Joseph Wilson, diplomat who defied the Bush administration over Iraq, dies at 69

Wilson's wife at the time, Valerie Plame, was outed as a CIA operative after he questioned White House claims about Iraqi WMDs.
Image: Valerie Plame Joseph Wilson
Former CIA officer Valerie Plame and her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, at a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington in 2006.Lawrence Jackson / AP file

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By Corky Siemaszko

Former U.S. diplomat Joseph Wilson, whose then-wife Valerie Plame was outed as a CIA agent as apparent payback for his defiance of the Bush administration during the run-up to the Iraq War, died Friday.

Wilson, who was 69, died of organ failure at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Plame told NBC News.

"It is with deep sadness that I learned of the passing of a true American hero — Ambassador Joe Wilson," Plame said in a statement. "He had the heart of a lion and the courage to match."

Wilson’s confrontation with the White House was set in motion in 2002 when the CIA asked him to fly to Niger and confirm reports the country had, in the 1990s, sold uranium yellowcakes to Saddam Hussein so he could build a nuclear weapon.

A former ambassador to Gabon who had spent much of his 23-year diplomatic career working in Africa, Wilson was a private citizen at the time.

Wilson found no evidence that Niger had made such a sale to Iraq and reported that to the CIA.

He was stunned when President George W. Bush declared in his January 2003 State of the Union Address that the British government had learned that Hussein “recently bought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

Seven months later, Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq.

Wilson responded on July 6, 2003, with an op-ed piece in The New York Times that bore the title, “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” and which took direct aim at the Bush administration’s rationale for the Iraq War.

“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.”

Vice President Dick Cheney and others in the Bush administration were outraged. And a week later, syndicated columnist Robert Novak wrote a column that blew Plame's cover as a CIA operative to discredit Wilson and that torpedoed her career in the process.

It was a breathtaking breach of D.C. decorum and eventually resulted in charges against Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.

Libby was convicted in 2007 of lying to the FBI and obstruction of justice. He was pardoned last year by President Donald Trump.

The drama, which tested the Washington power couple’s marriage and led them to decamp to New Mexico, was depicted in the 2010 movie “Fair Game,” which was based on their memoirs. The couple divorced in 2017 after two decades of marriage. They had two children together.

Plame is currently running to replace Democratic Rep. Ben Ray Luján in New Mexico's 3rd Congressional District.

In an interview with The New York Times, Plame said her ex-husband never regretted his decision to publicly counter and question the Bush administration’s reasons for going to war with Iraq. The claims that the Iraqis had weapons of mass destruction turned out to be bogus.

“He did it because he felt it was his responsibility as a citizen,” she said. “It was not done out of partisan motivation, despite how it was spun.”