Inside the Lies
On the morning of July 14, 2003, I was reading Bob Novak's column in The Washington Post. He was doing his best to defend the Bush administration from the red-hot charge that George W. Bush had misled the country during the State of the Union address when he declared that "Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
Months after the speech, this sentence triggered a near-scandal, for it turned out there had been no strong factual basis for the allegation, which was meant to suggest Hussein was close to acquiring nuclear weapons. The White House asserted it had had no reason to be wary about using this piece of information. Then, on July 6, 2003, former ambassador Joseph Wilson wrote a piece in The New York Times and publicly revealed that in February 2002 he had been sent to Niger by the CIA to examine the allegation and had reported back there was no evidence to support this claim.
Prior to his Times article, Wilson, the last acting U.S. ambassador in Iraq, had been one of the more prominent opponents of the Iraq war. Yet, he had not used the information he possessed about Bush's misuse of the Niger allegation to score points while debating the war. His much-noticed Times op-ed was a blow for the White House, and Republicans and conservatives struck back. One front in that counterattack was the Novak column.
"His wife, Valerie Plame," Novak wrote, "is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate" the Niger charge. With this passage, Novak blew the cover of Wilson's wife, who had worked clandestinely for the CIA for years. I immediately called Wilson, whom I had gotten to know over the past months and whom I had recruited to write for The Nation. Somewhat jokingly, I said, "You never told me Valerie was CIA." He responded, "I still can't." As we discussed the Novak column, it became clear to me that this leak -- apparently part of an effort to discredit and/or punish Wilson for opposing the White House -- had ruined his wife's career as a clandestine officer, undermined her work in the important field of counter-proliferation, and perhaps even endangered her and her contacts.
And it might have been against the law. I told Wilson about the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which made it a serious federal crime for a government official to reveal the identity of a covert officer. He and his wife were unaware of the law. The following day, I checked further and concluded that it was possible that White House officials -- or "administration sources," as Novak put it -- had indeed broken the law.
On July 16, 2003, I wrote a piece noting that the Wilsons had been slimed by the Bush administration and that this leak might have harmed national security and violated the 1982 law. It was the first article to report that the leak was a possible White House crime. Few reporters in Washington paid attention to the story, but the posted piece received a tremendous flood of traffic. Not until two months later, when the news broke that the CIA had asked the Justice Department to conduct an investigation, did the Wilson leak story go big-time.
Since then, Attorney General John Ashcroft has recused himself from the matter, and Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago, has been investigating. Reporters and observers have spent months guessing and theorizing about the identities of the leakers and wondering whether the leak investigation is progressing. In his new book, The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife's CIA Identity, Wilson writes that he was told by a source that in March 2002 (months before he went public on his Niger trip but while he was a vocal critic of the march to war) the Office of the Vice President held a meeting in which a decision was made to do a "workup" on Wilson -- that is, to dig up dirt on him. As for the leakers, Wilson writes that after talking to reporters and others he believes it was "quite possibly" Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Dick Cheney's chief of staff, who exposed his wife's identity. He also writes, "The other name that has most often been repeated to me in connection with the inquiry and disclosure into my background and Valerie's is that of Elliott Abrams, [a National Security Council aide] who gained infamy in the Iran-Contra scandal during the first Bush administration." Moreover, Wilson maintains that Bush strategist Karl Rove was instrumental in disseminating information about him and his wife.
Wilson doesn't have proof. He is essentially sharing hunches and leads. (An April 30, 2004, New York Daily News story, citing an "inside source," reports that Fitzgerald's probe has been focused on Libby and Rove.) But Wilson's book is far more than an account of the leak affair and Nigergate. He writes breezily about his years as a smooth and assertive foreign service officer (including his rather dramatic face-off against Saddam Hussein in 1990, when Wilson was the last acting ambassador in Iraq before the first Gulf War), and he passionately chronicles his role in the public debate that preceded Bush's invasion of Iraq. (Disclosure: he has several kind references to me in the book.) The night before his book was to be released, he talked with me about the leak, his wife, the war and what lies ahead in Iraq.
David Corn: In 2000, you donated $1000 to George W. Bush's presidential campaign. Why? Any regrets?
Joseph Wilson: I thought he would be the better of the two Republican presidential candidates then in the running. When he talked about compassionate conservatism, it seemed as if he was interested in reprising the first Bush administration. I had been happy with parts of its foreign policy. But after Bush lost the New Hampshire primary and tacked hard to the right in South Carolina to beat John McCain, it was clear to me he was not a good choice. I declined to sign a letter of former ambassadors supporting him. About that contribution -- I was wrong. I admit my error.
When I called you the morning of July 14, 2003, about the Novak column, you initially said you were not eager for anyone to write about the matter. Did you believe that the impact of the leak could be contained?
It was not that I thought it could be contained. I did not want to add additional fuel to the fire. I believed that the appropriate point of inquiry was the CIA. When I first I read it, I realized that only if 150 people in the entire world had seen the column, you could be sure that 149 of them were heads of intelligence services here in D.C. I understood the importance to Val's career and the security implications. After all, CIA station chiefs in Beirut and Greece had been assassinated.
You talked with Novak before the column appeared. Did you ask him not to identify your wife?
He said he had it from a CIA source and he was looking for a confirmation. I said I would not say anything about my wife. He then wrote it had come from "two senior administration officials." I then called him and said, "Well which was it -- a CIA source, or administration sources?" He said he had misspoken the first time. If you're a journalist who's been in this town a long time, it seems to me you know your way in and out of questions of sourcing. The serious journalists I've spoken to over the years have all been very precise about their sources. I did find this lack of precision curious.
What do you think that means?
I have no idea. And then afterwards, Novak was quoted as saying he had contacted the CIA and it had told him not to go with the story. But apparently, he didn't understand some part of that no. [Editor's note: Novak says he received what he considered to be a weak request from the CIA not to publish Valerie Plame's name.] Maybe because they didn't scream he assumed he could get away with it. And it appears he has.
Why did the leak receive not a lot of notice at first?
I have no idea what drives the news cycle.
Did you try to bring it to the attention of other reporters?
No. Principally because Valerie and I realized that for all the hardship it may have imposed upon us, the real crime was the crime against the national security of the country and the responsibility for investigating that crime lay with the appropriate authorities. We have tried to avoid giving the impression that we thought of ourselves as victims. We thought that the country was the victim.
What's been the attitude at the CIA about the leak?
I only know what I've heard and what I've seen publicly. I have not been in touch with the CIA since I came back from Niger. Valerie has, of course, but we don't talk about it. But I think it's safe to say that those of her former colleagues who have spoken out publicly have made it very clear that there has been a breach of trust between the clandestine service of the CIA and the White House.
Has CIA chief George Tenet said anything publicly about the leak or the investigation?
I haven't seen anything. I don't know. I probably would have noticed. But I might not have.
Is Valerie still working at the CIA?
She still works there. She still goes to work every day. Obviously her job has changed and her ability to do certain things has been lost. There are things she will not be able to do in the future. And we'll see in the long term how this works out.
Is she still working in the counterproliferation field?
I can't tell you that.
Have you heard from the federal investigators recently?
Not in a while. I have all the confidence that Pat Fitzgerald and the FBI investigators who are working with him are proceeding aggressively and doing everything they can to get to the bottom of this. At the same time, I'm appalled that they haven't gotten to the bottom of it yet, and I have to conclude that the reason is because administration officials in the know are simply stonewalling. The president made it very clear in a public comment that he expected his senior officials to cooperate with the investigation because he wanted to get to the bottom of it. Now either the president was just not being serious when he made that statement, or else his senior staff is disobeying him, or else he doesn't have any authority over his senior staff. You take your pick. We have both spoken to the FBI. But we don't talk about the investigation.
But in your book you speculate about the source of the leak--
It's not so much that I'm voicing my speculation. It is more that I am sharing with people outside the Beltway what credible sources here in Washington have shared with me. And what they have gleaned is that as early as March there was a meeting in the offices of the Vice President at which the decision was made to do a workup on me. The cause of this was my appearance on CNN when I was asked about forged documents [that contained the allegation about Iraqi uranium-shopping in Niger] and about the State Department spokesman's statement that the United States had simply fallen for these forgeries. I said that I believed that if the U.S. government looked into its files it would find that it knew far more about the Niger business than the State Department spokesman was letting on. And I went further and said that I thought that the State Department spokesman was either being disingenuous or else was so far out of the loop he didn't deserve to pick up the meager salary that they pay those guys. Typical hyperbole from me.
So you believe this signaled to the White House that you knew -- because of your trip to Niger a year earlier -- that the we-were-duped cover story was false? And that because of this, White House officials felt threatened by you and ordered a so-called "workup" on Joe Wilson?
Which I interpreted to mean they basically mounted an intelligence operation to find out everything they could on me and my habits and everything else. Which in and of itself I find rather appalling. Who's responsible for running intelligence operations or doing investigations on people? It certainly isn't the White House.
Maybe in the Nixon administration.
Maybe that's where these guys learned this.
As you know, it is possible that Fitzgerald could conduct a thorough investigation and still at the end of the day conclude there is not enough evidence to prosecute anyone. In that case, have you considered calling for the release of a public report that would describe what his investigators learned?
I haven't. I've had some chats with people up on the Hill about this. Given that I'm not a victim, I have no particular standing to make such a request. The people who have standing to do so are members of Congress. I think that some would be very interested in doing this. I believe it's important to understand that whether or not the special counsel finds evidence of a crime that enables him to prosecute, it is an irrefutable fact that the national security of the United States has been violated. The person who did this falls into the category of what George H.W. Bush once called the "most insidious of traitors." So they can hide behind a criminal investigation -- which is what of course the administration is doing -- but that does not get them out from under the charge that somebody decided that his or her political agenda was more important than the national security of my country and that this person was prepared to betray a national security asset to defend that agenda. And that person could still be in their position and still have security clearance.
Your detractors on the right say you're a publicity hound who has tried to exploit the leak and cash in by writing a book. Your response?
I don't know quite how to respond to that other than to make the point that for the better part of six months in 2003, I worked behind the scenes, maintaining my anonymity, to try and encourage the government to 'fess up to the [uranium-from-Niger] falsehood that was in the president's State of the Union Address. That was nothing more or less than doing one's civic duty. I did not insert those sixteen words into the president's speech, and I wasn't part of the conspiracy to leak the name of a national security asset. If you read the book, you find it is far more than a diatribe against this administration. It also recounts my career in some of the most difficult places in the world, where I often was working on issues of war and peace. I would submit to you that it is probably far more substantive than the recent book published by [Bush adviser] Karen Hughes.
Before the war, you were one of the few former diplomats -- establishment types -- who were out there vigorously and consistently opposing the Bush administration on the question of war in Iraq. Why were there not more? Were you lonely?
There were a number of people who offered thoughtful commentary. But a number of very close friends of mine found the stridency of the other side to be really off-putting and found that it was extraordinarily difficult to have the serious debate that this country deserved before we went to war. They held back. Those people are clearly smarter than I am. The people who spoke out acted on their own consciences and on their own sense of what was doable. But there was a sense in some parts of this town that the deal was done and that the key decisions had already been made -- which in retrospect seems to have been the case. I always thought that a vigorous debate would have yielded what I thought was the right approach: diplomacy backed by the credible threat of force. You had to be prepared to use force, but if you were going to use the force, it needed to be targeted at the national security objective you wanted to achieve. You needed to have in the calculation some risk/reward, some cost/benefit analyses. It always seemed to me that the invasion, conquest and occupation of Iraq as a means of disarming Hussein was the highest risk, lowest reward option, particularly when it was clear that UN Security Council Resolution 1441 [which led to revived weapons inspections in Iraq] was working.
Recently, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that no one a year ago -- including himself -- predicted that the situation in Iraq would be so difficult today. Before the war, weren't you, among others, warning that instability and U.S. casualties could continue for a long time after the invasion?
I think if you go back and you look at the interview that I did with Bill Moyers in February of last year, you will see that I suggested that this was a possible outcome. That interview stands the test of time.
