.
The Wilsons’ celebrity existence began with a story that appeared in the January 2004 edition of Vanity Fair. The article, a sympathetic piece, was made famous by the fact that it featured a photograph of the theretofore invisible Ms. Plame, albeit wrapped in fashionable headdress. The staged photo — taken just days after Wilson had told Mr. Russert that his wife would not allow herself to be photographed — offered the public its first glimpse of the covert agent of whom so much had been said. Wilson called the photo shoot “a spur of the moment” event, even though the photo’s caption credited a stylist for “hair, makeup, and grooming.” He later told Wolf Blitzer, “I think someday, it, too, will be in the International Spy Museum.” Notwithstanding Wilson’s many complaints that the Bush administration had “outed” his wife, the couple now sought to develop Plame’s public persona while simultaneously warning of the horrendous damage her loss of cover had wrought.
Months later, Wilson seemed to express some regret about the photo, noting that Plame had been covered up in Vanity Fair “in the interest of personal security.” However, Wilson’s concern for his wife’s safety seemed to wane by June 2005, when the two were photographed — again in Vanity Fair — together at a party thrown by the magazine during the Tribeca Film Festival. The scarf, by this time, had come off. The party — which featured festival organizer Robert DeNiro — served as a convenient launching point for Wilson’s Hollywood aspirations; he admitted to having often discussed with his wife the matter of “who would play her in the movie” that he envisioned being made about his experiences.
Following the publication of The Politics of Truth, Wilson and his wife instantly became the toast of the capitol, appearing at various high-profile functions, their every move reported in the Washington Post, which detailed Ms. Plame’s features and Wilson’s eagerness to introduce her to all comers. Wilson also attended cocktail parties thrown by D.C. society heavyweights such as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and NBC News correspondent Campbell Brown.
Even though Wilson and Plame were allegedly receiving death threats, the couple happily cooperated in soft profile pieces for The New York Times, Time Magazine, and The Washington Post which revealed, among other things, the neighborhood where they currently lived, the names of their neighbors, and other nearby landmarks.
Wilson’s “27 months of hell” also proved to be quite profitable, as his autobiography reaped a seven-figure sum. Moreover, he earned thousands of dollars on the speaking circuit and through media appearances.
On December 3, 2005, Wilson stunned political observers with a series of statements that entirely contradicted his previous anti-war proclamations. “There was a lot of reason to be concerned about weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Saddam Hussein,” he said in an interview with WABC Radio’s Mark Simone. “I always thought that he probably had chemical and biological weapons and biological precursors as well.” Wilson said his chief policy disagreement with President Bush was not over Saddam’s possession of WMDs, but rather on the question of “how to construct a policy that gets to the national security issue of disarming Saddam Hussein and does so at minimum risk to other legitimate U.S. interests both in Iraq and in the region.” But in the radio interview, Wilson stated emphatically that he supported President Bush’s decision to overthrow the Iraqi regime. “When the president went up to the U.N. and got the [war] resolution unanimously passed at the U.N., nobody applauded louder than I did,” said Wilson.
After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, however, Wilso supported antiwar organizations like Win Without War.
Between 1999 and 2006, Wilson made campaign contributions to Democrats Hillary Clinton (through HILL PAC), John Kerry, Al Gore, Ted Kennedy, Charles Rangel, Nick Rahall (WV), and Alan Blinken (a failed candidate in Idaho). He has also given to Republicans George W. Bush and Ed Royce (CA). About 80 percent of his campaign contribution dollars have gone to the Democrats.
According to a July 5, 2005 New York Times piece, “after his tangle with the current administration, [Wilson] admits ‘it will be a cold day in hell before I vote for a Republican, even for dog catcher.'” On July 16, 2007, Wilson endorsed Hillary Clinton for U.S. President.
Passed away on September 27, 2019.