by Vicky Ward
December 31, 2003NOTICE: THIS WORK MAY BE PROTECTED BY COPYRIGHT
Joseph Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame, in Washington, D.C., on November 8, 2003. When they met at a reception, in February 1997, it was love at first sight. “She did not let anyone into the conversation, and I did not let anyone into the conversation,” he says. Photograph by Jonas Karlsson.Former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson and his wife, C.I.A. operative Valerie Plame, are at the center of controversy over President Bush’s bogus claim, in last year’s State of the Union address, that Saddam had tried to buy uranium in Africa. The Justice Department is investigating who leaked Plame’s covert status—a federal crime—to columnist Robert Novak, presumably as payback for her husband’s public suggestion that the White House’s intelligence was false. The author gives an intimate portrait of the couple that the administration has tried to “slime” in order to “defend” Bush’s Iraq policy.
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On a sunny Wednesday in mid-October a mixture of journalists, lobbyists, and the odd politician were sitting down to plates of cold salad in a stuffy dining room at the National Press Club in downtown Washington, D.C., when Valerie Plame (Wilson), wearing a sharp cream pantsuit, entered the room. The occasion was a lunch given by The Nation magazine’s foundation and the Fertel Foundation to present the first Ron Ridenhour Award for Truth-Telling to her husband, Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV.
Surprisingly, given that Plame was at the center of a Justice Department investigation that could conceivably cause serious damage to the Bush administration, hardly anyone paused to take in the slim 40-year-old with white-blond hair and a big, bright smile. In July the syndicated conservative columnist Robert Novak published an item revealing that Plame was a C.I.A. “operative.” The information had been leaked to him by “two senior [Bush] administration officials,” who were trying to discredit a report her husband had done for the C.I.A.—the implication being that Wilson got the job only because his wife got it for him. Evidently the “two senior administration officials” did not realize it is a federal crime to knowingly reveal the identity of an undercover C.I.A. agent. As a result, Plame is now the most famous female spy in America—“Jane Bond,” as her husband has referred to her. However, even in Washington circles, few people yet know what she looks like. Quietly she threaded her way around the tables until she reached Wilson, a handsome man with a full head of gray hair and dressed in a Zegna suit, pink shirt, and Hermès tie.
Plame kissed her husband’s cheek fondly and took his hand. He looked thrilled to see her. They sat down side by side. Senator Jon Corzine, a Democrat from New Jersey, crossed the room to pump their hands. Suddenly necks craned and chairs swiveled as people tried not to stare too obviously at the telegenic couple who, together, have caused a maelstrom that some in the nation’s capital feel may yet rise to the level of a Watergate.
Wilson, 54, is a retired American diplomat who wrote a July 6 op-ed piece for The New York Times that told of his February 2002 fact-finding mission to Niger, taken at the behest of the C.I.A. His mission was to verify—or disprove—an intelligence report that Saddam Hussein had attempted to buy from Niger “yellowcake,” a uranium ore, which can be used to make fissionable material. The information that Saddam did try to buy it found its way into President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” This was a key piece of the president’s claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction—which in turn was Bush’s main justification for going to war with that country.
But, on his trip, Wilson had found no evidence to substantiate the president’s assertion. His New York Times piece was titled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa.” Had he been wrong?, he wondered in the article. Or had his information been ignored because it did not fit with the government’s preconceptions about Iraq? On the Sunday his piece ran in the Times, Wilson appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press to discuss it.
The article and the television appearance had two results. Officially, National-Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice admitted that the sentence should not have been in the president’s speech, because the intelligence on which it was based was not good enough, and C.I.A. director George Tenet took the blame, saying that he was “responsible for the approval process in my agency.” But then he added that the C.I.A. had warned the National Security Council that the intelligence was dubious, and some days later Stephen Hadley, the N.S.C. deputy, admitted he’d “forgotten” about seeing two memos from the agency debating the veracity of the intelligence. Still, the administration could argue—and did—that, technically, none of the words in the speech were actually inaccurate, because it cited British intelligence as the source.
In fact, a tug-of-war had been building for months between the C.I.A. and the Bush administration. The latter, it was felt at C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Virginia, had been cherry-picking intelligence to suit its own purposes and, even worse, essentially cutting the C.I.A. and other agencies out of the general vetting of raw intelligence. By early summer the rope between the White House and Langley was stretched to the snapping point.
Then it did snap, catching Wilson and Plame with its frayed ends. On July 14, Novak wrote that Wilson’s investigation was a “low level” C.I.A. project and that agency higher-ups had considered its conclusion “less than definitive.” Wilson, after all, was merely a retired ambassador who had worked in Iraq just before the Gulf War. He currently operated as a business consultant in Washington, D.C. Novak wrote that the “two senior administration officials” told him that Wilson had been sent to Africa only because his wife of five years—Valerie Plame—an “agency operative on weapons of mass destruction,” had suggested to her bosses that he go.
To most readers this information might have seemed harmless, but on July 22 Newsday’s Knut Royce and Timothy M. Phelps reported that, according to their intelligence sources, Plame was an “undercover officer.” In fact, she had NOC status, that is, nonofficial cover. NOCs are not ordinarily deskbound intelligence analysts who work inside C.I.A. headquarters. Mostly they operate abroad, frequently using fake job descriptions and sometimes fake names. According to a former senior C.I.A. officer, to blend in they often have to work two jobs: that of their “cover” and that involving their C.I.A. duties, which usually consists of handling foreign agents in the field, but can also involve recruiting them. NOCs have no diplomatic protection and so are vulnerable to hostile regimes that can imprison or execute them without official repercussions. A NOC’s only real defense is his or her cover, which can take years to build. Because of this vulnerability, a NOC’s identity is considered within the C.I.A. to be, as former C.I.A. analyst Kenneth Pollack has put it, “the holiest of holies.”
And, according to the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, leaking the name of an undercover agent is also a federal crime, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, under certain circumstances. When TV commentator Chris Matthews asked Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie if he thought such a leak made by government officials was “worse than Watergate,” Gillespie replied, “Yeah, I suppose in terms of the real-world implications of it.”
After the Newsday report, Senator Charles Schumer (Democrat, New York) fired off a letter to Robert Mueller, the F.B.I. director. Still, the story seemed to gain little traction until, on September 27, it emerged—via another leak—that the Justice Department’s counter-espionage chief, John Dion, was conducting a criminal investigation into the episode. The investigation was formally announced on September 30, and later that day Dion told Alberto Gonzales, the White House counsel, that everyone in the White House would have to preserve all relevant records and, in particular, records of conversations with Novak, and Royce and Phelps.
The president’s comment, on October 7, that “this is a town full of people who like to leak information. And I don’t know if we’re going to find out the senior administration official,” hardly inspired confidence in the investigation. Schumer, the most vocal Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, called for a special counsel, questioning the three-day delay between the original announcement of the investigation and the instructions to the White House staff to preserve records, as well as the possible conflict of interest for Attorney General John Ashcroft, a fiercely partisan Republican who, among other things, had once employed White House strategist Karl Rove—whom Wilson originally suspected as the source for the leak. After all, Rove has previously been suspected of leaking to Novak—in 1992, as a consultant to the first President Bush’s Texas campaign. Novak (and Rowland Evans) then wrote about a secret meeting Republicans held about Bush’s disastrous Texas re-election effort. Rove was fired from the Texas campaign as a result.
At the Nation award lunch Wilson wept openly on the podium as he looked his wife straight in the eye and declared, “If I could give you back your anonymity … ” He swallowed, unable to speak for a few seconds. “You are the most wonderful person I know. And I’m sorry this has been brought on you.” Valerie Plame also teared up. The room was electrified.
Moments later Wilson recovered. He concluded his remarks with the climax everyone had been waiting for. “Let me introduce you to my wife, Valerie,” he said.
At dinner the night before, Valerie Plame’s main concern had been the state of her kitchen. “It’s such a mess,” she wailed after warmly greeting a reporter on the porch and retreating to fuss over her naked three-year-old twins, Trevor and Samantha, who were running around in a state of high excitement. The kitchen was undergoing renovation, but, like the rest of her house, it was immaculate. A plate of Brie, French bread, and grapes was left to nibble from while she prepared pasta and salad in the kitchen. “My wife is so damned organized,” Wilson had boomed earlier in his office as he carried out her instructions, written on a Post-It note, to schedule his children’s swimming lessons.
The Wilsons live in the Palisades, an affluent neighborhood of Washington, D.C., on the fringe of Georgetown. In winter, when the trees have no leaves, the back of their house has a stunning view of the Washington Monument. They’d first seen the house in 1998, when it was still being built, and they had instantly fallen in love with it. Even so, Plame took some persuading before they made an offer. “She’s very frugal,” explains Wilson. “My brother who’s in real estate had to fly in from the West Coast and explain that a mortgage could cost less than our rented apartment in the Watergate.”
Plame also told Wilson that she’d be moving with him into the new house only as his wife. Records show that Wilson and his second wife, Jacqueline, to whom he was married for 12 years, were divorced in 1998. By the mid-90s, Wilson says, that relationship had pretty much disintegrated. “Separate bedrooms—and I was playing a lot of golf,” he says.
He had met Plame in February 1997 at a reception at the Washington home of the Turkish ambassador. He says that when his eyes fell on her from across the room he thought he knew her. He realized as he drew near that he did not—and that it was love at first sight. From that moment on, he says, “she did not let anyone into the conversation, and I did not let anyone into the conversation.”
At the time, Wilson was based in Stuttgart, serving as the political adviser to George Joulwan, the U.S. general in charge of the European command; Plame was based in Brussels. Meeting in Paris, London, and Brussels, they got very serious very quickly. On the third or fourth date, he says, they were in the middle of a “heavy make-out” session when she said she had something to tell him. She was very conflicted and very nervous, thinking of everything that had gone into getting her to that point, such as money and training.
She was, she explained, undercover in the C.I.A. “It did nothing to dampen my ardor,” he says. “My only question was: Is your name really Valerie?”
It was. Valerie P., as she was known to her classmates at the Farm, in Camp Peary, Virginia, the C.I.A.’s training facility, where former C.I.A. agent Jim Marcinkowski noticed—as he later told Time magazine—that she showed considerable prowess wielding an AK-47 machine gun. She had chosen the C.I.A. because she was intellectually curious, had a facility for languages, and wanted to live abroad. She also came from a military family, which had imbued her with a sense of public duty. “I was in the N.S.A. for three years,” says her father, retired air-force lieutenant colonel Samuel Plame. Her parents, says her close friend Janet Angstadt, are the type who are still volunteering for the Red Cross and Meals on Wheels in the Philadelphia suburb where they live.
After Valerie graduated from Penn State, she moved to Washington, D.C., and married her college boyfriend Todd Sesler. She worked at a clothing store, biding her time, waiting for her acceptance from the C.I.A. She may have mentioned, says Angstadt, that she was going to interview with the C.I.A., but “nobody ever heard about it ever again.”
Plame and Sesler were both accepted at the agency. But, according to a friend of the couple’s, his heart wasn’t in it. “When she talks about something, you suddenly want to do what she’s doing, because it’s so infectious,” says this friend, who adds, “I think that’s what happened in this case.” According to this person, it was Plame who ended the marriage. (Sesler did not respond to calls for comment.)
Sesler returned to Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, Plame learned Greek—she can also speak French and German—and was sent to Athens. There she had what is known as “State Department cover.” The only lie Plame had to tell her friends then was that the State Department was her only boss.
After the Gulf War she was sent to the London School of Economics, and from there to the College of Europe, an international-relations school in Bruges. She stayed on in Brussels, telling friends she was working for an energy consulting firm, Brewster-Jennings (now defunct). Angstadt, who is a lawyer for the Archipelago Exchange in Chicago, says it never crossed her mind to doubt her friend’s stories. “I think she trained us not to ask questions,” Angstadt says.
When in the wake of the leak friends have asked how Plame foiled eager interlocutors, she has told them, “You just turn it around. People love to talk about themselves.… There’s nothing more exciting than to have someone go, ‘Really?’”
Angstadt was puzzled as to how her friend could so easily afford apartments and seemed to be so sure she could get a job wherever she wanted in Europe. “I would often say to my mom, ‘I just don’t get this,’” Angstadt says. She wondered if someone had given Plame money.
“Even if it meant people didn’t think well of her or just thought that she was kind of detached from the real world, she was willing to live with those assumptions. I think what is so extraordinary about her is that she’s so sure of who she is,” says Angstadt.
During an Austrian skiing trip in the mid-1990s, Plame described to her friend the kind of man she was looking for: “Somebody who’s a little older, who’s had some success in life, is worldly,” Angstadt remembers. “I’m telling you, she described Joe Wilson.”
In 1997, Plame moved back to the Washington area, partly because (as was recently reported in The New York Times) the C.I.A. suspected that her name may have been on a list given to the Russians by the double agent Aldrich Ames in 1994.
That same year, Wilson also came back to Washington, as a senior director for African affairs at the National Security Council, where, according to the Reagan administration’s assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Chester Crocker, he was the most effective person in that job during the Clinton administration. A source, however, says that Wilson was not universally popular, because of what was perceived to be too strong sympathies for the interests of the Africans and Europeans. “He’s the kind of person who would remind Americans of things they might not want to hear,” says this source.
After only one year in the job Wilson decided to retire and go into the private sector because “we wanted to have kids, and felt that it had become very difficult to live off two government salaries.” He set up a consultancy, J. C. Wilson International Ventures, with an office in downtown Washington at the headquarters of the Rock Creek Corporation, an investment firm of which little is known. Wilson’s right-wing critics have been quick to condemn the affiliation as “murky,” though Wilson does not work for Rock Creek and merely rents space and facilities there.
