By Dana Milbank and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 25, 2005
To his backers, Joseph C. Wilson IV is a brave whistle-blower wronged by the Bush administration. To his critics, he is a partisan who spouts unreliable information.
But nobody disputes this: Possessed of a flamboyant style and a love for the camera lens, Wilson helped propel the unmasking of his wife's identity as a CIA operative into a sprawling, two-year legal probe that climaxes this week with the possible indictment of key White House officials. He also turned an arcane matter involving the Intelligence Identities Protection Act into a proxy fight over the administration's credibility and its case for war in Iraq.
Also beyond dispute is the fact that the little-known diplomat took maximum advantage of his 15 minutes of fame. Wilson has been a fixture on the network and cable news circuit for two years -- from "Meet the Press" to "Imus in the Morning" to "The Daily Show." He traveled west and lunched with the likes of Norman Lear and Warren Beatty.
He published a book, "The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife's CIA Identity." He persuaded his wife, Valerie Plame, to appear with him in a January 2004 Vanity Fair photo spread, in which the two appeared in his Jaguar convertible.
Now, amid speculation that prosecutors could bring charges against White House officials this week, Republicans preparing a defense of the administration are reviving the debate about Wilson's credibility and integrity.
Wilson's central assertion -- disputing President Bush's 2003 State of the Union claim that Iraq was seeking nuclear material in Niger -- has been validated by postwar weapons inspections. And his charge that the administration exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq has proved potent.
At the same time, Wilson's publicity efforts -- and his work for Sen. John F. Kerry's presidential campaign -- have complicated his efforts to portray himself as a whistle-blower and a husband angry about the treatment of his wife. The Vanity Fair photos, in particular, hurt Plame's reputation inside the CIA; both Wilson and Plame have said they now regret doing the photo shoot.
Wilson's critics in the administration said his 2002 trip to Niger for the CIA to probe reports that Iraq was trying to buy uranium there was a boondoggle arranged by his wife to help his consulting business.
The Wall Street Journal's conservative editorial page, defending the administration, wrote yesterday that, "Mr. Wilson became an antiwar celebrity who joined the Kerry for president campaign." Discussing his trip to Niger, the Journal judged: "Mr. Wilson's original claims about what he found on a CIA trip to Africa, what he told the CIA about it, and even why he was sent on the mission have since been discredited."
Wilson's defenders say he is a truth-teller who has been unfairly attacked. "[T]he White House responded to Ambassador Wilson in the worst possible way," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) said at a Democratic gathering in July. "They did not present substantive evidence to justify the uranium claim. . . . Instead, it appears that the president's advisers launched a smear campaign, and Ambassador Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, became collateral damage."
Before the Niger episode, Wilson was best known as the charg d'affaires in Baghdad, a diplomat commended by George H.W. Bush for protecting and securing the release of American "human shields" at the time of the Persian Gulf War. He was not known as a partisan figure -- he donated money to both Al Gore and George W. Bush in 1999 -- and says he was neither antiwar nor anti-Bush when he went to Niger in late February 2002.
But that changed when he went public with his criticism of the Niger affair in mid-2003. In August, he said at a forum that he would like to see Karl Rove "frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs." In the fall, he endorsed Democrat Kerry. He had given money to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's (D-N.Y.) political action committee in 2002 and gave to Kerry's presidential campaign in 2003.
Later, Wilson became prominent in the antiwar movement. In June 2005, he participated in a mock congressional hearing held by Democrats criticizing the war in Iraq. "We are having this discussion today because we failed to have it three years ago when we went to war," he said at the time. The next month, he joined Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) at a news conference on the two-year anniversary of the unmasking of Plame.
Wilson has also armed his critics by misstating some aspects of the Niger affair. For example, Wilson told The Washington Post anonymouslyin June 2003 that he had concluded that the intelligence about the Niger uranium was based on forged documents because "the dates were wrong and the names were wrong." The Senate intelligence committee, which examined pre-Iraq war intelligence, reported that Wilson "had never seen the CIA reports and had no knowledge of what names and dates were in the reports." Wilson had to admit he had misspoken.
That inaccuracy was not central to Wilson's claims about Niger, but his critics have used it to cast doubt on his veracity about more important questions, such as whether his wife recommended him for the 2002 trip, as administration officials charged in the conversations with reporters that special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald is now probing. Wilson has maintained that Plame was merely "a conduit," telling CNN last year that "her supervisors asked her to contact me."
But the Senate committee found that "interviews and documents provided to the committee indicate that his wife . . . suggested his name for the trip." The committee also noted a memorandum from Plame saying Wilson "has good relations" with Niger officials who "could possibly shed light on this sort of activity." In addition, notes on a State Department document surmised that Plame "had the idea to dispatch him" to Niger.
The CIA has always said, however, that Plame's superiors chose Wilson for the Niger trip and she only relayed their decision.
Wilson also mistakenly assumed that his report would get more widespread notice in the administration than it apparently did. He wrote that he believed "a specific answer from the agency to the office of the vice president" had probably taken place, perhaps orally.
But this apparently never occurred. Former CIA director George J. Tenet has said that "we did not brief it to the president, vice president or other senior administration officials." Instead his report, without identifying Wilson as the source, was sent in a routine intelligence paper that had wide circulation in the White House and the rest of the intelligence community but had little impact because it supported other, earlier refutations of the Niger intelligence.
Wilson also had charged that his report on Niger clearly debunked the claim about Iraqi uranium purchases. He told NBC in 2004: "This government knew that there was nothing to these allegations." But the Senate committee said his findings were ambiguous. Tenet said Wilson's report "did not resolve" the matter.
On another item of dispute -- whether Vice President Cheney's office inspired the Wilson trip to Niger -- Wilson had said the CIA told him he was being sent to Niger so they could "provide a response to the vice president's office," which wanted more information on the report that Iraq was seeking uranium there. Tenet said the CIA's counterproliferation experts sent Wilson "on their own initiative."
Wilson said in a recent interview: "I never said the vice president sent me or ordered me sent."