On July 6, 2003, former U.S. Ambassador Joe Wilson published "What I Didn't Find in Africa," an opinion piece in The New York Times disputing the Bush administration's rationale for war in Iraq. The 1,452-word essay spawned a backlash against Wilson and his CIA operative wife, Valerie Plame, whose covert identity was revealed days later in a Robert Novak column.
The leak of Plame's status led to a high-profile investigation, a civil suit and an inside look into the machinations of the Karl Rove/Dick Cheney political machine. Ultimately I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, was sentenced to 30 months in prison for lying to investigators during the leak probe. Libby was the highest-ranking White House official convicted in a government scandal since the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980s.
Wilson is now working to elect Democrats like Larry Kissell (running in North Carolina's 8th District), who hopes to unseat U.S. Rep. Robin Hayes in 2008. Wilson, who will speak Saturday at a Kissell fundraiser in Charlotte, spoke to Creative Loafing recently by phone.
Creative Loafing: What spurred you to want to raise money for Larry Kissell?
Wilson: I have been working with the DCCC [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] over the last two election cycles to help Democrats get elected. The invitation was made, and I was delighted to do so. I think it's a good race. He lost by only 329 votes in the last cycle. I think the issues that are on the table in this election cycle are issues that are vitally important to the future of this country and are issues with which I have more than a passing familiarity. Having been the last American diplomat to confront Saddam Hussein before the first Gulf War, I know something about Iraq and the region and about the wars we fought there.
I don't pretend to know all the local issues that Kissell and Hayes will be fighting about, but my mission in this is to talk to my fellow Americans in that particular district about these issues that we face as Americans.
On your Web site, you're described as centrist, but critics call you leftist. And you've endorsed Hillary Clinton [for president]. How do you describe your politics?
Well, first of all, I describe myself as American before I'd describe myself as a member of a particular party. And secondly, to those critics who try to paint me as leftist, I'd like to remind them it was George Herbert Walker Bush who made me Ambassador to two African countries and for whom I served as the acting ambassador to Baghdad. I was actually also invited to be a founding member of Ambassadors for Bush before the 2000 election. So any political evolution towards the center or any political evolution whatsoever is as much a consequence of the truly horrid management of the American nation by this particular administration.
In the years after the initial firestorm, have your feelings to the Bush administration mellowed any?
No, not at all. Not at all. But I would point out, you're talking about the firestorm over their compromising or betraying of Valerie's identity as a CIA officer. My criticism of the administration is largely a consequence of actions it has taken in the name of the American people, of which I am one, and not specifically related to the lies that they have perpetrated about Valerie and myself.
Did [revealing Plame's identity] ever result in negative repercussions that you are aware of?
I would not be aware of it. The CIA certainly did a damage assessment, but they have not shared that with anybody and they would not share it with either me or Valerie because we would not have a need to know. But you operate on the assumption, anytime that these secrets are betrayed, that there are negative consequences. You're probably too young to remember, but in the Second World War there were posters all over federal buildings that said, "Loose lip sink ships." When you betray the secrets of the country, people get hurt. Furthermore, people are more reluctant in the future to give us sensitive information if it's clear that we can't protect their identities.
Since you [worked] for both Democrats and Republicans, how do you feel now about taking public political stands?
When you serve in the diplomatic service you serve the United States, and you serve the Constitution of the United States. You're not typically involved in politics. The Hatch Act prevents a lot of political behavior for people who are actually on the federal government's payroll at that time. Now that I'm no longer on the payroll, it's an honor to be invited to participate more fully in the election of our leaders.
I consider it to be a responsibility as a citizen. I think our democracy is only as robust as the participation of our citizens will permit. And if citizens don't participate in the selection of our leaders, then I think that weakens the fabric of our democracy. So I see it as a responsibility, I see it as a right obviously, and I see it as a great honor to have an opportunity to do so.