Man Behind the Furor
Wilson: Envoy With an Independent Streak

By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 1, 2003; Page A01

Former diplomat Joseph Wilson used to tell reporters he felt certain how his obituary would read. It went: "Joseph C. Wilson IV, who was the last American diplomat to meet with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, died . . . "

But "it seems to change," Wilson said yesterday, smiling across his desk in his Washington office. He has kept mentally revising the obituary to keep up with the political maelstrom over Iraq policy and White House leaks that is swirling around him.

A recent version began: "Joseph C. Wilson IV, the Bush I administration political appointee who did the most damage to the Bush II administration . . ."

The current version goes: "Joseph C. Wilson IV, the husband of the spy the White House outed, . . ."

Wilson, 53, is also now known as the man the CIA sent to Niger in February 2002 to investigate rumors that Hussein was trying to buy uranium there -- and who came back with denials from Niger officials. As President Bush repeated the allegation -- most prominently in the "16 words" in the State of the Union address Jan. 28 -- Wilson said he grew increasingly perplexed. And by July, he was annoyed enough to say publicly that U.S. officials had exaggerated the public case for invading Iraq.

At the time, he said he feared that the White House would retaliate. It allegedly did when administration officials called reporters to identify Wilson's wife as a clandestine CIA operative.

As the world now knows, Wilson is married to Valerie Wilson, nee Plame. She is his third wife. She is 40, slim, blonde and the mother of their 3-year-old twins. In the photos in his office, she has the looks of a film star.

"She is really quite amazing," Wilson said. "We were just discussing today who would play her in the movie," he cracked.

Wilson himself seems to have a theatrical streak. He is the son of journalists and calls himself a "former hippie, surf bum and ski bum." He is far more obliging of the spotlight than most diplomats, active or retired, and more flamboyant, wearing his graying mane on the shaggy side, slinging his feet onto his desk while taking calls -- more than 50 before noon -- from the media.

His fingers threaded a string of ornate black worry beads, common in the Arab world. They're from his days in Baghdad, where he was acting U.S. ambassador. In 1990, while sheltering more than a hundred Americans at the U.S. Embassy and diplomatic residences, he briefed reporters while wearing a hangman's noose instead of a necktie -- a symbol of defiance after Hussein threatened to execute anyone who didn't turn over foreigners.

The message, Wilson said: "If you want to execute me, I'll bring my own [expletive] rope."

This toughness impressed President George H.W. Bush, who called Wilson a "truly inspiring" diplomat who exhibited "courageous leadership" by facing down Hussein and helping to gain freedom for the Americans before the 1991 war began.

But last summer, in the run-up to the Iraq war, he became a persistent critic of the current President Bush's policies, appearing on TV and writing opinion pieces that argued against a rush to war. "I felt it was important to correct the record," he said. Most recently, he has accused the White House -- loudly -- of blowing his wife's CIA cover in retaliation.

Wilson makes no secret of being a left-leaning Democrat and said yesterday he intends to endorse Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) for president. Wilson, a former ambassador to Gabon who served as an Africa expert in the second Clinton administration, has long been friendly with leading Democrats.

In the mid-1980s he worked for then-Sen. Al Gore (D-Tenn.) as a congressional fellow. He briefed Gore by phone from Baghdad as the senator was preparing to vote to authorize force in the Gulf War. Wilson argued then that force was required.

Wilson said he was a nonpartisan civil servant during his nearly 23 years in government. Yesterday he was sporting a set of presidential-seal cufflinks given to him by either Clinton or the first President Bush -- he couldn't recall which. He wears each set with equal pride.

Some who know Wilson well say he isn't pushing an agenda and note that he held off disclosing his role in the Niger matter until after the war in Iraq was over. Other friends said they wish he had been more patient in the imbroglio over his wife -- and had not publicly accused White House senior adviser Karl Rove of being involved in the leaks.

The White House has called allegations of Rove's involvement "ridiculous."

Richard N. Perle, an influential hawk who has run into Wilson on the talk-show circuit, questioned his motives. "I don't know that his objectivity can be assumed in this case," Perle said. "He has to be regarded as someone who had a strong opinion against the war . . . He made no bones about it, he had a strong bias."

In a July 18 column in the Wall Street Journal, former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger ridiculed Wilson's trip to Niger as a "sloppy tea-drinking 'investigation' from . . . a retired ambassador with a less than stellar record."

Others who know Wilson defended him. "I don't believe he started out with the intention of developing a controversy for political purposes, in opposition to the president," said one-time House speaker Thomas Foley, a friend of Wilson since 1985.

"The fact that somebody worked in the White House for a particular administration does not brand them," said Chester A. Crocker, an assistant secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan. He called Wilson "eminently professional."

Wilson is also a glad-hander with an irreverent sense of humor. It may be in his genes: His parents were foreign correspondents who filed "idiosyncratic cultural dispatches" from Europe, he said. His family roots are in San Francisco, but he also spent some of his teenage years in France.

Wilson graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1972 with a degree in "history, volleyball and surfing," he said. For the next few years -- his hippie period -- he worked as a carpenter, but he also won a graduate fellowship and studied public administration. Fluent in French, he entered the Foreign Service in 1976.

"We have a place for you where they speak French," he quoted a State Department official as telling him. He ended up as a general services officer -- responsible for keeping the power on and the cars running, among other duties -- in Niamey, Niger. "It was the lowest possible job in the embassy in the most remote part of the world," he recalled. Still, "I fell in love with Africa."

He worked his way into better postings around Africa. In 1988 he was posted to Baghdad, and was running the embassy after Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990.

He recalled saying at the time, "The good news is we've been training for this all of our careers. The bad news is: Oh, [expletive], we're in charge -- what do we do now?"

Wilson may laugh now, but in the eyes of hostages, he was a hero. "He stuck his neck out in our behalf . . . He worked so hard to keep us from falling apart," recalled Roland O. Bergheer, 75, a Bechtel Corp. manager who was trapped in Baghdad.

A conservative who lives in Las Vegas, Bergheer added: "I love Joe Wilson. . . . I don't give a damn what his politics are."

Even though the White House has said Rove wasn't involved, Wilson made clear yesterday that he has no intention of backing off from his assertion that Rove at least condoned someone's making telephone calls to reporters about his wife. He said he took a call from a reporter who quoted Rove as saying: "Joe Wilson's wife is fair game."

Wilson said he and his wife have attended the same Episcopal church as Rove. Wilson quoted Valerie as saying, "Perhaps the next time we are taking communion I should introduce myself so he can see that I have a face and a name other than 'fair game.' "

© 2003 The Washington Post Company