“I have a number of clients, and basically we help them with their sort of investments in countries like Niger,” explains Wilson. “Niger was of some interest because it has some gold deposits coming onstream. We had some clients who were interested in gold.… We were looking to set up a gold-mine company out of London.”
Wilson is the son of freelance journalists who lived in California and then moved around Europe while he and his brother were growing up. He went to the University of California at Santa Barbara and characterized himself as a “surf dude” with some carpentry skills. In person, he gives off a charismatic, relaxed air, and someone who was with him in Baghdad said it’s easy to underestimate him. In 1974 he married his college sweetheart, Susan Otchis, and in 1976 went to work for the State Department. His postings included Niger, Togo—where his wife became pregnant with the first set of Wilson twins, Joseph and Sabrina, now 24—South Africa, and Burundi. It was in Burundi that Susan “decided she’d had about enough of me” and left him, he says. He remains on good terms with the family.
Also in Burundi, Wilson met his second wife, then the cultural counselor at the French Embassy there. They spent a year back in Washington on a congressional fellowship, during which time he worked for Al Gore, then a senator from Tennessee, and Tom Foley, then House majority whip. “It was,” Wilson says, “happenstance” that he worked for two Democrats. Then he returned to Africa as deputy chief of mission in the Congo Republic, where he helped Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker set up the process that led to negotiations for the withdrawal of the Cuban and South African troops from the Angolan Civil War.
In 1988, Wilson found himself in Baghdad as the number two to Ambassador April Glaspie, a career diplomat and an experienced Arabist. “She didn’t need somebody who knew the issues deeply, because she knew the issues deeply.… She wanted somebody who knew how to manage the embassy,” he says.
At that point Saddam Hussein was still a U.S. ally, but he was being watched like a hawk. In late July 1990, Glaspie, who had already delayed her annual vacation to America twice, packed her bags and came home, leaving Wilson in charge.
The night of August 1, Wilson had dinner with someone he describes as “Saddam’s principal arms buyer in Paris. It was so hot the air was literally shimmering right in front of the windshield. I get to this guy’s house, and it had been chilled to 45, 50 degrees … roaring fire in the fireplace and over in a corner a white baby grand piano and a guy playing classical music on it. The guy looks like a Pancho Villa figure, Mexican bandito.… We sat down to dinner, just him, myself, my wife, and five bodyguards—armed.”
Wilson got home and went to bed. The phone rang at 2:30 a.m. “I got up. It was dark out. Tripped over the dog. The voice at the other end says, ‘Mr. Wilson, I have the White House on the line.’” Stark naked, Wilson stood at attention. The line went dead. Wilson then phoned Sandra Charles, the N.S.C. Middle East specialist, who told him that the ambassador to Kuwait, Nathaniel “Nat” Howell, was looking out at gunfire and Iraqi troops surrounding the embassy there.
Wilson marched over to the foreign ministry at 7:30 a.m. and pounded on the door of Tariq Aziz, Iraq’s cigar-loving foreign minister. They proceeded to have a forceful exchange, which resulted in the restoration of the direct-dial phone capability that had been cut at the American Embassy in Baghdad. “It seems to me that with your army in Kuwait City and my navy in the Gulf we have an obligation to avoid any escalation of this crisis if we can,” Wilson told Aziz. (It was something of a stretch; just a few navy ships happened to be in the Persian Gulf.)
A member of the embassy staff who was impressed with Wilson’s political dexterity says, “I always knew Joe was bright, but he really showed here he could be quick on his feet. That was a pretty smart way to handle the situation.”
Thus began several months of negotiations with Iraqi officials—and, once on August 6, 1990, with Saddam himself. It was the last time the Iraqi president would talk to a U.S. government official. Surrounded by his coterie of advisers he stared at Wilson, who stared back, typically finding a humorous angle in the standoff. “I’m thinking to myself he must not know that I’m the father of twins, and we play staring contests.” Saddam could not outstare him.
Hussein asked him, “What’s the news from Washington?” Wilson retorted, “Well, you’re better off asking that question of your foreign minister. He’s got the satellite dish.” It was a reference to the fact that the Iraqis had not allowed the U.S. to import satellite dishes.
Hussein started to laugh. “I have a tendency to laugh at my own jokes,” says Wilson, who recalls he was also about to laugh, but suddenly remembered that the cameras were still on. His political instincts kicked in and stopped him. “It dawned on me that the last thing in the world that I wanted to be beamed around the world was a picture of me yukking it up with Saddam Hussein.” They went on to discuss the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. Saddam wanted the U.S. to let the Iraqis stay in exchange for cheap oil.
