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 in The 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 the Weekly’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.
Do you think it’s possible that the president himself did not know the information that you brought back from Niger before he gave the State of the Union speech?
I think it’s highly likely that the truth was kept from him. The question for me is who so betrayed the president as to allow this lie to get into the State of the Union address? It wasn’t me. It was somebody from his own staff. It was a manipulation of intelligence, a twisting of intelligence, the selective use of facts or fiction to bolster a political decision that had already been made.
In your original July op-ed piece, the language you used was quite moderate. You entertained the possibility that they might have had information that would have proved you wrong, and said only that “a legitimate argument can be made that we went to war under false pretenses.” Has your thinking shifted strongly since then?
It’s safe to say that my own feelings about this have shifted as a function of the information coming out. First of all there was the acknowledgment that the 16 words should never have been in the State of the Union address. Then there were the smears on my family, and then there was the perpetuation of these falsehoods that nobody in the White House knew. Then bit by bit the information dripped out that in fact there were two other reports that said exactly the same thing as mine, that there were in fact serious efforts on the part of the CIA to get this language dropped from previous speeches. Their credibility is zero with me. Their continued obfuscation, their attempts to throw dust in people’s eyes, leads me to believe that they’re lying through their teeth.
Do you think John Ashcroft should recuse himself from the investigation?
At a minimum. I find it objectionable that Ashcroft is taking daily briefings from the head of the criminal-prosecution division on this, an ongoing investigation, given the nature of his previous relationships with Mr. Rove and others in the White House.
Are you looking forward to getting out of this debate?
There are those who try to make the argument that I’m just a publicity seeker. I didn’t get back into this debate until I felt that the neoconservative movement was going to take our country into war without really understanding what the potential consequences were. I felt I had some experience, and I had some informed judgments that would add balance to this debate. The rest of this, this whole Niger business, was as a consequence of my government lying. I did not seek to have my name attached to this part of it, but it is what it is, and eventually I’m sure that I will go back to my private life, which has been in complete upheaval.
That said, it does seem to me that this goes to the very essence of what we are as a people and as a political society. I think that this government has been the most reckless and the most dangerous of any government in the 30 years that I’ve been around Washington, and I have every intention of using the notoriety that I have in a way that encourages people to take back their democracy.