Joseph Wilson Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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As I read your book and look at your career in these various settings, I get a sense that as a representative of the United States, you have a style, a way of doing business -- I would call it empirical, pragmatic, very American -- as you were placed in these various countries. What we're now engaged in is an ideological world view, which is very different.
You were brought into this drama of the buildup to [the 2003 Iraq] war, and I want to talk about that now. You left the Foreign Service, you were a business consultant, and you were called in to verify intelligence information about whether Saddam Hussein was buying uranium cake in the country where you had represented us. Tell us about the problem, what you did, and how you went about finding the answer to the question of whether he was doing that.
Sure. I retired in 1998 after having served at the National Security Council as senior director for African affairs. During that period in Washington, I had worked very closely with successive governments from Niger as they worked their way through a military coup and a subsequent assassination of a president, and ultimately to turning over the reins of power back to a civilian, democratically elected government. I knew all the people who worked in that. I retired in 1998, after having taken President Clinton to Africa for eleven days, and was going on with my life. I had a wife, I had two young twins, I had mortgage payments, just like all Americans.
And you were getting in some golf, too.
And I was working on my golf game, I like to say. But I had given two and a half decades to public service. I had been an ambassador; there was little more that the Foreign Service had to offer me, as I saw it, and I wanted to do something else.
I was asked to come out to the CIA and discuss this question of whether Saddam could have, or would have, or did attempt to purchase uranium, significant quantities of uranium, from Niger. This is more than just a passing reference to uranium in a meeting; this was an attempt to purchase 500 tons. Now, 500 tons occupies a lot of space. Moving 500 tons of uranium from the middle of the Sahara desert without anybody knowing it was always going to be a difficult proposition. But the question had been raised by the Vice President of the United States, and he wanted an answer.
The CIA said the best way to get the answer is to go back and take a look at all the information we have on it, and if that doesn't satisfy our analysts, let's see if we can send somebody out there to put eyes on the target. They invited me to talk about this. I was invited because I knew a lot about uranium and I had been ambassador in a country that produced uranium in West Africa, Gabon. And I knew a lot about Niger, and had been in office at the time this memorandum agreement had supposedly been executed.
As a consequence of the discussions we had, they asked me if I would go to Niger and take a look at it. I said, "Sure." I said, "I will go. I don't do espionage. I'll do a diplomatic mission." I cleared it with the State Department and went on out there. I spent eight days there looking at this; found out there was nothing to the allegation. In fact, I write extensively about how the industry is structured, and how the bureaucracy is structured in Niger. I came back; I submitted my report. My report was one of three reports that were in the files of the U.S. government. A second report had been filed by a four-star Marine Corps general, and the third report had been filed by an ambassador on the ground, and all three reports said essentially the same thing: "This could not happen, did not happen; don't worry about it." I assumed the vice president would sleep easier at night, knowing that he did not, in fact, have to worry about Iraq reconstituting its nuclear weapons programs using uranium from Niger.
A year later, eleven months later, the president in the State of the Union address said that the British government has learned that Iraq was attempting to purchase significant quantities of uranium from Africa. I called the State Department the next day and said, "I hope he's not talking about Niger, because unless you have information I don't have, that is not an accurate statement. The record really must be correct." The response I got from somebody who I think was dealing honestly with me was that perhaps it was another country in Africa. I said, "Fine," and I let it go.
When it became clear it was Niger, then I felt compelled to do my civic duty and hold my government to account for what the president had said in the State of the Union address.
What resulted was a campaign by the administration to destroy you personally, and not satisfied with that, to destroy your wife's career by making known the fact that she worked for the CIA, as a way to undermine you. The people in the administration who were taking this action did not realize, or did not care, that they were violating the law.
I assumed they didn't care. If they didn't realize it, they really are dumb.
Well, they may be.
Yes. I waited. It became apparent they were talking about Niger in March. From March until July, I was discretely speaking with administration officials, people close to the White House, and on background to the press, trying to urge the government to come clean on this matter. Again, it's a matter of civic duty, and it's what you do in this country.
I was disappointed when Condoleezza Rice gave an interview to Tim Russert on Meet the Press. The question came up, and she said maybe somebody in the bowels of the Agency knew something about this, but "nobody in my circle." Of course, in her circle they did know.
So finally, I called the State Department, a friend of mine over there, and said, "If you don't correct the record, I guess I will have to do so myself." The official I talked to said, "Yeah, you probably will have to. I don't think they're going to do it." So I did. This was in July.
One of the reasons I waited until July is because it's a common practice in Washington D.C. to try to destroy the credibility of the message by destroying the credibility of the messenger, and I wanted to make sure that the message had legs before the character assassins came after me. Nick Kristof and Walter Pincus, who were the two principal reporters who were following the story, referred to me as a "former U.S. ambassador with many years experience in Africa" -- a very light cover. People in the government knew who I was. I just didn't want the character assassins outside the government to have me as an easy target. And you're absolutely right: I wrote the article on July 6, and within a couple of days, word of my wife's employment had been leaked to six journalists and Bob Novak. He was either one of the six or he was a seventh journalist; it's not clear to me. It may not be clear to him what [number] it was.
In retrospect, are you surprised by how the press responded, the political parties, the Senate, to the buildup to war? Was the case ambiguous enough as we came to the buildup? Was it that we weren't expecting our leadership to deceive us, or not be honest with us, or not have the information that they should have? How do you evaluate it?
We were clearly denied the debate that our solders, sailors, airmen, and marines deserve before we send them to kill and to die in our name. There is no more solemn decision a government has to make than a decision to send solders off to war. That's very clear.
The debate was skewed. It was not based upon a set of commonly accepted facts. It was based upon information that was thrown in simply because it supported a political decision that had already been made. The uranium and the president's State of the Union address was a case in point. Five days after the president gave the State of the Union address, Colin Powell would not use that information in his speech to the United Nations. It became clear after the fact that the director of the Central Intelligence Agency had succeeded in having that assertion removed from the "go to war" speech that the president made in Cincinnati in early October. There were also two memoranda in files of the National Security Advisor, and the record of a phone call saying "don't use this assertion."
In fact, it is now clear that the reason the reference was made to British intelligence was because the CIA wouldn't permit the use of the assertion directly based upon our own intelligence. That constitutes, in my judgment, a pattern of active deception, of lying to the Congress of the United States, lying to the American people.
So how do we recover from this debasement of the quality of the democratic debate in the United States about major issues such as going to war? We're going to have to pick up the pieces and convince people that they can trust their government again.
There are two issues here. One is, how do we get out from the war? That's a separate issue that we should deal with separately. But the first part of it is what to do about our democracy.
One of the conclusions that I draw in the book -- in fact, writing the book allowed me to think through, to get back to the intellectual underpinning of what I did instinctively, the civic duty: What makes us as Americans hold our government to account? Essentially, it's our social contract with our government, and that contract is based upon a healthy skepticism of the power of the executive branch. It's enshrined in institutional checks and balances. It's also enshrined in freedom of the press and freedom of speech. I define freedom in this case as responsibility -- responsibility to hold your government to account for what it says and the actions it takes in the name of the American people.
My own judgment in all of this is that the best way we can avoid this sort of calamity, and that's what we're facing here, is to be better stewards of our democracy. I come away from my own life experience, having lived in dictatorships from Franco's Spain to Saddam's Iraq, absolutely persuaded that the American experiment in democracy is the best system of governance known to mankind. It empowers people, it protects people's rights -- my own, included, by the way, when I stepped into the public square. What they did to my wife was an aberration; hopefully, they will pay for it.
The essence of it all is that if you have a government that is elected with essentially 22 percent of the adult population, and as a consequence is beholden to that minority of the population of this country, that is not democracy. In order for us to redress the balance, we have to have more vigorous debate. We should be better stewards of the democracy, we should be as enthusiastic about watching these decisions that are being made in our name as we are enthusiastic about watching the Lakers in the NBA playoffs.
Part of what this would involve is making people understand the limits to changing the world in our image. There was something that the Bush administration was saying that resonated with people, but it is a very na•ve and foolish notion that the world can be transformed not by the hard work that you're describing in your book over many years in your diplomatic career, but by a magic imitation of the way we vote, the way we hold elections and so on.
We fail to understand even the extent to which we get up every morning and fight for our democracy. We fight for it at every level. People go in front of the planning commission, people go to PTA meetings, people appeal to their city government for better trash pickup. It plays out in state capitals. It plays out in the federal capital. In my case, it happened to be in the area of foreign affairs, but American citizens around this great land of ours get up every morning fighting for their democracy, and we've been doing so for over 230 years. But we need to do better, and we need to do better at all levels, and we need to be more engaged in it. We should be watching our democracy with at least the same enthusiasm as we watch American Idol.
What about the pieces that we have to pick up now in that part of the world, in Iraq? What are the beginnings of a strategy for resolving the mess that has been created?
Anything that is said about Iraq today is probably overtaken by events within forty-eight hours. The situation is moving that quickly. But the bottom line in all of this is the utter failure of this administration to understand that Iraqis were always going to view this as an occupation to be resisted, as long as it was done with [only] a small group of coalition partners. The only way to succeed in this would have been, or would be still, to create [a new] impression amongst the Iraqis, which we're doing with international reconstruction efforts designed to help them in their time of need. After thirty-five years of Ba'athist tyranny, three wars, and of course, "shock and awe," we did not do that. In order to do that, if there's still an opportunity, we have to leverage additional American investment (in terms of military assets into the fray) against the rest of the world taking positions with us, in things like political reconstruction, economic contracting, provision of basic services, border patrol, and managing public safety programs.
Ambassador Wilson, on that important note, thank you for coming to Berkeley, and thank you and your family for their service to our country in this time of national crisis.
And thank you for joining us for this Conversation with History.
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