Sometimes you interview people to learn things you don’t already know. Other times, it’s to remind yourself of things you somehow forgot to remember. When I showed up at a strip-mall sushi bar in Goleta this Tuesday to interview Ambassador Joe Wilson, the famous bad-boy retired diplomat, it was definitely the latter I had in mind.
Today he looks more the aging rock star — round wire-rim glasses, graying beard, black T-shirt, vest — than a Dirty Harry diplomat. Wilson first came into the news in 1990, just as the first President Bush, George Herbert Walker, was getting ready to launch the first Gulf War. He was working the Baghdad bureau when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein personally threatened to hang him — and all embassy staff — if he helped shelter any foreigners then in Iraq. Wilson staged a press conference in response, famously wearing a noose around his neck. “If the choice is to allow American citizens to be taken hostage or to be executed,” he declared, “I will bring my own fucking rope.” Nathan Hale, eat your heart out. Ultimately, Wilson would help thousands of foreigners to get out of Iraq alive and sheltered hundreds more.
Wilson is in Santa Barbara to see about a lecturing gig in the global studies program at UCSB, where he graduated in 1972. He’d teach the way the world really works, he laughed, as opposed to how it’s supposed to. With more than three decades of sand-in-the-shoe foreign service, he might know a thing or two. He’s hardly shy about thinking he has something to say.
This past week, Wilson’s been much in the news over Donald Trump’s curious decision last Friday to pardon I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, chief of staff for former vice president Dick Cheney. Back in 2007, Libby was convicted by a jury on four counts of lying to federal investigators and obstruction of justice in connection with a premeditated campaign to smear Wilson. For this, Libby was sentenced to 30 months behind bars. The second President Bush, George W., would eventually commute this sentence but pointedly refused to pardon Libby. Commuting got him out of jail, but pardoning gets his record cleaned.
Most of Wilson’s remarks on Trump’s pardon have been accompanied by multiple on-the-record F-bombs. He’s entitled. Wilson got smeared because in July 2003 — shortly after the United States invaded Iraq — he had the temerity to publish an op-ed in the New York Times accusing Bush and Cheney of fabricating intelligence reports to exaggerate the threat Hussein posed to the U.S. This was done to justify the American invasion of Iraq.
What made Wilson’s New York Times op-ed so unforgivable is that the year before, in February 2002, he had been dispatched by the CIA itself at the instigation of the vice president’s office to investigate the factual basis of those very reports: that Hussein was poised to purchase weapons-grade uranium from the African nation of Niger. Wilson knew Niger; he’d been stationed there; he was still very connected. After an eight-day fact-finding trip, Wilson concluded those claims were utterly without merit and reported as much up the chain of command. None of that, however, stopped President Bush from raising that very threat during his State of the Union address in January 2003.
When Wilson accused Bush and Cheney of twisting the intelligence to wage war “under false pretenses,” Cheney and his aides — including Scooter Libby — hatched and executed a plan to discredit him. It would be leaked to reporters that Wilson had been assigned this mission not by Cheney or his office but by Wilson’s own wife, Valerie Plame, then a CIA officer charged with tracking the spread of nuclear fuels. It would also be leaked, along the way, that Plame was a covert operative for the CIA.
It is a very big deal to expose a live spook. Lives could be lost. Assets compromised. National security imperiled. All that. Some call it treason. At the least, it constituted a serious crime. It still is. Libby — Cheney’s right-hand man — was never charged with leaking this information. Instead, he was accused, convicted, and sentenced for lying to federal investigators and covering up the extent to which the vice president himself was involved.
Trump’s decision to pardon Libby has been dissected ad nauseam. In some ways, it seems almost random. Trump readily confessed to not knowing Libby and knowing next to nothing about his case. He did know, however, that it was James Comey — then an assistant attorney general — who assigned the special prosecutor who subsequently nailed Libby to the wall. That’s the same Comey whom Trump would subsequently fire as FBI chief and the very same one who’s now making the national talk-show circuit thrashing Trump as a third-rate mob boss with hands notably smaller than his own. The pardon, just as obviously, was made to assure Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen — whose offices were raided two weeks ago by federal investigators and all files seized — that he would be cared for should any criminal charges be filed.
Cohen’s crime — so far as we now know — appears to have been lying to banks to secure the funds needed to pay porn star Stormy Daniels $130,000 in hush money right before the election. Yes, that is a crime. The lie Scooter Libby told, however, was global in its consequences.
Bush and Cheney, it is now established, lied about the reasons the United States declared war on Iraq. They knew at the time they were spreading lies about Hussein’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons. When Wilson exposed that lie, they set out to discredit him. And then they lied about that too. The Libby trial clearly established that Cheney told Libby that Wilson’s wife was a spook. Cheney had told lots of other people in his office. But Libby told federal investigators he first learned about it from reporter Tim Russert. Russert would testify this was not so, that at the time in question, he had not yet heard. It was a lie about a lie. The lie itself was a big deal. The underlying deceit we’re still paying for.
Dabbing bright-green wasabi on big chunks of raw fish, Wilson said he didn’t really care about the subliminal theatrics associated with the pardon. “I am not opposed to war per se,” Wilson said. “I am opposed to stupid wars. I am opposed to illegal wars. This was a preventive war, which was and still is a violation of international law. This was a war waged on false pretenses, using manufactured intelligence. How many hundreds of thousands of people died because of it?”
The answer, according to Brown University, which tracks such things, is a lot. So far nearly 7,000 U.S. troops have died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars waged after the 9/11 attack in 2001. Another 7,000 contractors for the United States have been killed. About 370,000 people have died from violence directly attributed to the wars. Another 370,000 would die of indirect causes. Ten million have become refugees. To date, the United States has spent $5.6 trillion. Those are just numbers; they don’t tell the real cost. We’ll be paying that for the rest of our lives.
I already knew that. I didn’t really need to talk to Joe Wilson to remember. I just needed to hear someone else say it.
Editor’s Note: This story was revised on April 20 as Joe Wilson had said Iraq had been a preventive war, not a preemptive war.