The New York Times Obituary of Valerie Plame’s Husband, Edited for Clarity

The York Times has been kind enough to put up an obituary of Joseph Wilson, perhaps the key character in the Valerie Plame scandal that engulfed Washington DC (and, unavoidably, front pages of prestige media across the world) soon after George W. Bush’s ill-fated, dumb 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The Times’ piece, surely because of matters of space and delicacy when dealing with such an august person, has important voids and misrepresentations, which I will clarify with comments in between the Times’ own purple prose, which I transcribe in italics.

As I write, sitting U.S. president Donald Trump faces impeachment proceedings, in what has also been called a “scandal,” one that is eerily similar to that involving Plame and Wilson. In fact, I would argue that the Valerie Plame scandal deserves to be widely known as a seminal moment in U.S, history, a divide akin to that in Republican Rome, between the time before the civil war pitting Marius against Sulla, and the time after that conflict. Such is Plame and Wilson’s importance to modern history.

The Times’ obituary starts off strong:

Former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson in 2006 with his wife, the former C.I.A. officer Valerie Plame. 

Joseph C. Wilson, the long-serving American 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 C.I.A. 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 both 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 C.I.A. unit responsible for determining whether nations were building weapons of mass destruction — led to investigations and ultimately a trial for Vice President Dick Cheney’s top national security aide.

They’re speaking about Scooter Libby, of whom more later..

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 C.I.A. to return to that country to try to verify reports that Niger had sold uranium yellowcake to Iraq in the 1990s. That 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. Hussein had resumed his quest for nuclear weapons.

It was a legitimate question. After Mr. Hussein was defeated in the Persian 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.

The CIA itself, that agency which keeps appearing in this story, had told Bush that they were certain that Hussein had WMD programs. Asked about the likelihood of finding one such program, then CIA-head honcho George Tenet told Bush that doing so would be a “slam dunk” — basketball’s easiest, highest-percentage shot, as Tenet himself said in his memoirs. Bush’s aides were tricky liars, to be sure, but the CIA itself played the game of framing Hussein with great enthusiasm, before it decided it had to put some distance with the fiasco.
There’s one other issue here, that the Times is perhaps right not to discuss, so few days after the passing of Jacques Chirac, who was the French president in 2003. As the late Christopher Hitchens wrote, there are some indications that the fake intelligence about the Niger yellowcake had been planted by French agents, as a way to discredit the CIA’s dossiers on WMDs and stop the war, which Chirac correctly suspected would be an absolute fiasco for everyone involved.

But Mr. Wilson concluded from his trip that the reports of a Niger-Iraq deal were false. Nevertheless, in his State of the Union address in January 2003, President Bush declared that “the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” He ordered an invasion of Iraq seven weeks later.

Soon after, the intelligence behind Mr. Bush’s “16 words” from the State of the Union speech was under attack. American military teams could find no evidence of an active nuclear program in Iraq.

Mr. Wilson felt that the record needed to be corrected. In an Op-Ed article in The New York Times on July 6, 2003, titled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” he argued that the intelligence had most likely been 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.”

It was much too early in the game to declared that so confidently (Iraq had been taken over by the Americans in March 2003) but history proved Wilson right on this point.

That challenge did not sit well with Mr. Bush or Mr. Cheney, who ripped the article out of the paper and began annotating it with questions, some of them wondering why a civilian had been sent by the C.I.A. to figure out what had happened. “Or did his wife send him on a junket?” Mr. Cheney wrote.

An absolutely reasonable question, as I stated before. Plame denied she had recommended that her husband go to Niger. After years of probes, an official U.S. Congress report on the matter stated that she had, indeed, pushed for Wilson to take on the job. It would have been nice of the Times to quote this publicly available bit of info, but this is just the beginning on an interesting series of omissions.

The White House story about how the language got into the speech — and why “British intelligence” was cited — began to shatter. The day after the Op-Ed article was published, Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, was challenged by a Times reporter about how the 16 words had gotten 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 acknowledged it, and his admission engulfed the Bush White House in a tide of criticism and led to years of investigations.

As Donald Trump well knows, admissions of failure are often even worse than failure itself. Still, it’s funny that the authors of the obituary, so pressed for space that they can’t acknowledge that Cheney’s suspicions were correct, have plenty of paragraphs to quote, verbatim, a full exchange from a press conference from over a decade ago.

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 C.I.A. operative — a startling breach, since she had been under cover for much of her career.

Revealing a C.I.A. agent’s identity can be a crime, and an investigation into the leak led to charges against Mr. Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby Jr.

Identifying a CIA operative by name is in breach of the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act. When the 2003 probe was launched, nobody had every been convicted under that arcane law and, to my knowledge, only one person, John Kiriakou, has been convicted ever since, in 2012. Nobody was ever convicted under that law because of the Plame case.

In fact, the freaking New York Times unmasked an undercover agent in 2017, offering the rationale that such agent was being promoted by Trump.

But Mr. Libby was not charged with leaking the information — it had come from a top State Department official who acknowledged that he was the source — but with lying to the F.B.I. about his conversations with reporters.

Here, a lot more detail is needed. Nowhere in the Times’ obituary is the name of James Comey, a man who would later become the infamous head of FBI during the Donald Trump election in 2016, and afterwards when he was instrumental in the Russia-Trump Collusion probe that entertained the world for three years before it petered out in 2019. Apparently, the boys at the Times believe that Comey is not important or well-known enough to make it into Wilson’s obituary; or they are obfuscating: Comey was in 2003 deputy attorney general, and he was the person who handpicked a personal friend and godfather to one of his children, Patrick Fitzgerald, as a special counsel to investigate who leaked the name of CIA employee Plame. That, to me, is an important role in this business, no?

