Joseph C. Wilson, a onetime diplomat who incurred the wrath of the administration of George W. Bush for questioning one of the primary reasons for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, then saw his wife at the time, Valerie Plame, exposed as a clandestine CIA officer in an apparent act of retaliation, died Sept. 27 at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was 69.
The cause was organ failure, Plame said. She and Wilson were divorced earlier this year.
Wilson, who had negotiated face-to-face with Saddam before the first Iraq War in the early 1990s, was retired from the State Department when he was sent by the CIA on a fact-finding mission to the African country of Niger in 2002 to investigate whether Iraq had purchased “yellowcake” uranium ore in Niger. Uranium is used in making nuclear weapons.
After eight days in Niger, which had been one of his first diplomatic postings in the 1970s, Wilson concluded there was no evidence that Iraq had obtained uranium and therefore would not be able to make weapons of mass destruction.
During the State of the Union address in January 2003, Bush said the opposite: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Under that pretext, U.S. military forces invaded Iraq two months later, resulting in a war that dragged on for years and claimed thousands of American lives.
In July 2003, Wilson wrote an op-ed column for the New York Times, “What I Didn’t Find in Africa.”
“Having encountered Mr. Hussein and his thugs in the run-up to the Persian Gulf War of 1991, I was only too aware of the dangers he posed,” he wrote. But the Bush administration disregarded his findings about the uranium and instead relied on secondhand intelligence that was later shown to be erroneous.
“Did the Bush administration manipulate intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs to justify an invasion of Iraq?” Wilson pointedly asked in his op-ed.
Wilson immediately found himself a target of the administration’s embarrassment and anger. Within days, syndicated columnist Robert M. Novak identified Wilson’s wife as a CIA operative.
“It just felt like I got a sucker punch to the gut,” Plame told NPR’s “Fresh Air” in 2007.
With her cover blown, Plame was forced to resign from the CIA, her career ended. Over the next few years, she and Wilson appeared in public to describe how their lives were turned upside down by what they considered an act of betrayal and political revenge by the Bush administration. Since 1982, it has been a federal crime to reveal the identity of covert intelligence officers.
Wilson was seen by many as a whistleblower, but Bush officials viewed him as a political enemy. During the 2000 presidential election, he had contributed $1,000 to each campaign, but by 2003 he had endorsed Democrat John Kerry against Bush.
Wilson and Plame were called arrogant for posing in their Jaguar convertible, with the White House in the background, for a profile in Vanity Fair. Wilson published a memoir, “The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity,” in 2004, followed three years later by Plame’s own memoir. The books formed the basis of a 2010 film, “Fair Game,” in which Wilson was portrayed by Sean Penn and Plame by Naomi Watts.
In 2006, Wilson and Plame filed suit against Vice President Richard Cheney and Cheney’s onetime chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, presidential adviser Karl Rove and State Department official Richard Armitage, asserting that they had illegally disclosed Plame’s identity to Novak. The suit was ultimately dismissed.
Although Armitage was widely believed to be the first person to leak Plame’s name, it was Libby who was convicted in 2007 of perjury, obstruction of justice and other charges. Bush commuted Libby’s prison sentence, and President Donald Trump pardoned him in 2018.
Seeking to shield their two young children from the public glare and death threats, Wilson and Plame moved to New Mexico. He worked as a consultant on African business ventures and frequently appeared as a speaker around the country. She is currently a Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives from New Mexico.
In 2004, Wilson received the first-ever Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling, now an annual award for bringing an urgent issue to public attention at great personal risk. At the awards banquet, Wilson wept as he addressed Plame.
“If I could give you back your anonymity,” he said, pausing to regain his composure. “You are the most wonderful person I know. And I’m sorry this has been brought on you.”
Joseph Charles Wilson IV was born Nov. 6, 1949, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and grew up in California. His parents were journalists.
He graduated in 1972 from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he was a self-described “surf dude.” He worked as a carpenter, but a facility with languages helped him earn a position with the State Department in 1976. He worked in several African countries, including Niger, South Africa and Burundi, and in the mid-1980s served on the congressional staffs of Sen. Al Gore, D-Tenn., and Rep. Tom Foley, D-Wash.
From 1988 to 1991, he was the second-ranking diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, during the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War. In September 1990, after Iraqi forces had attacked Kuwait, about 60 Americans sought refuge at the U.S. ambassador’s residence.
Iraqi officials then issued an edict that anyone harboring foreigners was subject to execution. Wilson appeared at a news briefing with a noose around his neck.
“If the choice is to allow American citizens to be taken hostage or to be executed,” he said, “I will bring my own f—ing rope.”
Before U.S. military forces launched bombs on Baghdad, Wilson strolled around the White House grounds with President George H.W. Bush.
“He’s asking about how the other side feels, what was it like in Iraq, what are the people like,” Wilson said. “The human questions that you want your leaders to think before they commit to the violence that is war.”
Wilson served as U.S. ambassador to Gabon and later as President Bill Clinton’s director for African affairs at the National Security Council.
“Joe Wilson was a good man, an honorable public servant, and a true patriot,” Clinton said Friday in a statement. “Throughout his long career as a diplomat, he worked tirelessly to achieve peace and security, defend human rights, and build a world where America and our partners could rise together.”
Wilson’s first two marriages, to Susan Otchis and French diplomat Jacqueline Giorgi, ended in divorce. Survivors include twins from his first marriage, Sabrina Ames and Joseph C. Wilson V; twins from his marriage to Plame, Trevor and Samantha Wilson; a brother; and five grandchildren.
In August 1990, as Iraqi troops were overrunning the neighboring country of Kuwait, Wilson negotiated directly with Saddam, who was surrounded by a retinue of assistants and guards. At one point, Saddam went silent and tried to stare Wilson down.
“I’m thinking to myself he must not know that I’m the father of twins,” Wilson told Vanity Fair, “and we play staring contests.”
It was the last time Saddam sat down with a U.S. diplomat, face-to-face. Wilson didn’t blink.