Many more meetings with the Iraqis, concerning the treatment of the thousands of Americans trapped in Iraq and Kuwait, were to follow. One of Wilson’s tensest moments occurred while he was waiting for a convoy of dependents of the U.S. staff at the Kuwait embassy to make its way to Baghdad, a journey that ordinarily took 6 hours, but this time took 16. “You quickly learn that every car you add to a convoy slows
it by about a half-hour,” he says.
A handwritten note from George H. W. Bush, thanking him for his service in Iraq, is encased in glass on Wilson’s desk in his office. “He certainly was brave,” says Nancy E. Johnson, the embassy’s political officer in Baghdad. “One afternoon we sat in his office joking about all the different conventions they’d be violating if they harmed us. It was tense. You never knew where you were with the Iraqis.”
Wilson’s most famous moment—the one that got him in the headlines around the world—came in late September 1990, after he had received a diplomatic note that threatened execution to anyone harboring foreigners. Since Wilson himself had put up about 60 Americans at the ambassador’s residence and other places, he gave a press briefing during which he wore a noose he’d asked one of the embassy Marines to prepare that morning. “If the choice is to allow American citizens to be taken hostage or to be executed, I will bring my own fucking rope,” he said.
Wilson grins as he recalls it.
Such chutzpah inevitably didn’t win over everyone. “Grandstanding” is what someone who was with him in Baghdad calls it. “He always liked to grandstand.… They [State Department higher-ups] thought he was arrogant and demanding.”
Wilson probably did not care.
When he returned to America his face was in the news, but he was rarely quoted, and he did not give interviews. “Those who now suggest that I am somehow a publicity hound would do well to remember that when I came out from Iraq I refused all interviews,” he says, “because I had done everything I had to do.”
About 30 hours before the bombs started to fall on Baghdad, Wilson and the first President Bush took a stroll through the Rose Garden, during which Wilson was impressed by the kinds of questions Bush asked. “He’s asking about how the other side feels, what was it like in Iraq, what are the people like, how are they taking this, are they scared, what is Saddam like—the human questions that you want your leaders to think before they commit to the violence that is war.”
In 1992, Wilson was rewarded with the ambassadorship to Gabon, where, he says, he helped persuade President Omar Bongo—“the most clever politician in African politics,” according to Wilson—to have free and open elections. From there he went to Stuttgart and thence to the N.S.C., for which he would revisit Niger. In April 1999 that country had suffered a military coup and the assassination of President Ibrahim Bare Mainassara. Wilson says he advised Major Daouda Mallam Wankie, the alleged leader of the coup, to help return the country to democratic rule.
Plame teases her husband that all his life he’s had a “Forrest Gump” effect—in other words, he’s always been there when things happen, though outsiders would never know it. It’s a characterization he’s proud of.
Wilson is someone who likes to be useful—and he enjoyed it when he was asked, after his retirement from government service, to brief the C.I.A. on such topics as Iraq, Africa, and Angola. So he was not unduly surprised when, one evening in early 2002, his wife asked if he’d come in to discuss Niger and uranium—a subject he’d discussed with the C.I.A. before. He categorically denies that his wife had anything to do with the request other than her role as messenger.
At the meeting Wilson was told that the office of Vice President Dick Cheney had asked for further information about a document that was a “purported memorandum of agreement or a contract covering the sale of ‘yellowcake’ uranium by Niger to Iraq.” Wilson never saw the document, and he did not know if anyone in the room had, either.
“I went through what I knew about … uranium. I went through what I knew about the personalities.… People chimed in, and I answered them as best I could. It was a kind of free-for-all, and at the end they sort of asked, ‘Well, would you be able to clear your schedule and go out there if we wanted?’ and I said, ‘Sure.’”
The first thing Wilson did in Niger was visit Ambassador Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick, a career diplomat who’d been posted previously to Mexico. “She said, yeah, she knew a lot about this particular report. She thought she had debunked it—and, oh, by the way, a four-star Marine Corps general had been down there as well—Carlton Fulford. And he had left satisfied there was nothing to report.” (Fulford declined to comment.) Owens-Kirkpatrick had gotten denials from the current Niger administration, but Wilson offered to go back to officials of the previous one—whom, he pointed out, she didn’t know very well. (Owens-Kirkpatrick could not be reached for comment.)
Wilson was not told precisely how much uranium the document specified, but, he says, a quantity of any consequence is not something that can be easily hidden and then whisked into the Sahara Desert. Uranium in Niger comes from two mines. The managing partner of both mines is the French nuclear company Cogema. Niger’s only participation has been in collecting tax on the mines’ revenues. “If the Nigeriens want to take the product, they would have to meet with the consortium partners, who meet once a year to establish production schedules, then meet every two months with just those production schedulers, contingent upon whatever shifts in the demand there may be for those particular countries,” he says. “Any increase of production is going to require changes in transportation schedule … changes in barrel supply … security requirements to get it down … [and] tracking requirements to get it down the railhead.”
