Wilson, a man on the spot

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - To the first President Bush, Joseph C. Wilson IV was America's rock-ribbed man in Baghdad whose in-your-face jousts with Saddam Hussein's thuggish regime in the tense buildup to the first Persian Gulf war Bush found "truly inspiring."

But to the administration and supporters of the current President Bush, the now-retired diplomat is a nuisance, a man with an ax to grind when he helped discredit a key piece of evidence the White House used to build a case for the current gulf war.

Wilson's disclosures have contributed to the worst embarrassment of the Bush presidency, one that has prompted mea culpas from the CIA director and deputy national security adviser, even as the United States struggles with the war's ragged and bloody aftermath.

Now, disparaged in print by a former secretary of defense for "sloppy" work, Wilson claims he is also the target of possibly illegal leaks from anonymous administration officials - publicly disowned by the White House - who exposed his wife as a Central Intelligence Agency operative, something that can sidetrack a clandestine career.

This is not to say that Wilson, 53, a native Californian who has never shed the laid-back manner of the "hippy surfer" he says he once was, is either bitter or shaken by the episode.

Suddenly, he jokes, he is a "darling of the left." A business consultant who once operated only on the fringes of Washington policy debates, Wilson is now a sought-after media pundit.

Wilson's switch from passionate promoter of U.S. policy toward Iraq to an outspoken critic of its latest manifestation began last year, when he was invited to a meeting of U.S. intelligence community experts to assess a report that Hussein had tried to buy uranium "yellow cake" from the West African nation of Niger.

Yellow cake, or uranium oxide, can be converted into fuel for nuclear weapons. If the report were true, it would prove that Hussein was actively trying to develop nuclear weapons.

Regardless of his wife's connection to the CIA, which he declines to confirm, Wilson was known to its specialists as an Africa expert, having served as a diplomat in Niger, been dispatched as ambassador to Gabon after his tour in Baghdad, and later having served in Bill Clinton's White House as the top National Security Council staff member for Africa.

Those assembled at the meeting already had a "healthy skepticism" about the Niger report, Wilson recalls, but, "I was told the office of the vice president was interested, and they wanted to get him an answer." He was sent to Niger to check out the report by questioning, among others, officials of the regime that was in power when the purported transaction took place.

After eight days and meetings with "dozens of people" in the capital, Niamey, he concluded that "it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place," and so informed the CIA, the U.S. ambassador to Niger and an official of the State Department, he says.

He kept quiet about his mission for more than a year, even as he emerged in published commentaries and interviews to argue against invading Iraq. He backed, instead, continued United Nations weapons inspections to ferret out the regime's suspected biological and chemical arsenal, backed by a readiness to use force if necessary.

He was silent after the president uttered the now disavowed 16 words Jan. 28 in his State of the Union message: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

But Wilson says he was later stunned to hear a State Department official say that the administration had been fooled by documents on the purported Niger uranium deal that turned out to be forgeries.

In fact, he says, there was "a whole body of evidence," including his own findings, that should have led the administration to be "more than skeptical."

Then he heard the president's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, say when asked about the uranium on NBC's Meet the Press that "maybe someone knew down in the bowels of the agency, but no one in our circles knew that there were doubts and suspicions that this might be a forgery."

"I decided I needed to write the story myself," Wilson said in an interview. The result was a July 6 op-ed article in The New York Times headlined "What I didn't find in Africa," followed the same day by his own appearance on Meet the Press.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer dismissively told reporters the next day that Vice President Dick Cheney had nothing to do with Wilson's trip.

Wilson says that is no doubt technically true - Cheney wouldn't micromanage how the agency gathers information. But he insists the vice president's office would have been informed about the agency's conclusions, based in part on the results of his own mission.

Cheney's office has since acknowledged to Time magazine that he was interested in the original Niger report and had questioned his CIA briefer on its "implications." Coming from the vice president's office, that was tantamount to an order to dig further, Wilson maintains.

Starting July 7, the White House has backed ever further away from the Niger assertion, first admitting that Bush should never have mentioned it and, more recently, that the CIA's doubts about were known to senior White House officials months before the speech.

Wilson flatly denies Fleischer's claim that all he reported back from his Niger trip was the African government's perfunctory denial of the uranium deal.

Wilson, who had been the No. 2 U.S. official in Baghdad in the 1990s, took charge of the embassy after the departure of the ambassador, April Glaspie, in midsummer that year, at the time of the Iraq invasion of Kuwait. He became the last American diplomat to meet with Saddam Hussein after the invasion.

Thereafter, he became a key figure in the U.S. campaign to pressure Hussein into withdrawing from Kuwait and releasing the hostages, from the United States and elsewhere, whom Iraq displayed around strategic sites as "human shields" to prevent a U.S. air attack.

Acting sometimes without explicit instructions from Washington, Wilson adopted aggressive, confrontational tactics aimed at exposing Hussein's regime to worldwide scorn.

After Iraq issued a warning that those harboring foreigners would be subject to capital punishment, Wilson, who then was housing about 100 American civilians at the embassy, donned a hangman's noose instead of a tie for a press briefing.

His overall performance won Wilson recognition and praise from the White House, where he received a warm welcome after he finally left Iraq for good, just days before the United States bombed Baghdad in early 1991.

In his office, Wilson keeps photographs from that meeting - one showing him walking shoulder to shoulder with the president, another sharing a laugh on a sofa with then-Secretary of State James A. Baker III.

Framed in Wilson's home is a November 1990 cable from the elder Bush, sent to him in Baghdad, saying, "What you are doing day in and day out under the most trying conditions is truly inspiring."

He cites this tribute as a rebuttal to criticism in The Wall Street Journal by Caspar W. Weinberger, secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, who called him "a retired ambassador with a less than stellar record."

Wilson, a registered Democrat, says he is proud of how the United States carefully laid the groundwork for war in 1991 but believes the current Iraq war might have been launched under false pretenses by "neoconservatives with a stranglehold on the foreign policy of the Republican Party," whose underlying objective "is the imposition of a Pax America" on the Middle East.

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