Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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July 13, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

JOE WILSON, PEACENIK?....I understand that it's often worse than useless to respond to the worst depths of wingnuttery. People like Ann Coulter and David Horowitz, for example, say outrageous things solely to get a rise out of liberals, so why oblige them?

Fox News' John Gibson is pretty obviously part of this crowd, so it's with trepidation that I waste time responding to his on air rants about how Karl Rove deserves a medal for outing the identity of Joe Wilson's wife, better known to us today as covert CIA operative Valerie Plame. Via Ted Barlow, here's what Gibson said:

Despite her husbands repeated denials, even in the face of a pile of evidence, and conclusions of a joint investigation of Congress, it appears that all evidence points to Joe Wilsons wife, the spy Valerie Plame, as the one who recommended him to the job of going to Niger to discover Saddam was trying to buy nuke bomb material.

Why is this important? Because Wilson was opposed to the war in Iraq, opposed to Bush policy, and pointedly and loudly said so. Consequently, there was some interest in how he got chosen for the sensitive job, which people at the time might have thought would be a fulcrum point in the decision about the war. You wouldnt send a peacenik to see if we should go to war, if we need to go to war, now would you?

This is yet another moldy charge that's being resurrected by the right in defense of Karl Rove's increasingly shaky right to a security clearance, and since it's an old charge I'm going to rerun an old post I wrote back when it first oozed up out of the fever swamps. Was Joe Wilson a radical Bush-hating peacenik when the CIA sent him to Niger to investigate charges that Saddam Hussein was trying to acquire uranium there? As Robert Tagorda wrote at the time, his campaign contributions sure weren't those of a radical lefty, but judge for yourself. The rest of this post was originally written on October 5, 2003. It's been lightly edited.


Since the Valerie Plame affair broke open last weekend, the most popular meme that's emerged among the "slime and defend" crowd has been that the outing of a CIA agent isn't the real scandal. Rather, as the Wall Street Journal put it, "The real intelligence scandal is how an open opponent of the U.S. war on terror such as Mr. Wilson was allowed to become one of that policy's investigators."

How indeed? Why on earth did the CIA pick a guy like Joseph Wilson to visit Niger to check up on possible uranium sales to Iraq? Were they crazy?

The obvious answer, of course, is to look at his qualifications: 23 years in the diplomatic service, most of it in African countries such as Togo, South Africa, Gabon, Sao Tome and Principe, and, of course, Niger. He was well respected by George Bush Sr. and had served as our last ambassador to Iraq before the Gulf War. So as one of the very few people in the world with expertise in Africa and a firsthand knowledge of Iraq and Saddam Hussein's regime, he must have seemed like an ideal choice.

Still, he's an outspoken opponent of the war. Why would the CIA send such a person on a sensitive mission? Were they deliberately trying to undermine the president?

Good question. But although Wilson is certainly an outspoken opponent of the war now, was he one back in February 2002, when he took his trip to Niger? Here's how he described his attitude at the time in a radio interview from late 2002 long before any of this became a public issue:

[At the beginning of 2002] I spent a lot of time talking to people who I fought the Gulf War with, that team, the people around the president's father, about this phenomenon of a fringe part of the policy debate, i.e. regime change as a rationale for military intervention, suddenly moving to occupy the center of the debate, and I was told then not to worry, that they just weren't going to get there, it was going to fizzle out. In June or July some people that I have a lot of respect for got nervous themselves about this, some of the same people I'd been talking to for six months, and started writing their op-eds. I wrote a piece that did not get published but that got circulated broadly within the administration....

So he was basically a Bush Sr. foreign policy realist. He thought military intervention was a bad idea, but he was just beginning to be concerned about it in early 2002 and didn't say anything publicly until mid-year. He was not an opponent of the president at the time the CIA sent him to Niger.

In fact, as late as December 2002, he said about President Bush, "I think that the president is probably still keeping his options open. He has certainly made it apparent over the past several months that he doesn't mind tacking as necessary, he doesn't get so locked into a position that he's unable to move out of it." Those are hardly the words of a diehard critic.

Finally, when he did start getting more worried about our Iraq policy, what did he say about it? It turns out that, just as you'd expect from someone who spent time in Iraq, he was pretty realistic about Saddam Hussein and advocated something he called "muscular disarmament." Here's an interview he gave just before the war started:

WILSON: I supported the effort to get Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. And I understood fully that in order to get him out of Kuwait you had to have the credible threat of force. And in order for that force to be credible, you had to be prepared to use it.

....MOYERS: What is the trip wire in your opinion for the use of force? What is your trip wire?

WILSON: Well, I've always said it's the first time he poses an obstacle to your conducting an inspection then you go in and you use force against that particular site. But you keep the use of force focused on disarmament.

....MOYERS: You are calling for coercive inspections.

WILSON: That's right. Muscular disarmament, coercive inspections, coercive containment, whatever you want to call it. I don't think containment's the right word because we're really talking about disarmament.

....MOYERS: President Bush's recent speech to the American Enterprise Institute, he said, let me quote it to you. "The danger posed by Saddam Hussein and his weapons cannot be ignored or wished away." You agree with that?

WILSON: I agree with that. Sure. I

MOYERS: "The danger must be confronted." You agree with that? "We would hope that the Iraqi regime will meet the demands of the United Nations and disarm fully and peacefully. If it does not, we are prepared to disarm Iraq by force. Either way, this danger will be removed. The safety of the American people depends on ending this direct and growing threat." You agree with that?

WILSON: I agree with that. Sure. The President goes on to say in that speech as he did in the State of the Union Address is we will liberate Iraq from a brutal dictator. All of which is true.

By this time a year after the CIA had sent him to Niger Wilson had become seriously concerned about the neoconservative influence on our Iraq policy, but even then he still expressed mostly a principled disagreement on means. He was under no illusions about the danger that Saddam Hussein presented and had no aversion to the use of force per se.

Several things are clear from this:

  • Wilson had considerable expertise to undertake the Niger trip and had the respect of many people in the Republican foreign policy establishment. That's the main reason the CIA chose him for the Niger investigation in February 2002, not his wife's concurrence that he was qualified to take the trip.

  • At the time of the trip Wilson was only barely beginning to be concerned about military intervention in Iraq, and was being told by his friends that it really wasn't something to worry about. He was not an opponent of the president at that time.

  • It was only around the middle of 2002 that he began speaking publicly about the war, and even then he was an advocate of using limited force to achieve disarmament. He had supported the invasion of Afghanistan and was certainly no pacifist.

  • Finally, around early 2003, when it was finally clear in his mind that a radical neocon agenda had taken control of the administration's Mideast policy, he became an outspoken opponent of both the president and the neocon establishment itself.

So was sending Joe Wilson to Niger as one part of the CIA investigation of uranium sales a scandal? Hardly unless you think that hiring a guy who voted for Al Gore is ipso facto a scandal. Rather, it's just a trumped up smokescreen from the folks who want to divert your attention from the real scandal: one of the president's top aides exposed a covert CIA agent in order to gain revenge on someone who had become a political nuisance to them.

That's a scandal.

Kevin Drum 7:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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