Wilson looked at the Niger ministries that would have had to be involved in the sale, had it been done by the book—in which case the documents would have borne the signatures of the minister of mines and energy, the minister of foreign affairs, the prime minister, and quite possibly the president. It would also have been posted in the Niger equivalent of the Federal Register.
Wilson also examined another possibility: whether a military-junta leader had gone behind the government’s back and done a deal with Cogema off the books. He concluded that it would have been very difficult to do so without alerting the other consortium members, since there are up-front costs associated with mining extra products, and, again, the production schedules would have had to be shifted. “If the French really wanted to give the ‘yellowcake’ to Saddam,” says Wilson, “there would be easier ways for them to do it than to take it out of the mine in Niger.… I mean, they’ve had their [nuclear] industry up and running for 25 to 30 years.”
After Wilson returned to America, a C.I.A. reports officer visited him at home and later debriefed him. Since Wilson’s trip had been made because of Cheney’s office’s request, he assumed that the vice president had received at least a phone call about his findings. “There would have been a very specific answer provided … to the very specific question that he asked,” Wilson says. (The vice president’s office denies that Cheney heard back from the C.I.A. or knew about Wilson’s trip until he read about it in the newspaper many months later. Tenet confirmed the trip was made on the C.I.A.’s “own initiative.” )
By this point members of the intelligence community were complaining behind the scenes about pressure from the administration to find evidence of links between Saddam and international terrorism, and also between Saddam and weapons of mass destruction. According to an October 27, 2003, story by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker, there seemed to be a tendency by Cheney’s office, among others, to bypass the analysts and use raw intelligence given directly to the administration. There was also increased reliance on intelligence provided by Ahmad Chalabi, the charismatic head of the opposition Iraqi National Congress, from Iraqi defectors. They gave a grisly picture of secret nuclear facilities, terrorist training camps, and chemical- and biological-weapons factories spread throughout Iraq, which the C.I.A. and the International Atomic Energy Agency—which had monitored Iraq until its inspectors left the country in 1998—could neither corroborate nor refute outright. The C.I.A. did not trust Chalabi or his men. Cheney and the Pentagon, on the other hand, stood firmly behind him.
Cheney and his chief of staff, Lewis Libby, visited the C.I.A. several times at Langley and told the staff to make more of an effort to find evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and to uncover Iraqi attempts to acquire nuclear capabilities. One of the people who objected most fervently to what he saw as “intimidation,” according to one former C.I.A. case officer, was Alan Foley, then the head of the Weapons Intelligence, Non-Proliferation and Arms Control Center. He was Valerie Plame’s boss. (Foley could not be reached for comment.)
In October 2002 additional documents relating to an alleged uranium sale in Niger surfaced in Italy, according to the Hersh article, where they were obtained by a journalist, Elisabetta Burba, at Panorama magazine. Burba took them to the American Embassy and made her own fact-finding trip to Niger, where she concluded the documents were not reliable. She did not even bother to write a story. Yet the documents apparently were given credence by the administration. Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell started to talk and write publicly about Iraq’s attempts to procure uranium.
The day after the president’s State of the Union address Wilson called William Mark Bellamy (now the ambassador to Kenya) at the State Department’s African bureau and said, “Either you guys have some information that’s different from what my trip and the ambassador and everybody else said about Niger, or else you need to do something to correct the record.” Bellamy replied that perhaps the president was talking about somewhere else in Africa. (Bellamy declined to comment.)
On the weekend of March 8, a U.S. official admitted, “We fell for it,” about the Niger documents. A signature on one letter, dated October 10, 2000, was that of a foreign minister who hadn’t been in office for nearly 11 years. Wilson appeared on CNN and told news anchor Renay San Miguel that he believed that if the U.S. government looked into its files it would find it had known a lot more about the Niger uranium story than it was now letting on. Wilson has since heard from someone close to the House Judiciary Committee that it is believed that Cheney’s office started to do a “work-up” on him at that moment. (An official in Cheney’s office says, “That is false.”)
In early May, Wilson and Plame attended a conference sponsored by the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, at which Wilson spoke about Iraq; one of the other panelists was the New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof. Over breakfast the next morning with Kristof and his wife, Wilson told about his trip to Niger and said Kristof could write about it, but not name him. At this point what he wanted, Wilson says, was for the government to correct the record. “I felt that on issues as important to our whole society as sending our sons and daughters to kill and die for our national security we as a society and our government have a responsibility to our people to ensure that the debate is carried out in a way that reflects the solemnity of the decision being taken,” he says.
