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Ex-diplomat on wife's spy identity leak

Joseph Wilson says the administration not only lied, but that someone close to the president may have committed a crime by revealing the identity of an undercover operative for the CIA -- his  wife. Why did it happen? And who does he think was responsible?
Joseph Wilson
Joseph WilsonDateline / NBC
/ Source: Dateline NBC

Over the past few weeks, several new and controversial books have taken us inside the Bush administration, questioning the decisions that led to the war against Iraq. Another new book does more than raise questions. The author -- Joseph Wilson -- levels direct and serious accusations against the White House. He says the administration not only lied, but that someone close to the president may have committed a crime by revealing the identity of an undercover operative for the CIA -- Wilson's wife. Why did it happen? And who does he think was responsible?

Joseph Wilson: “We were at a reception at the Turkish ambassador's residence. And I just looked across the room and there was this attractive pale blonde.”

It all began like something out of a fairy tale. One night in Washington, Ambassador Joseph Wilson saw a woman, and suddenly, the world seemed to stop.

Wilson: “She gave me this great big smile. And suddenly all the noise stopped, and I could no longer see people in the room. And she just started floating in slow motion across the room.”

Campbell Brown: “It was love at first sight?”

Wilson: “Oh, absolutely. They call it in French, 'le coup de foudre.’ It was a lightening bolt.”

It was 1997. He was a career diplomat about to join the National Security Council in the Clinton administration. She was Valerie Plame, a private energy consultant. Or so he thought. They dated for several months before she finally told him she had a secret.

Brown: “How did she bring it up with you?”

Wilson: “Well, she just said, ‘You know, I just need to tell you something before we go any further in this relationship.’ And then she said, ‘This is what I do. This is who I work for.’"

Turns out, he'd fallen in love with a spy, an undercover agent for the CIA.

Brown: “Were you surprised?”

Wilson: “Yeah. I was surprised that she had played her cover so well that I had no idea.”

Brown: “Make her a little more intriguing, even?”

Wilson: “By that time I was landed -- hook, line, and sinker. I was madly and passionately in love.”

Brown: “And you asked her—“

Wilson: “Well, ‘Is your name really Valerie?’"

Before long, he would retire from government to become a private consultant. They would marry, and together, the former ambassador and his CIA agent wife would have two children. By all outward appearances, they were leading a normal life, hiding a secret that was about to be shattered.

It was January 2003. President Bush was making his case for going to war against Iraq. In his State of the Union message to Congress and the country, the president said Saddam Hussein was more than a brutal dictator, that he was a growing threat, intent on obtaining the most lethal weapon of all: a nuclear bomb.

That's when the president spoke these dramatic words:

" .. Saddam Hussein recently sought significant qualities of uranium from Africa."

Brown: “When you first heard those now famous 16 words about Iraq trying to buy uranium from Africa what did you think?”

Wilson: “Well, I was a little surprised, to say the least. “

In a new book, "The Politics of Truth,” Wilson tells how he discovered the president's claim wasn't true, how he blew the whistle, and how the White House retaliated by blowing the cover of his CIA agent wife.

Joe Wilson's diplomatic career had spanned three decades, including a memorable face-to-face meeting with Saddam Hussein just four days after Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait, triggering the first Gulf War. Wilson vowed not to fall for a trick Saddam used to make people look like they were paying homage to him.

Wilson: “He would put his hand low. And so in order to grab his hand, you would have to look down to see where it was. And in looking down, you would inevitably bow. And that was the image that was broadcast to all the Iraqi people. Well, this day, I was determined that I was not going to be caught bowing to him. And so I just looked him right in the eye and just groped until I grabbed his hand.”

Wilson successfully negotiated the release of more than a hundred American hostages, the so-called "human shields,” his efforts earning a personal thank-you from then-president George Bush.

Wilson: “The president came to the door, opened the door. I walked in and he said, ‘Gentlemen, let me introduce you to a true American hero.’”

And before that, Wilson had spent years in Africa, including Niger, a country that's one of the world's sources for a type of uranium called "yellowcake.” So, two years ago, when Vice President Dick Cheney asked the CIA to find out if Saddam was trying to buy uranium there to build a bomb, Wilson says the CIA asked him to help investigate.

Brown: “What did you find?”

Wilson: “I determined that it did not happen and could not have happened without a lot of people knowing. And there was absolutely no evidence whatsoever that such a transaction had taken place or even been contemplated.”

Wilson says he reported his findings to the CIA, which passed them on to the White House.  But months later, there the claim was in the president's speech as he made the case for war.

