Diplomats are traditionally anonymous. Not Joe Wilson.
Wilson, who died on Friday at the age of 69, turned up in the middle of two of America’s biggest stories in recent history. And both concerned Iraq.
In August 1990, Wilson was the deputy chief of the US mission to Iraq in Baghdad. The ambassador, April Glaspie, left on vacation. Days later Saddam Hussein’s army invaded neighboring Kuwait and the first Gulf War was on.
Wilson was in a tight spot to say the least. Americans were being taken hostage. The US was building a military coalition against Iraq. And a large media contingent arrived every day.
Wilson, with a trademark cigar in his mouth constantly, appeared unruffled. If he was nervous, it didn’t show. Perhaps because he had been in the Foreign Service, particularly in Africa, for 14 years already. CNN producer Ingrid Formanek remembers Wilson “showing up to a briefing with the American press corps one morning impeccably dressed. But wearing a noose in place of a tie to express a political message.”
Over the next six months Wilson opened the doors of the embassy to American citizens unable to leave Baghdad or at risk of capture. He sheltered more than 100 in the cramped embassy. He also facilitated transportation out of the country for others as tensions increased in the Gulf.
Wilson was the US go-between for Washington and the Iraqi foreign ministry. However, dictator Saddam Hussein was calling the shots. Wilson became the last American to meet with the Iraqi strongman early in the crisis. Wilson reflected in a later interview “when I met him, of course, he met me with his gun in his holster. A lot of that I think was for show for his people.”
Wilson held almost daily private press briefings for an eager group of international journalists. In the days before cellphones and texting, CNN producer Robert Wiener, author of “Live from Baghdad,” told CNN “he was very helpful to me and other American journalists in Baghdad allowing us to use the embassy phones 24 hours a day to contact our offices back in the States”.
Wilson called it an “outrage” when I was brought by the Iraqis to a house where Americans held hostage were taken for a Thanksgiving meal. He received a cable from US President George Bush calling him a ‘true American hero’ for his actions representing US interests.
Wilson stayed until early January, ordered the lowering of the American flag above the embassy and headed to the airport. The US war deadline was two weeks away. On the plane out of Baghdad, a frustrated Wilson said, “What can I say, as a diplomat you try to resolve those problems diplomatically”.
After the Iraq war, Wilson returned to Africa and was posted for three years in Gabon and Sao Tome and Principe.
He then assisted the Clinton administration on Africa policy. He retired from government service in 1998, forming his own company.
Little did Wilson know he would return to the spotlight yet again on Iraq. This time on the opposing side of a different President Bush.
In February 2002, Wilson was sent by the CIA to the African nation of Niger to investigate reports that Iraq was seeking to acquire “yellowcake uranium” that could be used to produce nuclear weapons. He met with the US ambassador in Niger and former government officials who were in office at the time Saddam Hussein was supposed to have try to buy the uranium.
Wilson reported back his doubts about the report, finding no proof.
Wilson was stunned to hear President George W. Bush tell the world in his 2003 State of the Union address that “the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” In the July 6, 2003, edition of The New York Times, a furious Wilson wrote an opinion piece titled “What I didn’t find in Africa.”
Wison wrote, ‘Having encountered Mr Hussein and his thugs in the runup to the Persian Gulf war in 1991, I was only too aware of the dangers he posed. But were the dangers the same ones the administration told us about?”
The article was a bombshell. Bush administration senior officials said it was never clear if Saddam was or was not seeking to buy uranium from overseas. Then-CIA Director George Tenet said the Wilson report from Niger produced “no solid answers” and was never passed up the chain of command.
The week after Wilson’s op-ed, columnist Robert Novak wrote that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA. The name of Wilson’s spouse was subsequently leaked to several journalists. Valerie Plame indeed was a CIA operative and with her cover blown, Wilson hotly accused a senior Bush official of risking his then-wife’s life and dozens of her contacts abroad. Wilson said Plame’s name was leaked to discredit his Niger uranium report and his op-ed because they opposed the Bush ordered invasion of Iraq.
“My wife’s reaction was she said she felt like she was hit in the stomach,” he said.
Wilson explained in later years that he had to speak up.
“The administration was never going to admit a mistake unless they are confronted,” he said.
A federal investigation led to a trial of Scooter Libby, a close aide to Vice President Dick Cheney. He was convicted on four of five counts, including false statements, perjury and obstruction of justice. Libby’s prison sentence was commuted by Bush. Later, President Donald Trump pardoned Libby.
Wilson and Plame filed a civil suit against Cheney, Libby and former assistant US Secretary of State Richard Armitage. Wilson said, “I know of no other way to confront the school bullies than to confront them.” A judge later dismissed the suit, citing it didn’t belong in federal court. Wilson insisted that “some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat,” he later told The New York Times.
Wilson and Plame were portrayed in the movie “Fair Game’, the title based on a comment made by Bush aide Karl Rove, describing what happened to the couple. Wilson was portrayed by Sean Penn and Plame by Naomi Watts. They became a power political couple because of the controversy and appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine.
Plame was Wilson’s third wife. They had two children before they quietly divorced in 2017. Plame is now running for Congress in New Mexico.
CNN’s Formanek reflected that Wilson will ” be remembered as a man of honesty.”
Wilson once said, “the first line in my obituary used to read, ‘the last American diplomat to have confronted Saddam Hussein before the first Gulf War,’ … it now of course reads, ‘the husband of the first American spy to have her identify betrayed by her own government.’”
Instead, Joe, I will let you have the last word on your own obituary. A line in your email to me on May 28.
“It has been a grand adventure, my friend, and I cherish every moment of it.”
This story has been updated.