The Importance of Being Joe Wilson

Joseph Wilson is the man who ignited the scandal that envelops the Bush administration today. The former ambassador, who served under both President Bush Sr. and President Clinton, has become the White House's biggest nightmare over the course of the last four months.

Joseph WilsonHis story really starts back in February 2002, when, in response to a request from Vice President Dick Cheney, Wilson was asked by the CIA to investigate allegations regarding Saddam Hussein's uranium purchases. He shared the conclusion of his investigation -- that there was no truth to the reports -- with both the CIA and the White House. When he witnessed Bush utter the now infamous 16 words in his State of the Union speech in January 2003, Wilson felt compelled to speak out.

In July Wilson revealed in a New York Times op-ed that the Bush administration's claim that Saddam was seeking to acquire uranium from the African nation of Niger was false. More importantly, he offered irrefutable evidence that the administration knew it was wrong nearly a year before President Bush made the discredited claim in SOTU address.

Wilson's editorial was the first piece of concrete evidence that the administration had outright lied to the American people in order to take the nation to war. It sparked a media firestorm and earned him the wrath of the White House. On July 14, two senior administration officials told conservative columnist Robert Novak that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA operative and had been responsible for sending him to Niger.

The effort to intimidate Wilson, however, has proved to be futile. He continues to speak out against the tactics of the administration. His latest effort is his participation in producer Robert Greenwald's documentary film, "Uncovered: The Truth About The War in Iraq," which features in-depth, revealing interviews with members of the CIA, the Pentagon, the Foreign Service and the weapons inspection teams.

Wilson talked to AlterNet by phone from Washington.

Let's start by talking about the movie. Tell me a little about why you decided to participate in making the Greenwald documentary and what you're hoping it will achieve.

I've believed ever since I started that it is important to speak out on this. That the integrity of the government and the integrity of the reasons that underpinned the going to war were suspect. And in any society, especially in a democracy, the most solemn decision that a government has to make is the sending of its sons and daughters to die and to kill for our country. In a democracy, such decisions are based upon a debate or the consequences of such a debate. And that debate is based upon a set of commonly accepted facts around which people voice their opinions.

If that information was not fact, but bits of idle chit-chat and gossip, and if it was pulled out of thin air because it happened to conform to a political decision that had already been made, then there is considerable reason to conclude that the war we just embarked on was a war that was undertaken under false pretenses.

What do you think of the administration's strategy in trying to deal with the information you brought forward challenging their claims? Most recently, the neoconservative hawk Michael Ledeen suggested that the enriched uranium might have ended up in Iran, for example.

Well, I quite frankly think they're pathetic. The more people look into this, the more implausible this was from the very beginning. I was just with somebody who is in this business today who said, "They didn't need to send you. All they needed was to come down and talk to us. We could have told them that this was bullshit." Ledeen's case that he is building is that some enriched uranium in Iraq was somehow being smuggled into Iran, which is equally unlikely.

When the U.S. government said the day after my article appeared that the 16 words did not rise to the level to deserve inclusion in the State of the Union address, it took me completely out of the game. The questions that I'd raised had been answered. As of that day, I'd stopped accepting invitations to go on and talk about my article or anything else related to the Iraq business. There was no need for me to be seen to be gloating or rubbing salt in the wounds.

It was only after they decided that they were going to punish me or discourage others from coming forward by dragging my wife into the public square and administering a beating on her, I was compelled to come out and point out that what they were doing might in fact be a violation of American law.

But as recently as September, Cheney was still reiterating the uranium purchase claims on NBC's "Meet the Press." He said that the claim that "Saddam was, in fact, trying to acquire uranium in Africa" had been "revalidated." He also said, "So there may be a difference of opinion there. I don't know what the truth is on the ground. ... I don't know Mr. Wilson. I probably shouldn't judge him."

Let me put it to you this way. I've had my credibility tested three different times by this administration -- my credibility versus their credibility. One on the uranium. One on who asked the question [regarding uranium purchases from Niger] -- whether it was the vice president or not. One on my wife -- basically covering all aspects, including whether she is the one who sent me [to Niger] or not. On each of these occasions, I have been proven to have been correct and truthful by statements that the White House itself has made. So I'm batting three for three. And as far as I can tell, Dick Cheney is batting, with respect to me, zero for three. I would match my credibility, my integrity, against his any day of the week, thank you.

Why do you think that he is then reasserting the lie over and over again even when he's been resoundingly proved to be wrong?

