By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In February 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney’s Office sent Joseph C. Wilson IV to Africa to investigate claims that the Iraqi government had attempted to purchase uranium in Niger. Wilson — a former ambassador and, as chargé d’affaires in Baghdad before the first Gulf War, the last American diplomat to meet Saddam Hussein — found the claims to be false. He grew concerned when, nearly a year later, President Bush’s State of the Union address contained the now notorious 16 words “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa” and, he says, was “surprised and chagrined” when the administration continued to stand by claims he knew to be false. On July 6, Wilson published an op-ed article about his mission to Niger inThe New York Times. Eight days later, conservative columnist Robert Novak revealed in print that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, is a CIA operative, attributing the information to “two senior administration officials.” The FBI has since opened a criminal investigation into the leak. Wilson was in Los Angeles last Friday and spoke to theWeekly’s Ben Ehrenreich.
L.A. WEEKLY: What made you decide to come out in the open with this story?
JOSEPH C. WILSON IV: I was determined that the story was going to have to get out. I did not particularly want the story to have my name on it. I wanted the U.S. government to say what they said on July 7, that the 16 words should never have been in the State of the Union address. So I began responding to reporters’ inquiries, but always on background. I didn’t want the publicity, but more to the point, there is a nasty habit in Washington of attempting to destroy or discredit the message by discrediting the messenger, and it was important to me that the message have legs before those who would want to discredit the messenger found out who the messenger was. So I spoke to a number of reporters over the ensuing months. Each time they asked the White House or the State Department about it, they would feign ignorance. I became even more convinced that I was going to have to tell the story myself.
Did you anticipate retaliation?
Nobody that I knew thought this was going to be any more than a two-day story. The day after, when the White House said the 16 words do not rise to the level of inclusion in the State of the Union address, I personally stopped accepting invitations to talk about this issue. I did those interviews I had previously agreed to do before the White House spoke, and then I didn’t speak again until the week after Mr. Novak’s article came out in which he leaked the name of my wife as a CIA operative.
You didn’t anticipate anything like that would happen?
No. I fully expected they would come after my credibility, that they would try to attack me, and I was ready for that. I’d been named ambassador and called an American hero by the president’s father — I felt that I could withstand any scrutiny. They obviously decided that they weren’t going to be able to impeach my integrity, so they made the decision to leak the name of a national-security asset, who happened to be my wife.
When Novak called you before his column ran, did you then know that her identity was going to be revealed?
I assumed that the CIA would be able to advise him that he shouldn’t publish her name, which they obviously tried to do. It was when it was first published that I realized they had been unsuccessful in doing that.
What was your reaction then?
My initial reaction was probably unprintable. My second thought was, “Why would somebody leak the name? What is the rational goal of doing that?” I concluded that it was probably to discourage others from coming forward. It was the White House’s way of telling others, “If you do a Wilson on us, we’ll do this to your wife and your family.” It’s only recently that a number of [White House sources] who have leaked to the Washington Post have said that it was pure revenge and spite.
Subsequent to the publication of Novak’s article there was a second wave of the White House pushing the story, calling the press and saying, “The real story here is Wilson and his wife, it’s not the 16 words.” I got a call from a journalist who said, “I just got off the phone with Karl Rove, and he said to me, ‘Wilson’s wife is fair game.’” So even a week after the Novak story, Karl Rove was still thinking it was okay to trash my wife. It was only after I went on NBC and subsequently the Today Show and said this might be illegal that those phone calls stopped.
You’ve suggested that Rove was behind the original leak.
I think it’s fair to say that the CIA is an executive-branch agency that reports to the president of the United States. The act of outing the name of a national-security asset was a political act. There is a political office attached to the office of the president of the United States, and that political office is headed by Karl Rove. It seems to me a good place to start.