IN AUGUST, former acting U.S. ambassador to Iraq Joseph Wilson sat beneath a sign at Shoreline Conference Center in suburban Seattle that has become both ironic and prescient. It asked: U.S. Intelligence on Iraq: Is There a Need for an Investigation? Three months later, there is one. Its called Wilsongate, named for the ambassadoronce a carpenter on the Olympic Peninsula who got his foreign-service start in Seattleand its rattling the White House to its neoconservative black socks.
As Wilson said at the Shoreline forum, referring to Bushs top political advisor: At the end of the day, its of keen interest to me to see whether or not we can get Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs. And trust me, when I use that name, I measure my words. But while that remark has gotten a lot of media mileage as the scandal heated up, Wilson was even more candid that day about how he viewed the reasons behind the potentially lethal smear and Bushs campaign to justify war on Iraq. This issue, he said, had nothing to do with my wife. It had little to do with me. It had really everything to do with the president having spoken a lie to the American people and the world.
The purpose of doing this, however, was not to shut me up, because I had already said my piece. The purpose was very, very clearto intimidate others who might step forward at the request of a congressional committee
Asked last week during an appearance on C-SPAN if he felt the president lied to justify a war with Iraq, Wilson responded: I would not accuse the president of the United States of lying. Wilson couldnt be reached to clear up the contradiction. The leak story, fanned by politics and the mainstream media, has grown large since the Aug. 15 Shoreline appearance, and Wilson, as both its centerpiece and an experienced diplomat, is now weighing his words carefully. But the visit to Shoreline, hosted by Democratic Rep. Jay Inslee to discuss the administrations use of flawed intelligence on Iraq, offered a more candid setting for Wilson to express his views.
As he said on C-SPAN, I was carried away in the exuberance of the moment at Shoreline. Go to the videotapeits on Inslees Web site at www.house.gov/inslee/meetings.htmand youll see an exuberance that was roundly cheered by an overflow crowd of 1,100.
Asked by a Shoreline questioner to assess the effects of Wilsongate on the White House, Wilson outlined a sort of domino theory of Bush collapse. My own sense is, once you have put a chink in the armor of the credibility of this administration, it is really only a matter of time before other chinks are put in it. But my Republican friends have told me on thisthey have called me and said, in addition to offering me safe houses and flak jacketstheyve said, Thank you, you have given us the ammunition we need to begin to reign in this neoconservative juggernaut.
A Democratic friend told him, Wilson added, that he was the baboon who threw the turd that hit the target and made it stick.
The CIA and the Justice Department are both attempting to identify who in the administration told Republican-friendly columnist Robert Novak that Wilsons wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, was a CIA operative, possibly putting her life and those of her covert contacts at risk. Wilson and Democrats maintain the leak was in retaliation for Wilsons televised comments and a column in The New York Times, challenging, if not disproving, Bushs claim that Iraq had sought to obtain yellowcake uranium from Niger to develop weapons of mass destruction. The claim was one of the cornerstones Bush used in October 2002 to build justification for the invasion last March. Wilson said the intelligence was clearly manipulated.
This was not fundamentally the problem of bad intelligence, this was fundamentally the problem of how policy makers used the intelligence or didnt use the intelligence, he said at Shoreline in August. In my [view], it was very clear that the administration preferred to use as justification, for the weapons of mass destruction threat, a set of documents that were so obviously forged that an Italian tabloid more accustomed to publishing bare breasts than purloined documents would not publish them. And yet that information got into the most important speech this president will ever have to make to the American people, to the U.S. congress, and to the world. Theres no excuse for it.
The Wilson saga might not bring the Bush presidency to its knees. But the early fallout has turned into a radioactive rain. Although divided over Bushs culpability, Democrats and Republicans, along with cables screaming heads, seem to agree on the explosive implications of an administration official outing an apparently covert CIA operative (not to mention Novaks bewildering complicity and his explanation that he didnt know the meaning of operative). After all, it was Bushs father who called author and ex-CIA agent Philip Agee, now exiled in Cuba, a traitor for revealing the names of CIA coverts in the 1970s. Joining the chorus last week was the father of slain CIA officer Johnny Mike Spann, the first American killed in Afghanistan. He urged the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate the leak that he, too, called treasonous.
Wilsons role in the scandal is, as he suggested at Shoreline Conference Center, something he could hardly have imagined while working as a carpenter in Sequim, where he had moved from Santa Barbara, Calif., in the 1970s. His family is originally from San Francisco. It was a little wetter and colder here, he said, smiling at his understatement, and he decided he wanted to do something more relevant. He asked for and got an audience with Brewster Denny, founder and first dean of the University of Washingtons Evans School of Public Affairs. From Denny, he sought advice about joining the government foreign service, in which he served 23 years under several presidents, including Bush senior.
Denny, who was also on the Shoreline panel along with former Navy Adm. Bill Center, told Wilson hed have to dedicate himself to public service to succeed. But, The only commitment to public service I had shown before that was collecting unemployment as a ski bum six months out of every year, Wilson said. He wormed his way into the service anyway. Turning to Denny, he noted: Its really thanks to you that Im here today, Dean Denny, [although] I dont know if thats a commendation . . . .
When he was introduced to the crowd at the beginning of the forum, Wilson, an international business consultant who was the last American diplomat to meet with Saddam Hussein (in 1991), received a standing ovation for having become the eye of a budding storm.
I didnt know that youd formed a fan club, actually, Inslee said.
Bob Novak, Wilson responded, eat your heart out.