Kristof’s column appeared on May 6. On June 8, when Condoleezza Rice was asked about the Niger documents on Meet the Press, she said, “Maybe someone knew down in the bowels of the agency, but no one in our circles knew that there were doubts and suspicions that this might be a forgery.”
Wilson immediately called a couple of people in the government, whose identities he will not divulge—“They are close to certain people in the administration,” he says—and warned them that if Rice would not correct the record he would. One of them, he says, told him to write the story. So at the beginning of July he sat down to write “What I Didn’t Find in Africa.”
While he was working, he says, he received a call from Richard Leiby, a reporter at The Washington Post, about his role in the 1991 Gulf War. Wilson told him about the Times article he was writing, and the Post, in an attempt to keep up, ran a story about Wilson on July 6. That same day Wilson appeared on Meet the Press; so did Senators John Warner (Republican, Virginia) and Carl Levin (Democrat, Michigan), who had just returned from Iraq. Both Warner and Levin commented that Wilson’s article was of interest, as did Washington Post columnist David Broder. Only Robert Novak, in a separate segment, said that it was a nonstory.
Wilson says he was prepared for the personal attacks that followed the publication of the story in The New York Times. “It’s slime and defend,” a Republican aide on Capitol Hill later admitted. On July 11, columnist Clifford May wrote in the conservative publication National Review that Wilson was “a pro-Saudi, leftist partisan with an ax to grind.” (Wilson gave $1,000 to Gore in 1999, but also $1,000 to the Bush campaign.) Former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger wrote in The Wall Street Journal that Wilson had had a “less-than-stellar record.” Wilson shrugs, citing Weinberger’s history of working for the Bechtel Corporation, a civil-engineering firm that has done much work in Iraq. “Most of the people that we were taking care of at the diplomatic quarters in Baghdad were Bechtel employees. I guarantee you, if you go and ask 58 of the 60 Bechtel employees who we were taking care of what they thought about Joe Wilson, they’d think his performance was pretty stellar,” Wilson says. Former Bechtel employee David Morris remembers, “He was always working on our behalf and stirring, so to speak, and keeping the issues in front of Saddam, and it made us feel good to know that Joe was doing that. He tried to help us feel better and keep our spirits up. … He was a most unique fellow. I really was most appreciative of him.”
But Wilson was caught off guard when around July 9 he received a phone call from Robert Novak, who, according to Wilson, said he’d been told by a C.I.A. source that Wilson’s wife worked for the agency. “Can you confirm or deny?” Wilson recalls Novak as saying. “I need another source.”
Wilson says he replied, “I’m not going to answer any questions about my wife.”
At this point, Wilson says, he and his wife thought the leak could be contained if no one picked it up.
When the Novak story ran, identifying not the C.I.A. as the source of the leak but “two senior administration officials,” Wilson says, he called Novak and said, “When you asked for the confirmation you said a ‘C.I.A. source.’” “I misspoke,” Wilson says Novak replied. (Novak declined to comment.)
In the days after the Novak column ran, a producer from ABC—Wilson will not say who—phoned him at home and said, “They’re saying things about you at the White House so off-the-wall we can’t even put them up.” NBC’s Andrea Mitchell called him that weekend, he says, and told him that sources at the White House were telling her, “The real story here is not the 16 words—the real story is Wilson and his wife.” Next, Wilson got a call from a journalist whom he won’t name—but who is widely thought to be Chris Matthews—who, according to Wilson, gushed, “I just got off the phone with Karl Rove. He says your wife is fair game. I gotta go.” Click.
Timothy M. Phelps and Knut Royce’s July 22 Newsday story quotes Novak as saying he had not had to dig out Plame’s name; rather, it had been given to him. “They [the leakers] thought it was significant, they gave me the name and I used it.”
Phelps and Royce also cited a “senior intelligence official” who said that Plame did not recommend her husband for the Niger job, adding, “There are people elsewhere in the government who are trying to make her look like she was the one who was cooking this up, for some reason. I can’t figure out what it could be. We paid his [Wilson’s] airfare. But to go to Niger is not exactly a benefit. Most people you’d have to pay big bucks to go there.” Wilson said he was reimbursed only for expenses.
In the last week of September, Novak modified his story. In an appearance on CNN’s Crossfire, he said, “Nobody in the Bush administration called me to leak this,” and also that, “according to a confidential source at the C.I.A., Mrs. Wilson was an analyst, not a spy, not a covert operative, and not in charge of undercover operatives.”