I have no idea. I don't know Dick Cheney. And I must say that I take that as a badge of honor. I don't need to know Dick Cheney. I will say this about Dick Cheney. When I was in Baghdad, sending cables back, they were all signed "Wilson." And Dick Cheney as Secretary of Defense was an addressee on those most sensitive of cables. So I'm sorry that his memory is as faulty as it is with regards to me. But I'm sure his explanation would be that he is technically correct in saying that we've never shaken hands. But I don't know what he's thinking about other than he's promoting a set of justifications that quite frankly simply don't hold water. Every time he says it, he sounds a little bit less persuasive.

Your op-ed was the first real dent in the president's case for war, and in a sense pushed the media to ask tougher questions. But given the consequences for your wife and your family, would you still write that op-ed if you had to do it over again?

My wife and I have actually talked about this. There is nothing we would have done -- that she would have encouraged me to do -- differently from what I did. It is important for our national security, for the way that we do governance, to get the facts on the table and call our government into account.

Remember, I did not actually put my pen to this issue for three months after the story first started surfacing. Now it is true that I answered questions; it is true that I allowed myself to be interviewed on this subject. I felt it was important to get the story out. It did not have to have my name attached to it. In fact, I would have preferred not to have my name attached to it. But more important than whether or not my name was attached to it was whether the government misstated the facts on something as material as this issue.

Given this administration's track record then, are you optimistic about the Justice Department probe into the leaking of your wife's identity?

As long as the matter is in the hands of the professionals, I am confident that they will do their job and do it professionally. The questions for me always arise when it goes back to that one little political level, which is essentially the chief of criminal justice division of the Justice Department or the Attorney-General himself.

Would you be more confident about the outcome if they appointed an independent counsel, as Senator Charles Schumer suggests -- and as do a majority of Americans?

On that matter, the truth is that the crime that was committed was a crime against the national security of my country. It was not a crime per se against me or against my wife. Even though obviously my name and her name is tied to it. And there is some reason to believe that it was done as an act of revenge against me. So I don't really have any views as to whether a special prosecutor should be appointed other than to say that it does seem to be in the interest of the president to ensure that whatever comes out of the investigation is above reproach.

Now that you've endorsed John Kerry for president, your critics are shouting louder than ever about your "political agenda." They point out that you were advising Kerry on foreign policy at the time that you wrote the op-ed. Is that accurate?

I was answering questions from any number of candidates. I was also appearing on television, commenting on what I thought the Republicans ought to be doing. Now I would just remind people who try and introduce partisanship into this that I went to Niger on behalf on this administration. I brought back a report which, if it had been accepted by my government, would have kept the President of the United States from actually lying to the American people.

So the question you have to ask is, who betrayed the president of the United States? Was it the person who brought back the truth that was then ignored? Or was it the person who put in the lie [into the speech] that the president then spoke to the American people? People can judge for themselves, but it is hard to reproach me for having brought back something that the White House belatedly acknowledged was true.

Speaking of your bipartisan record, I read in one of your recent interviews that you also gave money to the Bush campaign in 2000, along with that of Al Gore. Is that true?

Yeah, thank God! A friend of mine was fundraising for Bush and asked me if I would help him out and I said, "Sure! Absolutely!"

I believe very firmly that neither party has a monopoly on wisdom. And I believe very firmly in the vibrancy of the two-party system. I take great pride in being able to participate in our democracy. I don't shy away from that at all. I contribute to other Republicans whose views I might share.

The best foreign policy we can have is one that grows from the center. And that center is a space that is occupied by members of both political parties. The problem now is that the foreign policy is in the hands of the most extreme constituency of the Republican party. If I had the opportunity to contribute to Chuck Hagel or Dick Lugar, I'd do it in a New York minute.

Do you regret the money you gave to the Bush campaign?

Only in so far that I gave him the money before New Hampshire, when the promise of the Bush campaign as articulated in its notion of "compassionate conservatism" was that you would get a return to the moderate policies pursued by his father. I have tremendous admiration for his father and great pride at having been part of that team. But after Bush lost in New Hampshire, he then went on to South Carolina and sold out to the narrowest constituency of the Republican Party. It was evident in the campaign they ran in South Carolina, which included smearing both John McCain and his wife for being addicted to drugs.

I am not a left-wing liberal, nor am I a right-wing extremist. If there's anything I'm passionate about it is finding pragmatic solutions to the very difficult problems that we face as a society. I find extremism of all forms to be dangerous.

One last question. Bill Clinton called you a "true American hero"?

George Bush Sr. did. Clinton called me Dudley Do-Right.

Okay then. Which label do you identify with more?

I think of myself as a father of two sets of twins, trying to raise his kids to be good American citizens, to participate in the vibrant democracy that is ours.

Lakshmi Chaudhry is a senior editor of AlterNet and co-author of 'The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq.'

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