Joseph Wilson
James Cheng  /
Joseph Wilson, who rose to the rank of ambassador in his 22 years of foreign service, says a "certain amount of politics" has been injected into the intelligence process.
By Martin Wolk
updated 2/9/2004 3:03:23 PM ET 2004-02-09T20:03:23

Joseph Wilson, the retired diplomat who sparked a furor with revelations about his own findings in the run-up to the Iraq war, said Friday the nation’s intelligence system is due for an overhaul.

Wilson, in an interview with, said President Bush’s appointment of an independent commission to study intelligence failures in Iraq and elsewhere could play a useful role if it sets the stage for reform.

But Wilson, whose wife was famously “outed” as a CIA agent after he went public with his concerns about White House misstatements, warned that the commission will serve no useful purpose if it becomes a pawn in a blame game over Iraq.

“The accountability for this war in Iraq does not lie with (CIA director) George Tenet and the intelligence community,” he said. “It resides with the president of the United States and his war Cabinet advisers.”

While Wilson described himself as the Bush administration’s “public enemy No. 1” and was in Seattle campaigning for Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry, he carefully articulated a set of positions that was by no means rigidly antiwar. As a political appointee of the first Bush administration, he supported military action in the 1991 Gulf War and was the last U.S. official to meet with Saddam Hussein before the outbreak of those hostilities. And he contributed money to the Bush-Cheney campaign four years ago, he said.

But the removal of Saddam from power was “not worth the blood of one American soldier,” he said, especially when Iraq was effectively contained and was being disarmed by a rigorous inspection regime.

“There are other ways you deal with bad men in the world, of which there are many,” he said. “We have a lot of tools in our toolbox to do it.”

Only a true threat to the national security of the United States, in the form of a nuclear threat or a deliverable weapon of mass destruction, would have justified the invasion, conquest and occupation of Iraq, he said. Yet his 2002 mission to Niger, undertaken at the behest of Vice President Dick Cheney, found no evidence that Iraq had obtained the fissile material needed to advance a nuclear program that was cited by President Bush as among the reasons Saddam posed a “grave and gathering danger.”

Cold War-era system
The fact that his reports from Niger were at best ignored by the administration supports the case for taking a hard look at an intelligence system developed in the Cold War era that may not be up to the task of battling the more serious and diffuse threat posed by global terrorism, Wilson said.

“I do think that there is room for improvement in the analytical process and in the collection process,” he said. “At a minimum I would want to see a good look at everything we do. And I think we all want to see the independence of the intelligence assessment reaffirmed.”

Wilson, who served mostly in Africa in his 22-year foreign service career, said he had no idea whether CIA analysts were pressured to put forward information that supported Bush administration preconceptions about going to war in Iraq. But he still burns with righteous indignation about the way his wife, Valerie Plame, was dragged into the public debate after he published a New York Times op-ed piece titled “What I Didn't Find in Africa.”

“Even in the world of bare-knuckle politics in Washington it is unprecedented not just to bring one’s family members into the public arena, but it is unprecedented to put your own political agenda above the national security of your country,” he said.

Grand jury looking into leak
The leaking of Plame’s identity as a CIA operative is considered a federal crime and is now the subject of a federal grand jury investigation. Wilson said he did not know if the inquiry would be successful but blamed White House chief of staff Karl Rove for, at a minimum, pushing the story to other reporters after it had been published.

And he repeated his previously expressed hope that Rove would be “frog-marched out of the White House, whether he is in handcuffs or not.”

Wilson said he feared that by waging war in Iraq, Washington has squandered a global outpouring of positive feeling toward the United States after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. By opening what he called an unnecessary “second front” in the war on terrorism, the United States has made prospects of success “bleaker,” he said.

“All that reservoir of support we enjoyed after Sept. 11 has evaporated and has been replaced I think by just a white-hot hatred,” he said. “As a consequence you have a population of close to a billion people of whom a far larger percentage now have to be considered to be either terrorist material or supporters or sympathizers of international terrorism.”

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