Joseph C. Wilson, diplomat caught in dispute over Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, dies at 69

Joseph C. Wilson in 2003.


By MATT SCHUDEL | The Washington Post | Published: September 27, 2019

Joseph C. Wilson, a former diplomat who incurred the wrath of the administration of George W. Bush for undermining a key tenet of the rationale for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and who saw his then-wife, 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.

He was under hospice care and died of 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 determine whether Iraq had purchased uranium in Niger. Enriched "yellowcake" uranium is an ingredient 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 incorrect.

"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.

He found himself in the crosshairs of the Bush White House, which sought to discredit Wilson. Within days, syndicated columnist Robert M. Novak wrote, "Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction."

With her cover blown, Plame was forced to resign from the CIA. Over the next few years, she and Wilson often appeared in public to describe how they had been betrayed — and had their lives turned upside down — by what they considered an act of political revenge by the Bush administration.

A profile in Vanity Fair, in which they were shown seated in a Jaguar convertible with the White House in the background, brought renewed criticism from conservative pundits who believed the Wilsons were seeking to undermine the war effort in Iraq and Bush's policies in general. In 2004, Wilson published a memoir, "The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife's CIA Identity," and Plame published her own memoir in 2007.

In 2006, Wilson and Plame filed suit against Vice President Richard B. Cheney and Cheney's onetime chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby and presidential adviser Karl Rove, among others, charging that they had illegally disclosed Plame's identity to Novak. The suit was dismissed, but in 2007 Libby was convicted of perjury, obstruction of justice and other charges. Bush commuted Libby's prison sentence, and President Donald Trump pardoned him in 2018.

Wilson worked as a consultant on African business ventures and frequently appeared as a speaker around the country. Seeking to shield their two children from the public glare, he and Plame moved to New Mexico, where both continued to live after their divorce. She is currently a Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives.

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