Joseph Wilson, the long-serving U.S. diplomat who undercut President George W. Bush’s claim in 2003 that Iraq had been trying to build nuclear weapons, leading to the unmasking of his wife at the time, Valerie Plame, as a CIA agent, died on Friday at his home in Santa Fe, N.M.. He was 69.
Ms. Plame said the cause was organ failure.
Mr. Wilson’s decision to challenge Mr. Bush’s argument that Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator, was secretly reconstituting his nuclear program, changed the narrative and the politics of the war. It forced the White House to concede, grudgingly, that Mr. Bush had built the case for the invasion of Iraq on a faulty intelligence report – one that critics said was cherry-picked to provide an urgent rationale for a war that quickly turned into a morass.
Mr. Wilson’s action ultimately created a rift between the White House and the Central Intelligence Agency and led to inquiries about whether intelligence had been politicized, a debate that racks Washington to this day. And the unmasking of Ms. Plame – who worked in the CIA unit responsible for determining whether countries were building weapons of mass destruction – led to investigations and ultimately a trial for Vice-President Dick Cheney’s top national security aide.
A big personality whom some found prickly and difficult, Mr. Wilson served in numerous posts, many in Africa, in a 23-year diplomatic career that began in 1976. One posting was to Niger, and in 2002, by then a private citizen, he was asked by the CIA to return to that country to try to verify reports that Niger had sold uranium yellowcake to Iraq in the 1990s. The material is essentially raw uranium that can be turned into nuclear fuel with considerable processing.
At the time, the Bush administration was building to a crisis point with Iraq, and the key issue was whether Mr. Saddam had resumed his quest for nuclear weapons.
It was a legitimate question. After Mr. Saddam was defeated in the Gulf War in 1991, international inspectors found and dismantled what appeared to be an advanced program to develop nuclear weapons that Western intelligence agencies had missed.
But Mr. Wilson concluded from his trip that the reports of a Niger-Iraq deal were false. Nevertheless, in his State of the Union Message in January, 2003, Mr. Bush declared that “the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” and then ordered an invasion of Iraq seven weeks later, Mr. Wilson thought the record needed to be corrected.
Soon after the invasion, the intelligence in Mr. Bush’s “16 words” from the State of the Union speech was under attack: U.S. military teams could find no evidence of an active nuclear program. But the dam broke on July 6, 2003, when Mr. Wilson wrote an op-ed article in The New York Times titled, What I Didn’t Find in Africa. He argued that the intelligence was probably twisted to create a rationale for the invasion.
“If my information was deemed inaccurate, I understand (though I would be very interested to know why),” he wrote. “If, however, the information was ignored because it did not fit certain preconceptions about Iraq, then a legitimate argument can be made that we went to war under false pretenses.”
That challenge did not sit well with Mr. Bush or Mr. Cheney, who ripped the op-ed out of the paper and began annotating it with questions, some of them wondering why a civilian was sent by the CIA to figure out what happened. “Or did his wife send him on a junket?” Mr. Cheney wrote.
The White House story about how the language got into the speech – and why “British intelligence” was cited – quickly began to shatter. The day after the op-ed was published, Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary was challenged by a Times reporter about how the 16 words got into the speech.
“So it was wrong?" he was asked.
“That’s what we’ve acknowledged,” Mr. Fleischer said. Only the White House had never before acknowledged it – and that admission quickly engulfed the Bush White House and let to years of investigations.
A week after the op-ed was published, Robert Novak, a syndicated columnist with conservative leanings and Republican connections, wrote a column identifying Ms. Plame as a CIA operative. It was a startling breach, as she was undercover during much of her career.
For Mr. Wilson, the decision to write the op-ed article was a matter of patriotic duty.
“The path to writing the op-ed piece had been straightforward in my own mind,” he wrote in 2004 memoirs, The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies That Put the White House on Trial and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity. “My government had refused to address the fundamental question of how the lie regarding Mr. Saddam’s supposed attempt to purchase African uranium had found its way into the State of the Union address. Time after time during the previous four months, from March to July, administration spokespeople had sloughed off the reality that the president of the United States had sent our country to war in order to defend us against the threat of the ‘mushroom cloud,’ when they knew, as did I, that at least one of the two ‘facts’ underpinning the case was not a fact at all.”
Ms. Plame, whose marriage to Mr. Wilson ended in divorce earlier this year, said he had never regretted the decision.
“He did it because he felt it was his responsibility as a citizen,” she said. “It was not done out of partisan motivation, despite how it was spun.”
“He had the heart of a lion,” she added. “He’s an American hero.”
Joseph Charles Wilson IV was born on Nov. 6, 1949, in Bridgeport, Conn. His father, Joseph III, and his mother, Phyllis (Finnell) Wilson, were journalists, which resulted in a colorful youth for him.
Mr. Wilson’s first marriage, to Susan Otchis, ended in divorce, as did a second marriage, to Jacqueline Giorgi. His third marriage, to Ms. Plame, was in 1998.
He leaves a brother, William; two children from his first marriage, Joseph and Sabrina Ames; two children from his marriage to Ms. Plame, Trevor and Samantha Wilson; and five grandchildren.
In his memoirs, Mr. Wilson found a positive side to his and Ms. Plame’s experience.
“I come away from the fight I’ve had with my government full of hope for our future,” he wrote. “It takes time for Americans to fully understand when they have been duped by a government they instinctively want to trust. But it is axiomatic that you cannot fool all of the people all of the time, and our citizens inevitably react to the deceit.”