The information in the president's speech had been based on documents allegedly from Niger, but which turned out to be forged. When the United Nations revealed the forgeries, the president's National Security Advisor insisted that top White House officials never had any reason to doubt them:

Condoleeza Rice: "No one knew at the time in our circles. Maybe someone knew down in the bowels of the agency. But no one in our circles knew."

Her statement flabbergasted Wilson. How could that be when he'd investigated the very same claim a year before and reported it was false? Wilson concluded that part of the president's case for war had been built on a lie. And now the administration was lying again to cover it up.

Brown: “About Dr. Rice's comments, you say in the book, ‘that was a lie and I knew it. She had to have known it as well.’”

Wilson: “Absolutely, Absolutely. They were continuing to stonewall and to deceive the American people.”

Brown: “But could it have just been a mistake--a lot of people dropped the ball?”

Wilson: “I suppose that that's one explanation. But frankly, dereliction is even less satisfying as an excuse than deception. For the National Security Advisor to have a lapse of memory on something as important as whether or not an avowed enemy of the United States might be engaged in rebuilding his nuclear weapons program is unacceptable.”

Convinced there was a pattern of lies, Wilson says he decided to blow the whistle writing an article for the New York Times: "What I didn't find in Africa."

Within days, officials at the White House seemed to acknowledge there'd been a mistake, saying the claim shouldn't have made it into the president's speech. But instead of blaming the people who made the mistake, Wilson says the White House blamed him for pointing it out.

Wilson: “Now I don't know about you, but if I'm the chief executive officer and somebody puts a lie in my speech, I'm going to want the head of the person who put that lie in my mouth. Instead of wanting the head of the person who put the lie in his mouth, the White House trained their guns on me.”

Actually, Wilson and his wife. The attack came one week later in an article, critical of Wilson, by columnist Robert Novak. Citing "two senior administration officials," Novak reported that Wilson's wife "Valerie Plame, is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction." With those words, the identity of an undercover CIA agent was revealed to the world, her cover blown forever.

Brown: “How did you react?”

Wilson: “My own reaction was one of probably uncontrolled fury at this, at how low these guys would go.”

Brown: “How did you tell Valerie?”

Wilson: “Well, I brought the newspaper up and showed it to her.”

Brown: “What was her initial reaction?”

Wilson: “I think she was just -- her stomach was turning. If your life is a cover, if it is like a play that never ends and you're playing a role in it, to wake up in the morning and see your name is pretty gut wrenching.”

Wilson saw the leak as proof of just how far the White House would go to punish people who spoke out.

Wilson: “What they were doing by this act was sending a signal to others who might be coming forward.”

Brown: “This was a message?”

Wilson: “This was a message to everybody else.”

And it may have been a crime, because revealing classified information about a CIA agent can be a felony.

A federal grand jury is now investigating who leaked Valerie Plame's name.

White House records, even phone logs from Air Force One, have been subpoenaed. And one-by-one, top administration aides are being called to testify.

Brown: “You say in the book that you believe you know who was behind the leaks. Who do you blame?”

Wilson: “Well, I think this leak took place right in very close to the President of the United States.  What people have told me, and this is not just a theory, these are people who have been out there sleuthing, have told me that it originates in the office of the vice president.

In his book, Wilson lists a small circle of aides close to Vice President Dick Cheney, including the man Wilson believes is most responsible.

Wilson: “The names that have been brought to my attention have been, Mr. Libby—“

Brown: “Vice president's chief of staff.”

Wilson: “Vice president's chief of staff.”

Brown: “Scooter Libby.”

Wilson: “Scooter Libby. As well as people working for Mr. Libby.”

Brown: “Do you have any hard evidence that would back up those names?”

Wilson: “All I have is what a number of different sources have told me.”

Brown: “Do you feel confident that there is enough evidence that you're not just going on hearsay -- to put their names in your book?”

Wilson: “I feel absolutely confident that irrespective of whether or not a crime can be prosecuted to conviction, that there has been a breach of national security. And that has not yet been addressed by the White House.”

Wilson admits he's now openly campaigning for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. And in speeches, he's accusing the Bush White House of putting politics and revenge ahead of national security.

Although her name is now known, Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame has only allowed one photograph, in "Vanity Fair.” She's partially disguised because she still works at the CIA. But Wilson says her 18-year career as a spy, with assignments around the world, has been destroyed, her undercover contacts, possibly endangered.

Brown: “You talk about Valerie so passionately, it is a little bit personal.”

Wilson: “Well, of course, it's personal. And I've said repeatedly that if I could give her back what her government took away from her, I would do it in a minute. Absolutely. “

But for Joe Wilson and his wife, it's more than just personal.

Wilson: “We have always looked at this, first and foremost, as a breech of national security. We believe that the country has been victimized by his act.”