THE POLITICS OF TRUTH

Inside the Lies That Led to War and

Betrayed My Wife's CIA Identity

By Joseph Wilson. Carroll & Graff. 513 pages. $26

Former Ambassador Joseph Wilson has many qualities of a good diplomat. He is handsome, articulate, well-groomed and speaks French. During Operation Desert Shield in 1990-91, Wilson did such a courageous job of protecting the 800 or so Americans stranded in Baghdad that he says President George H.W. Bush called him a "true American hero." But no one would describe Wilson, who retired from the State Department in 1998 to become a consultant, as discreet or self-effacing.

The first 300 or so pages of The Politics of Truth is a worthy, occasionally entertaining, if overlong, chronicle of diplomatic service that would never have been widely published but for Wilson's involvement in one of the more bizarre episodes of the Bush administration. In July 2003, Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was outed as an undercover CIA operative, allegedly in retaliation for Wilson blowing the whistle on Bush administration dissembling about Iraqi efforts to procure weapons of mass destruction. The section of Wilson's book that deals with the flap, roughly the last 130 pages, is repetitive and self-dramatizing. It does not reveal much in the way of "news" -- Wilson's claims and conclusions are either long hashed over or based on what the intelligence business describes as "rumint," or rumor intelligence. But as a diary of ego and suspicion, inflamed by leaks and posturing on all sides, The Politics of Truth is revealing, though not always intentionally.

Wilson hails from old San Francisco stock -- with ties to the "Bohemian Club and the San Francisco Yacht Club," he lets us know -- and flopped about for a time as "hippie-surfer" before finding his calling in diplomacy. He rose to become an ambassador to small African countries and retired to make some money and raise a family with his third wife, who was ostensibly working for an international energy company. In 2002, the CIA asked Wilson to travel to Africa to check out reports that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from the small country of Niger. Wilson found no evidence to support the claim. Nonetheless, administration officials, including President Bush, asserted that Saddam was trying to buy bomb-making material in Africa. Wilson began quietly telling reporters that they should dig more deeply into the story. At about that time, roughly March 2003, the neocons at the White House, led by Vice-President Cheney's chief of staff I. Lewis ("Scooter") Libby, began a "workup" on Wilson to discredit him. Or so Wilson claims, though his sources are third-hand. "I am told by a member of the press, citing White House sources," Wilson writes, that Libby referred to him as an "asshole playboy." On July 6, Wilson published an op-ed piece about his Niger trip in the New York Times entitled "What I Didn't Find in Africa." Wilson began hearing from reporters that the administration was out to get him. On July 14, conservative columnist Robert Novak reported, "Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction."

It is not clear that Novak's sources knew they were outing an undercover agent -- they may have assumed she was an analyst working at CIA headquarters on nonproliferation issues. But Wilson immediately assumed that by blowing his wife's cover, the White House neocons were sending a message to silence other whistle blowers. Wilson impressively leaped to defend his wife's honor -- on "Meet the Press," in glossy magazines, on "Imus in the Morning," even on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" at Comedy Central. The high point, or low point, came when Wilson and his beautiful blond wife posed for Vanity Fair, riding in Wilson's Jaguar convertible. Undercover Agent Plame was the one wearing dark glasses.

Wilson warmed to the fight, not to mention the publicity. In The Politics of Truth, he refers to his new friends in the media by their first names ("Tim," "Chris," "Ted," "Andrea"). He is embraced by the "progressive left," allowing him to go the West Coast to stay in Norman Lear's guest house and eat lunch with, inevitably, Warren Beatty. Wilson's eagerness, his enjoyment of the melodrama, undermines his portrayal of the sinister White House. Wilson never does figure out who leaked the story to Novak (a grand jury is still out on that). But he has an awfully good time telling us about it all. "Wouldn't it be fun to see Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs?" he crowed to a crowd in Seattle. His wife Valerie, the one person in this story who really did suffer, at least had the good sense to tell her husband that he had "gone too far." *

Evan Thomas is an editor at Newsweek. His most recent book is "John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy."