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.
Other people within the intelligence and diplomatic communities had serious doubts about the justification for war, right?
Oh absolutely, sure.
Why do you think they either failed to come forward or didn't receive the attention you did?
Certainly they're coming forward now, but I think in the past people felt intimidated. I think it's very clear that one of the reasons why they came after Valerie, came after me so hard, including going after my family, was to send a signal to the rest of the foreign policy and intelligence community that if you do to us what Wilson just did to us, we will do to you what we just did to his family. And I think that had a very chilling effect.
What are you and your wife doing now?
We live in Sante Fe, N.M. We're raising our kids. My wife has a book coming out at the end of October [Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House], we're speaking and we expect to be active in all the various campaigns. I've pledged to both the Senate and the House side that I will be as available as I possibily can be to support Democratic candidates in these races. This is not because I'm as much a rabid Democrat [so much] as it is absolute disgust at the way the Republican Party has treated this country.
A judge ruled last month that your wife couldn't divulge the dates she worked for the CIA. Will that have any effect on the book's release?
The book will be released on the date that it was supposed to be released. It's just some of the contents of the book will have to be changed so as to protect that particular part of it.
[The court case] really had less to do with the book and more to do with whether or not she was going to be treated as a non-citizen by the government for which she worked for 20 years.
It was in my book [The Politics of Truth: A Diplomat's Memoir: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife's CIA Identity], the length of her service. It has been widely reported. She did not leak her name to the press, the U.S. government did. And they can't have it both ways. If they can't protect her identity, then they can't presume to tell her what she can and cannot say about the dates of her service. We're not talking about classified information here. We're talking about information that's readily available and has been reported on repeatedly, including in my book, which was approved by the CIA.
So it's really a matter of giving her identity back rather than preventing the publication of her book.
Is there a movie coming out?
I don't know. It's out of my hands. A studio has expressed interest, but my looking at this is that it's a miracle that movies ever get made. It's a long and involved process, so I don't know where or if or how that will happen. It's a good story. It's a story that probably should be told. Whether it gets told or not in the movie format, I'm not sure yet.
What's the status of the civil suit?
Everybody understood at the very beginning that we would have to go at a minimum up to the Court of Appeals and quite possibly the Supreme Court because there are constitutional issues involved here. I think it's a question of the extent to which the U.S. government or U.S. government officials can claim that they are actually acting in their official capacity when they betrayed the national security of the country.
So they've got good lawyers; our appeal is being written now, and will be submitted to the Court of Appeals, I don't know, sometime within the next several weeks. People can go to our Web site, www.wilsonsupport.org for updates.
Do you think Bush had any advance knowledge of the leak?
I have no idea. I do think that there was evidence introduced in the Libby trial that indicated that other senior officials not only had advance knowledge of the leak, but were also intimately involved in directing what should and should not be said. And that includes Dick Cheney.
Do you think Karl Rove's career has suffered or will suffer because of this?
I think Karl Rove's career has suffered because of fundamental misjudgments about the character of this country, and about the character of normal Republicans.
But do you think he or Libby or anyone else involved will ever really suffer any repercussions?
I don't know. Our judgment is that, I think [Special Counsel Patrick] Fitzgerald made it very clear that unless new evidence was introduced, his investigation into the matter was over, leaving us with only the civil case as a means of getting the truth out, holding them to account and deterring future generations of government officials from engaging in the same behavior.
You were described in one media account [Vanity Fair] as "a controversial public figure: a hero to many anti-war Democrats, a preening careerist to his critics." Where do you think the latter reputation or view comes form?
I think that this administration didn't really like it when somebody would actually stand up and say that the emperor was wearing no clothes. And they acted in every way possible to destroy me. I served my country for 22 years. I served as ambassador to two countries, I was in charge at the Embassy in Baghdad in the first Gulf War. I retired from the foreign service in '98 with no ambition to come back into the foreign service.
All of my actions have been dedicated to ensuring that there was full and free debate on what we should be doing in Iraq prior to doing it, not five years afterward.
Moreover, it is a First Amendment obligation of the citizen to petition his government for the redress of a grievance and that's what I did in writing my article for The New York Times. All this other stuff is just fluff that they would just want you to believe.
Based on your experience in the Middle East, what do you think it will take to get troops out of Iraq in the best way possible?
Well, I think the presence of our troops [is] undermined by the lack of a political process. The President of the United States has exercised, as far as I can tell, zero presidential leadership in trying to get the insurgents and their foreign backers off the streets and at a conference table to try to solve this politically.
I know something about that, having been involved in the political process that put together the coalition in the first Gulf War and also having been involved to a lesser degree in the efforts of President Clinton and Dick Holbrooke [former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations] to bring the parties from the former Yugoslavia to the Dayton Accords [the peace treaty that ended the war in Bosnia]. This president, when was the last time anybody heard of this president calling a leader in the region? Aside from the Secretary of State making trips out there every two months or so, there's very little international action to try to bring this to a political solution. That's what's really lacking in this whole thing.
Wilson will speak at 7 p.m. Saturday at Spratts, Bank of America Corporate Center, Founders Hall, Second Floor, 100 N. Tryon St. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md; U.S. Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C.; and Kissell also will be there. Tickets are $50. For more information or for tickets, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 910-428-4058.