Joseph Wilson, the American diplomat who challenged President George W. Bush’s rationale for starting the Iraq War, died on September 27 at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The cause was organ failure, said his former wife Valerie Plame, the onetime CIA agent who was outed during the fallout from Wilson’s challenge.
Wilson served in the U.S. Foreign Service for 20 years in five African nations and in Iraq. Though retired from the diplomatic corps, Wilson was asked to go to Niger in 2002 to verify reports that the country had sold to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein uranium yellowcake, which could be used to make nuclear weapons. Though Wilson found no such evidence, and reported as much to the CIA, President George W. Bush announced in January 2003’s State of the Union address that Hussein had weapons-grade uranium. Bolstered by Secretary of State Colin Powell’s statements at the UN in February regarding bioweapons, the U.S. invaded Iraq in March. By September 2003, then-National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice made her iconic statement that they “didn’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”
Wilson drew the Bush administration’s wrath when he wrote an editorial that March in the New York Times titled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa.” In it, he described how the vice president’s office had asked serious questions about the existence of the yellowcake purchase, which, if true, could be a genuine threat. But, Wilson concluded, “some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.”
A week later, journalist Robert Novak ended Plame’s career when he disclosed in his Washington Post column that she was a CIA operative. He’d been given, Wilson and Plame later alleged, the classified information by a member of Vice President Dick Cheney’s staff. Novak was also told Wilson had been sent to Niger by Plame, his wife. The name of Novak’s source has been debated, but Wilson and Plame sued Richard Armitage, Cheney, Karl Rove, and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby over the public disclosure. The case was dismissed, though the judge’s decision found the disclosure “highly unsavory,” according to the Associated Press. In the federal investigation into the leak, Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff, was sentenced to 30 months in prison for failing to cooperate with investigators; his sentence was commuted by President Bush, and he received a full pardon from President Trump.
Wilson graduated from UC Santa Barbara in 1972, and returned to his alma mater several times in debates and talks, one with New York Times columnist Bill Kristol over the War on Terror in 2004. In his memoir, The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Put the White House on Trial and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity, published that year, Wilson wrote that his op-ed had been his duty as a citizen. The ending thoughts in the editorial stated: “More than 200 American soldiers have lost their lives in Iraq already. We have a duty to ensure that their sacrifice came for the right reasons.”