Wilson, Joseph

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Joseph Wilson

Born 1949


Former U.S. ambassador who questioned the Bush administration's reasons for invading Iraq in 2003

"The problem really is a war which has us invading, conquering, and then subsequently occupying Iraq may not achieve that liberation that we're talking about."

Joseph Wilson in an interview with Bill Moyers.

In February 2002 former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson went to Africa on a mission for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He was sent to investigate claims that Iraq had tried to acquire uranium, a rare, radioactive element that can be used to create nuclear weapons, from the African nation of Niger. Wilson determined that the claims were false and reported his findings to the CIA and the Bush administration.

In the months leading up to the 2003 Iraq War, however, White House officials repeatedly mentioned the uranium story in public statements as they tried to drum up international support for the use of military force to disarm Iraq. The Bush administration's belief that Iraq was on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons was one of the main justifications for the U.S.-led invasion that took place in March 2003. Two months after the war ended, Wilson came forward and accused the White House of exaggerating the threat of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction in order to make its case for war.

Career diplomat specializing in Africa and the Middle East

Joseph C. Wilson IV was born around 1949 in California. He graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1972, and four years later he joined the U.S. Diplomatic Service. Wilson served the U.S. government in various capacities for the next twenty-three years. His earliest diplomatic assignments were in the African nations of Niger, Togo, and South Africa, but he also spent many years stationed in the Middle East.

In 1982 Wilson was appointed deputy chief of mission (top assistant to the U.S. ambassador) to Burundi. He returned to the United States in 1985 to serve as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow in the offices of U.S. Senator Al Gore and U.S. Representative Thomas Foley. The following year he returned to Africa as the deputy chief of mission in Congo.

In 1988 Wilson received a new assignment as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq. He served as the top assistant to U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie (see entry). In 1990 Glaspie came under criticism for giving Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein (see entry) the impression that the U.S. government would not interfere if Iraq invaded the neighboring country of Kuwait. When Hussein later sent his army into Kuwait, Glaspie was relieved of her duties and Wilson became the acting U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

Meets with Saddam Hussein

Four days after the invasion of Kuwait on August 2, Wilson was invited to meet with Hussein. The Iraqi leader rarely met with foreign diplomats stationed in Baghdad, so Wilson realized that the request was unusual. He later came to believe that Hussein called the meeting, the last one to take place between the Iraqi leader and an American official before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, because he wanted to make sure that the United Nations (UN) would control the response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Hussein knew that the United Nations had passed resolutions calling for Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian territory in the 1960s but never enforced them. "He concludes from that that if he goes into the United Nations system, he's got 25 or 30 years to occupy Kuwait," Wilson noted in an interview with Bill Moyers for PBS, "during which time he can flag Kuwait City with Iraqis, pump all their oil, steal all their money, and then submit it to a referendum [vote] in which he would have stacked the odds for his victory."

The United Nations passed a resolution calling for Iraq to withdraw its troops from Kuwait. To Hussein's surprise, however, it also backed up the resolution by sending military troops from a coalition of nations to the Middle East. The military buildup received the code name Operation Desert Shield. Wilson remained in Baghdad as acting U.S. ambassador during this time. Angry about the international military buildup, Hussein announced that he would use foreign citizens as "human shields" to defend strategic Iraqi sites from attack. The Iraqi leader also threatened to execute anyone caught protecting these foreign citizens. Wilson defied Hussein by sheltering more than one hundred U.S. citizens at the American embassy in Baghdad and in the homes of American diplomats. According to BBC News, he appeared at a press conference wearing a hangman's noose around his neck and told the Iraqi leader that "If you want to execute me, I'll bring my own rope." Thanks in part to Wilson's efforts, all the foreign citizens were allowed to leave Iraq.

In early 1991 Operation Desert Shield turned into Operation Desert Storm, as the U.S.-led coalition launched a military offensive to force Iraqi troops to withdraw from Kuwait. The conflict, which became known as the Persian Gulf War, ended in a dramatic victory for the coalition after six weeks of fighting.

In 1992 Wilson completed a seminar in international affairs offered by the U.S. government. Immediately afterward he was named U.S. ambassador to the nations of Gabon and São Tomé and Príncipe in West Africa. Three years later Wilson became the political advisor to the commander in chief of U.S. Armed Forces in Europe. In 1997 he served as senior director for African Affairs in the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton. In this position, he was responsible for coordinating U.S. foreign policy toward the forty-eight nations of sub-Saharan Africa. He also organized Clinton's trip to Africa in 1998.

Later that year, Wilson retired from government service. He received a number of awards and honors for distinguished service from the Department of Defense and Department of State. He also earned the William R. Rivkin Award from the American Foreign Service Association. Following his retirement, Wilson entered the private sector. He became chief executive officer of the international business consulting firm JCWilson International Ventures and a professor at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.

Investigates intelligence reports about Iraq's weapons programs

The UN agreement that ended the 1991 Persian Gulf War required Iraq to destroy all of its biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. Over the next several years, however, Hussein repeatedly interfered with the UN inspectors sent to verify that Iraq had abandoned its weapons programs. The international community tried a number of different approaches to force Hussein to cooperate with UN weapons inspectors, but none of them proved effective. In fact, Hussein kicked the inspectors out of Iraq in 1998.

On September 11, 2001, members of a radical Islamic terrorist group known as Al Qaeda hijacked four commercial planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon building near Washington, D.C., and a field in Pennsylvania, killing nearly three thousand people. Immediately after these attacks against the United States, President George W. Bush (see entry) announced a global war on terrorism that initially focused on Al Qaeda and other known terrorist organizations. Bush eventually expanded the war on terrorism to include enemy nations that he described as supporters of terrorist activities, such as Iraq. The president claimed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and could provide these weapons to terrorist groups.

In February 2002 the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) sent Wilson to Africa. His mission was to investigate a British report that Hussein had tried to buy uranium in Niger so that Iraq could build nuclear weapons. Wilson determined that the reports were false. "I traveled out there, spent eight days out there, and concluded that it was impossible that this sort of transaction could be done clandestinely [secretly]," he told CNN. "It seemed that this information was inaccurate. That view was shared by the ambassador out there and largely shared in Washington even before I went out there."

Upon completing his mission, Wilson reported his findings to the U.S. ambassador to Niger, the CIA, and the State Department. He believed that his investigation had put an end to the question of whether Iraq had tried to acquire uranium from Africa. Over the next year, however, the Bush administration repeatedly referred to the story as it tried to drum up international support for the use of military force to disarm Iraq.

In January 2003 President Bush mentioned the allegations in his State of the Union address. "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," he stated. In early March the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed El Baradei, confirmed Wilson's findings. He said the reports claiming that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger were "not authentic" and "unfounded." But a week later Vice President Dick Cheney (see entry) contradicted El Baradei on national television and claimed that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear arms program.

Makes public statements opposing the invasion of Iraq

By this time it was clear that the United States was preparing to launch a military invasion of Iraq. Wilson opposed the war because he believed that the stated purpose of disarming Iraq could be achieved in other ways. But he also recognized that the Bush administration had broader goals for the war than simply Iraq's disarmament. As time passed Bush had expanded his rationale for war to include alleged links between Hussein and Islamic terrorists, freeing the Iraqi people from Hussein's brutal government, and installing a democratic government in Iraq to help increase political stability in the Middle East.

"I'm not against the use of force for the purposes of achieving the objective that has been agreed upon by the United Nations and the international community—disarmament," Wilson told Moyers. Wilson went on to say:

But I think disarmament is only one of the objectives. And the president has touched repeatedly and more openly on the other objectives in recent speeches, including this idea of liberating Iraq and liberating its people from a brutal dictator.... The problem really is a war which has us invading, conquering, and then subsequently occupying Iraq may not achieve that liberation that we're talking about.

Accuses the Bush administration of exaggerating the Iraq threat

The United States launched its invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003 (March 19 in the United States). The war succeeded in removing Hussein from power after only a few weeks of fighting. On May 1, 2003, Bush announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq. Over the next few months, however, U.S. military forces struggled to maintain security in the face of Iraqi resistance and a series of terrorist attacks. In addition, a massive search failed to uncover any evidence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration came under increasing criticism for the intelligence (information gained through spying operations) it used to justify the war.

Wilson added fuel to this controversy in July 2003. In an article for the New York Times, he discussed his mission to Niger and its findings about the alleged uranium sales to Iraq. He said that the Bush administration ignored his reports and continued to claim that Iraq was trying to acquire uranium to build nuclear weapons. "Based on my experience with the [Bush] administration in the months leading up to the war, I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat," he wrote. "Either the administration has information that it has not shared with the public or ... there was selective use of facts and intelligence to bolster a decision that had already been made to go to war."

In its response to Wilson's article, the Bush administration admitted that the uranium claim should not have appeared in the president's State of the Union address. White House officials suggested that the CIA was responsible for the mistake, since it had cleared the information in the speech. A few days later CIA Director George Tenet formally accepted responsibility, stating that "These 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the president." But Tenet also claimed that members of Bush's National Security Council had pushed to include the statement.

Wife exposed as a CIA agent

As they struggled to defend themselves against Wilson's accusations, Bush administration officials also attacked Wilson's credibility. They raised questions about his political leanings, his opposition to the war, and the manner in which he was selected for the mission to Niger. A week after Wilson's article appeared, a reporter named Robert Novak published a column about the controversy. Novak reported that Wilson may have been given the Niger mission because his wife, CIA agent Valerie Plame, recommended him for it. Plame was an undercover operative working to track weapons of mass destruction. Novak said that two White House insiders had informed him of Plame's identity as an American spy.

Revealing the identity of an active CIA operative is a crime under U.S. law. In addition to endangering the agent's life and ending his or her career, uncovering an agent also can sabotage other spy operations. When they learn the identity of an American operative, foreign governments often retrace the spy's steps and become suspicious of anyone with whom he or she had contact. Nevertheless, the Washington Post noted that the two top White House officials had called at least six different reporters with the information about Plame. Some critics claimed that the Bush administration leaked Plame's identity on purpose in order to take revenge against Wilson.

The leak received little public attention until September 2003, when the CIA requested an official Justice Department investigation into the matter. Bush said that he welcomed the investigation and wanted the person who had leaked the information to be punished. But the incident still created a rift between the Bush administration and the CIA. As time passed and U.S. forces found no evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the White House claimed that it had received faulty intelligence about Hussein's weapons programs. But the Wilson incident enabled the CIA to argue that Bush had ignored its warnings in his determination to go to war in Iraq.

Since that time, Wilson has continued to run his consulting business. He also has presented lectures about the war in Iraq and the difficult postwar task of forming a democratic government there. "[The Iraqi people] have tribal and ethnic cleavages [differences] that are difficult for outsiders to understand but which make up the fabric of politics and make it a very, very difficult place to govern, as history has shown," he explained to Moyers. "Coming up with a democratic system that is pluralistic [represents all segments of society], functioning, and ... not inclined to make war on other democracies, is going to be extraordinarily difficult."

Where to Learn More

"Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV." Interdisciplinary Humanities Center, University of California, Santa Barbara, January 2003. Available online at http://www.ihc.ucsb.edu/events/past/winter03/wilson/ (accessed on March 29, 2004).

Duffy, Michael. "Leaking with a Vengeance." Time, October 13, 2003.

"Evolving Untruths: How Did False Evidence Make It to the President?" ABC News, July 14, 2003. Available online at http://abcnews.go.com/sections/world/US/uranium030714_timeline.html (accessed on March 29, 2004).

"Ex-Envoy: Uranium Claim Unfounded." CNN.com, July 8, 2003. Available online at http://www.cnn.com/2003/US/07/07/cnna.wilson (accessed on March 29, 2004).

Moyers, Bill. "Bill Moyers Talks with Joseph C. Wilson IV." PBS, 2003. Available online at http://www.pbs.org/now/printable/transcript_wilson_print.html (accessed on March 29, 2004).

"Profile: Joseph Wilson." BBC News, October 1, 2003. Available online at http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/americas/3156166.stm (accessed on March 29, 2004).

"U.S. Diplomat Raises Dossier Doubts." BBC News, July 7, 2003. Available online at http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/uk_news/politics/3049894.stm (accessed on March 29, 2004).

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