In fact, in the spring, Plame was in the process of moving from NOC status to State Department cover. Wilson speculates that “if more people knew than should have, then somebody over at the White House talked earlier than they should have been talking.”
It did not, in his mind —or in the opinion of his wife—excuse what had happened. Plame herself thought instantly that the leak was illegal. Even members of her family did not know what she did.
On September 28, The Washington Post reported that, prior to the appearance of Novak’s column, at least six other journalists (it was later revealed that they included reporters for NBC, Time, and Newsday) had been fed information about Plame. None of the six would come forward.
With the announcement of the Justice Department investigation, the hotline from the White House to the press seemed abruptly to end, but the smearing of Joe Wilson did not, Wilson feels. A self-proclaimed lifelong nonpartisan, he says he has been forced into the Democratic corner by critics who refuse to give him the benefit of the doubt. In late September he was sitting in the greenroom, waiting to appear on a CNBC show, when a friend called and told him that Ed Gillespie was on another program dismissing him as a partisan left-winger. Wilson saw him later in the greenroom and said, “Did you know that I also contributed to the Bush-Cheney campaign?” “Oh, yes, I did know,” said Gillespie. “That’s a matter of public record.” (Gillespie disputes Wilson’s account and says he has referred to Wilson’s contributions to Bush on the air.)
To some conservative pundits, it seemed incredible that Wilson could have caused such mayhem on his own without the help of some left-wing umbrella group. Clifford May received the following in an e-mail from someone who asked him to check out Wilson’s background. The e-mailer wrote:
Think how hard it is to pull off [a trifecta of a Sunday New York Times op-ed, a Sunday Washington Post story by staff writers Richard Leiby and Walter Pincus, and an appearance on one of the Sunday talk shows] even if you’re a senior member of the Senate or a top politico.
He added, “This is sheer brilliance, and it’s not Wilson’s brilliance that we’re seeing.”
Wilson has heard all the stories and says they don’t make him anxious. In fact, they merely make him more determined. In August he had been approached by Carroll & Graf Publishers to write a memoir. As his and Plame’s story hit the headlines, he still had not signed a deal. Yet he honored his oral agreement, and, according to Carroll & Graf executive editor Philip Turner, made no effort to ask for more money or conduct an auction among publishing houses. In fact, initially he did not want the publisher to take the book to the Frankfurt Book Fair to sell the foreign rights, because “I [didn’t] want to create an impression, a false impression, that [I was] trying to cash in on this,” he says. But then someone informed him that Novak had written about him finding a literary agent, implying Wilson was doing just that. He told his editor, “Go to Frankfurt! Flog that sucker. I’m entitled to make a living in this country.”
“Every time Novak trashes me, it adds to my value,” he says with a grin.
Plame seems to be dealing with the situation with characteristic equanimity. Janet Angstadt says she’s been amazed at how it’s just been life as normal in the Wilson household. “She can handle pressure very well,” says Plame’s father.
When asked at an October 28 press conference why he had not asked White House staff members to sign an affidavit that they were not behind the leak, President Bush said, “The best group of people to do that so that you believe the answer is the professionals at the Justice Department.” But, though the Justice Department investigation ground on, no grand jury subpoenas had been issued more than a month after it began.
Former federal prosecutor James Orenstein says, “They are pulling punches.… They haven’t subpoenaed reporters. When [White House counsel Alberto] Gonzales asked the prosecutor at the Justice Department for a chance to vet the information [the White House was turning over], they said yes. There may be good reason. But they can’t say that they’re not pulling punches.”
Wilson says, “The longer it appears there’s no obvious progress, the less credible it becomes, and the more it plays into the hands of those who believe an independent counsel will be necessary to get to the bottom of this. It’s appalling to me that somebody who, for their own political reasons, would see fit to compromise national security could, close to six months after that date, still be in a position of trust in the U.S. government.… What strikes me is that so few Republicans are prepared to speak up on an issue of national-security concern.”
One of the people who corresponded with Wilson is George H. W. Bush, the only president to have been head of the C.I.A.—he still receives regular briefings from Langley. Wilson will not divulge Bush’s thoughts on the matter, but the day before giving his speech at the National Press Club, Wilson said, “it [gives] me great pain” to criticize the son of a man he’d so admired and felt some bond with.
But at the press club, Wilson attacked not only the advisers but also, on the issue of the leak, the president himself. “I, for one, am frankly appalled,” he said, “appalled at the apparent nonchalance shown by the president of the United States on this.”
Vicky Ward is a Vanity Fair contributing editor and has written for the magazine on various Washington personalities, including counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke and Sharon Bush, ex-wife of Neil Bush.