Fitzgerald’s name, by the way, is also nowhere to be seen, But he was very important! It’s a matter of public record that, within days after he started his probe, Fitzgerald learned that the leaker was Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, the “top State Department official” in the Times story, a fact which was admitted by Armitage himself! This fact, Fitzgerald and Comey chose to keep secret for years.

Instead of closing the case, Comey expanded Fitzgerald’s mandate. After a three-year investigation that turned up nothing new, Fitzgerald indicted Libby for perjury to salvage something from the effort.

Now, since the Times also has no time to explain who this Libby person was, this is a good moment to say that Libby is not the hero of this story, either, because this story has no heroes. Libby was an ex lawyer for Marc Rich, Bill Clinton’s friend who was pardoned at the very last second of Bill’s presidency, not a friend of mankind or anything, but just your usual D.C. swamp-dweller.

And there’s more! How can one forget the Times’ own freaking reporter Judith Miller, whom Fitzgerald sent to jail for 85 days to force her testimony that was crucial in convicting crooked Libby; she later said she testified falsely after Fitzgerald withheld crucial information from her. You know what? The Times also finds no space to mention this very important part of this mess. The Wall Street Journal’s Editorial Board in 2018 wrote, in a fascinating review of the Plame case:

Students will consider the ethics of special counsels without effective supervision, and whether Mr. Fitzgerald showed loyalty to lasting values and the truth by keeping the name of the leaker secret from the public and President George W. Bush.

Also, let’s not forget that Fitzgerald went on to put press mogul Conrad Black behind bars right after the Plame affair , in another highly controversial prosecution.

 

After a long trial that involved testimony from a parade of administration officials, news editors and reporters, Mr. Libby was convicted. President Bush later commuted his 30-month prison sentence. Mr. Cheney, however, did not believe that commutation was enough. He insisted on a full pardon. The split on the issue contributed to a breach between the president and his vice president, and Mr. Cheney was increasingly marginalized in the administration’s second term.

Last year, President Trump issued Mr. Libby a full pardon.

Mr. Wilson and Ms. Plame did not flee the spotlight once they had been thrust into it. They posed for photographs in a convertible parked near the White House. Their story was told in a 2010 movie, “Fair Game,” in which Mr. Wilson was played by Sean Penn and Ms. Plame by Naomi Watts.

For Mr. Wilson, the decision to write the Op-Ed article was a matter of patriotic duty.

“He said,” fellas. In journalism, you just don’t assume that people tell the truth just because you asked them: the full sentence would be “…was a matter of patriotic duty, he said.”

“The path to writing the op-ed piece had been straightforward in my own mind,” he wrote in a 2004 memoir, “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 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,” he continued, “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.”

In a telephone interview on Friday, Ms. Plame, whose marriage to Mr. Wilson ended in divorce this year, said he had never regretted writing the article.
The obituary peters out with some more detail on Wilson’s family and career, etc. This paragraph is a good example of what they use the space for, instead of discussing Comey, Fitzgerald, Armitage and Miller:

Joseph Charles Wilson IV was born on Nov. 6, 1949, in Bridgeport, Conn., to Joseph Wilson III and Phyllis (Finnell) Wilson. Both parents were journalists, and young Joe had a colorful upbringing because of it.

They go on like this for a while, until they close with Hollywood flair:

He is survived by a brother, William; two children from his first marriage, Joseph Wilson V and Sabrina Ames; two children from his marriage to Ms. Plame, Trevor and Samantha Wilson; and five grandchildren.

In his memoir,

Which he could have titled “Cashing in,” but didn’t…

…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.”

One other point that could have been raised in the obituary, but wasn’t, is the extreme importance of the Plame case when it comes to relations between the White Couse and D.C: press. In his 2017 book “My Life as a New York Times Reporter in the Shadow of the War on Terror”, another august Times’ employee, James Risen, notes that the Bush administration was already aggressive by 2003 in putting pressure on media to hold or kill national security stories…

…but the government had not yet launched an aggressive campaign to hunt down whistleblowers and target reporters. That all changed with the Valerie Plame case.

I don’t know, but that sounds important to me. This is how Risen describes the reaction to Fitzgerald’s probe of the Bush administration among the D.C: press corps:

Without thinking about the long-term consequences, many in the media cheered Fitzgerald on, urging him to aggressively go after top Bush administration officials to find out who was the source of the leak. Anti-Bush liberals saw the Plame case and the Fitzgerald leak investigation as a proxy fight over the war in Iraq, rather than as a potential threat to press freedom. Fitzgerald, an Inspector Javert-like prosecutor whose special counsel status meant that no one at the Justice Department could rein him in, started subpoenaing reporters all over Washington and demanding they testify before a grand jury. There was hardly a murmur of dissent from liberals as Fitzgerald pressed one prominent reporter after another for information. Only Judy Miller went to jail rather than cooperate… Fitzgerald became famous as a tough, no-nonsense prosecutor, and the fact that he had run roughshod over the Washington press corps didn’t hurt his reputation.

Really. In fact…

He went on to become a partner in one of America’s premier law firms. The Plame case eventually faded away, but it had set a dangerous precedent. Fitzgerald had successfully subpoenaed reporters and forced them to testify and in the process, had become the Justice Department’s biggest star. He had demolished the political, social, and legal constraints that previously made government officials reluctant to go after journalists and their sources. He became a role model for career prosecutors, who saw that you could rise to the top of the Justice Department by going after reporters and their sources. White House officials, meanwhile, saw that there wasn’t as much political blowback from targeting reporters and conducting aggressive leak investigations as they had expected. The decades old informal understanding between the government and the press — that the government would only go through the motions on leak investigations — was dead.

About David Roman

Communicator. I tweet @dromanber.
This entry was posted in Greatest Hits, Obituaries, Sights and Sounds and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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