You are now an adviser to John Kerry's presidential campaign. He has called for a more multilateral approach to Iraq. But does he really have much of an alternative plan for U.S. military action in Iraq? How would he be handling the insurgency and instability differently than Bush?
I don't speak on behalf of John Kerry. I sit on its foreign policy advisory group, and I have the title of senior foreign policy adviser. But the reason I don't speak on behalf of the Kerry campaign is that I would have to speak on their talking points and that is way too constraining for me. So I support him, I speak in support of him, and I offer the campaign my advice privately. My own sense of where we are now is that the speech that Kerry gave in September [urging a more multilateral approach] is clearly where the administration is beginning to move toward. That's a good thing. Unfortunately, the situation is deteriorating so fast that -- and this is not Kerry's position but my own -- we need to take some steps rather quickly. The first thing we need to do is stabilize the situation. We need to realize that we are fighting a multi-front war, one front against one or two insurgencies, and a third to ensure public safety and the provision of basic services.
If you contrast the way they did this war with the way they did Bosnia -- when I was political adviser to the commander in chief of US forces in Europe -- the differences are absolutely striking. In Bosnia, we went in heavy and in such an intimidating fashion that nobody dared take a shot at us, and if they did it was just going to bounce off the Bradley fighting vehicles. We put 30,000 people -- 20,000 American -- into a tiny piece of real estate. In Iraq, we put in 130,000 into a vast piece of territory, and they're all lightly armored because the Rumsfeld doctrine is to move faster, further and more lethally. He didn't factor in what it would take to occupy the territory. Also, when you go in and you do an operation, you have to separate the belligerents, and the first thing you have to do is be responsible for the provision of all the basic services, even if they are not core military tasks. It's only when the situation becomes somewhat stable and when people understand you mean business that you can begin to transfer some of these non-core activities to the NGO community, which is better suited to do it but less able to provide logistical support and security in an unstable situation. In Iraq, we ended up using not the military but contractors, and contractors were responsible for their own security and their own logistical support. This made it problematic because no American business is better able to contend with a high-risk security situation than the U.S. military.
But what should be done in the coming weeks and months?
Given the way the situation is deteriorating, if we don't get our arms around it pretty quickly, the debate is going to turn serious over the question of abandoning the whole project. For example, retired general William Odom, the former chief of the National Security Agency, is now advocating getting out of Iraq and leaving it to the Europeans to get more involved. In a way, I like that as a negotiating position. You say this so the Europeans come to realize that their interests are at stake. We need to have a new sense that collective, international interests are at stake in Iraq. I've always thought the Europeans would eventually recognize that their interests are in play in Iraq. Still, they need to be encouraged to participate fully in the reconstruction. We have not done that. And there are a number of things that need to be done. We need to offer them a significant place at the table. Senator Joe Biden has talked about a multilateral board of directors for Iraq under a general U.N. rubric, bringing together countries that are prepared to put their military and economic assets into play.
My own sense is that the first countries we should go to are countries capable of projecting military force such as -- and I hate to say it -- France. France can project military force, and it has the political will and can take casualties. It is a little stretched now because it is doing two operations in Africa. But what we do is go to France and other countries and demonstrate to them that the leadership model has changed and that they need to be part of the solution. And we should make the points to them that the failure of the United States in Iraq will mean that the U.S. leadership is taken off the table the next time there is a problem that involves their region and that instability in the Middle East doesn't play very well for restive populations at home. We should get rid of this idea that the reconstruction contracts are primarily for the United States, and see what these other nations can bring to the table.
Do you have any aspirations to serve in the U.S. government again?
It is not an ambition of mine. Now, if there was a request, and it seemed to match my skill set and my experience....
Could you be confirmed by a Republican-controlled Senate?
I have done nothing to impugn my country, to denigrate my country. I have insisted only, throughout the run-up to the war, that we have a debate based on a set of commonly accepted facts, on which we could base a decision to send 130,000 of our sons and daughters to kill and die for our country. I have also insisted, as is the right of any citizen, that the U.S. government be held accountable for what it has said to the American people and to the Congress of the United States. Neither of those are disqualifying positions.
David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation magazine and author of The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers).