Thursday, October 2, 2003

Joseph C. Wilson IV, the man accusing the White House of a vendetta against him and his wife, is an ex-diplomat turned Democratic partisan.

President Bush, he wrote in an article in the far-left Nation magazine that was published before the Iraq war began, is not interested in democracy in the Middle East but “this new American imperialism.”

“The new imperialists will not rest until governments that ape our world view are implanted throughout the region, a breathtakingly ambitious undertaking, smacking of hubris in the extreme.”

Like Mr. Bush, he said Saddam Hussein’s forces possessed weapons of mass destruction.

“They would use a biological weapon in a battle that we might have,” he told ABC in November about Saddam’s counterattack. He now criticizes Mr. Bush for relying on the same intelligence. No such weapons have been found, but the search goes on.

His wife is Valerie Plame Wilson, who works for the CIA’s directorate of operations, a clandestine service. Her name and spy job, revealed in syndicated columnist Robert Novak’s column in July, has become a Democratic campaign issue and triggered a Justice Department investigation of who at the White House leaked that fact, if anyone at the White House did. Federal law prohibits government officials from identifying clandestine CIA employees publicly; it does not prohibit journalists from publishing such information.

Mr. Novak yesterday detailed in his syndicated column the history of how the story came about. “I did not receive a planned leak,” he wrote. “Second, the CIA never warned me that the disclosure of Wilson’s wife working at the agency would endanger her or anybody else. Third, it was not much of a secret.”

The White House yesterday continued to deny its people were responsible for the leak and said it is cooperating fully with the Justice Department.

“There has been no specific information that has come to our attention to suggest — beyond media reports — to suggest that someone in the White House was involved in leaking classified information,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

Mr. Wilson told The Washington Post he and his wife are already discussing who will play them in a movie.

He contributed to Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign and is aiding Democratic candidates. Yesterday, Mr. Wilson, a lover of the limelight, was to brief the House Democratic Caucus. But Democrats called off the session for fear they would make the investigation a partisan affair, which Republicans say it already is.

“My political leanings are left of center,” Mr. Wilson said on C-SPAN this week.

A person in Mr. Wilson’s office yesterday told a reporter that he was in the midst of a press interview, that his voice mail was full, so “call back later.”

Mr. Wilson now works at the Middle East Institute as a scholar and frequent Bush critic. He also runs JC Wilson International Ventures. A Senate Republican staffer jokes that he is already on the short list for secretary of state, no matter who the Democratic nominee is.

There was a time when the Bush family thought highly of him. As charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad during the buildup to the 1991 Gulf war, he acted heroically to protect American citizens and keep Saddam’s thugs at bay. The first President Bush rewarded the cigar-chomping Wilson with his first ambassadorship: the tiny African country of Gabon.

During the 1990 crisis leading up the Gulf war, he told the Los Angeles Times: “This is what I spent all those years clinging to the vines of small African countries learning, studying, preparing and waiting for. I’ve always dreamed of covering a war as a diplomat, and now that I’m here in the middle of it, it’s absolutely fascinating.”

Mr. Wilson joined President Clinton’s National Security Council staff as an African specialist, then retired in 1998. He never reclaimed the national prominence of the Gulf war until his antiwar campaign earlier this year.

This prompted columnist Novak to try to answer the question of why the CIA would pick an ardent Bush knocker as the man to travel to Niger to investigate whether Iraq attempted to buy yellowcake uranium for a nuclear weapons program. The issue of weapons of mass destruction was so central to Mr. Bush’s rationale for war that it strikes Republicans as odd that an administration critic would be sent on such a pivotal mission. A CIA spokesman declined to comment.

Mr. Novak wrote that Mrs. Wilson, as a CIA weapons expert, made the recommendation.

While that is in dispute, there is no argument that Mr. Wilson returned from Africa in 2002 and told the CIA that, based on his interviews with Niger officials, he doubted the uranium contact took place.

Mr. Bush still included the charge in his State of the Union address, citing British, not U.S., intelligence. After the war, an irked Mr. Wilson went public by disclosing his secret mission and his findings.

Without much proof, he later named Mr. Novak’s leaker as White House political adviser Karl Rove — a charge sure to bring even more media attention. He backed off, then raised the issue again by telling The Post that an unnamed reporter told him that Mr. Rove once said, “Joe Wilson’s wife is fair game.” The White House calls the accusation “ridiculous.”

The 40-year-old Mrs. Wilson is a member of the CIA’s clandestine service. As such, the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act makes it a federal crime for a government official to reveal her identity publicly.

After her name appeared in Mr. Novak’s column, the CIA was obligated under the law to request an investigation by the Justice Department. In late July, it sent what is called a “crime report” to Justice on the possible violation of federal criminal law concerning an unauthorized disclosure — in this case Mrs. Wilson’s name and occupation.

The CIA sends about 50 such referrals per year. Few, if any, such probes ever identify the leaker in a way that results in public criminal charges. The Wilson referral was sent by the CIA’s general counsel, not by agency Director George J. Tenet.

The CIA follows up such referrals with a second letter to Justice answering 11 standard questions, such as what damage was none to national security and who in government knew of the information. The CIA sent this letter in mid-September.

Some Democrats in Congress, including Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, called for a criminal probe soon after the Novak column. But the story only grew legs — it did not get picked up by other newspapers or magazines — when someone leaked the news of the CIA referral to the Justice Department last week.

Mrs. Wilson, who has worked overseas, is now assigned to CIA headquarters at Langley as an undercover officer working on issues related to weapons of mass destruction. Her husband says the Bush administration leaked her name as retaliation for his Iraq war criticisms.

Days after he wrote about his secret mission to Niger and his findings, in an op-ed commentary in the New York Times, the Novak column appeared.

Mr. Wilson’s official biography at the Middle East Institute in Washington lists Valerie Plame, but does not provide her occupation.

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