The Plame Case: Joe Wilson’s Greatness and Grandiosity

On Sunday I left my mom a message, thereby getting essential Mother’s Day credit, and when we talked yesterday she said excitedly that she had heard rumors that Karl Rove was about to be indicted in the Valerie Plame leak case. My mother is a stone Democrat, and I’m not, still she and I agree that this would be fine news. If only these bastards—my mother’s favorite word in politics—pay something for the lies they told in pushing the country to a disastrous war.

That said, I find that I really don’t care about the core legal issue here: the violation of Plame’s identity as a CIA operative. I’m reading her husband Joseph Wilson’s book, The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Put the White House on Trial and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity, and it’s not very convincing.

I have to preface this by saying that I think Joe Wilson is to be hugely admired. He served his country honorably for many years as a Foreign Service officer, diplomat, and ambassador, under George Bush I and Bill Clinton. He’s what you’d expect of an ambassador: handsome, pretty smart, extremely presentable, good judgment.

But Wilson’s greatest service was as a talking head in the 18 months leading up to the Iraq war, in taking on what he calls the “neoconservative juggernaut.” He knew the territory. He’d been acting ambassador in Iraq during Desert Storm, he knew how deluded the neocons were about democracy and militarism. He said so forcefully again and again. And he performed an important mission when he went to Niger in 2002 at the behest of the CIA to explore the claim that Niger was supplying uranium to Saddam Hussein. Untrue, he reported. But the Administration swept his report aside when President Bush made the opposite assertion in his 2003 State of the Union speech, which laid out the (fraudulent and absurd) grounds for war in Iraq. After the war began, and soon enough the predictable chaos in Iraq, the pre-war intelligence became politicized, and Wilson went public about his role. In a stunning Times Op-Ed piece in July 2003, “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” he said that the Bush administration had “twisted” intelligence to justify war. Well, then Vice President Cheney needed to take him on. And someone in the White House—I don’t know all the who’s and what’s and Libby’s and Millers, it’s too confusing—leaked to Bob Novak that Wilson’s wife Valerie Plame was a CIA operative and that she had suggested sending him on the trip to Niger.

In his book, Wilson says that when Novak blew his wife’s cover, it meant “Twenty years of loyal service down the drain.” And as for the claim that his wife suggested he go to Niger, this is a smear. “The attacks of the past several months have left us dumbfounded… [they have been] a concerted effort to destroy our reputations…” The word “vitriol” is also in there. So is Karl Rove “declaring war on two U.S. citizens.” The same thing the Republicans did to John Kerry with the Swift boats.

Sorry, call me daft, I don’t see the smear. The Swiftboating of John Kerry was a true smear, a (sadly successful) effort to portray a guy with an honorable record in combat in Vietnam (when Bush and Cheney were dodging service) as a liar. But Wilson says that his wife was involved in the CIA process of sending him to Niger. She conveyed the initial request to him, even wrote up a couple lines about her husband for the CIA. What if she did suggest him? That doesn’t undermine his facts.

Also, though I’ll rejoice to see the leakers, liars and leaker-hypocrites in the White House indicted, I don’t understand why I have to share Wilson’s piety about his wife’s undercover work. He intones that CIA people go to the grave anonymous, and anonymity is vital. As the otherwise-objectionable warmonger Christopher Hitchens has pointed out on Slate, the left used to be dubious about the CIA. I’m not about to convert now, especially when Wilson offers only mingy info about his wife’s work, saying that she went from a cover in Brussels in the energy business in the 90s to some kind of big desk job at Langley when she got outed. Thereupon losing all her friends, he suggests. (I bet she’d have more friends than ever—heck, she was at the White House Correspondents Association dinner.) Or there’s this sort of highfalutin vagueness:

There was no possibility of Valerie recovering her former life. She would never be able to regain the anonymity and secrecy that her professional life had required; she would not be able to return to her discreet work on some of the most sensitive threats to our society in the foreseeable future, and perhaps ever.

There is a kind of personal tragedy in the leak case for Wilson: it unleashed his vanity, and transformed a guy who was doing wonderful public-citizen work for the right side at maybe the most important time in our lives, a guy who understood the international identity crisis that this war was about to plunge our once-great democracy into—transformed him into a big head. Joe Wilson takes Joe Wilson way too seriously. He believes any fawning comment he hears. He treats his appearance on the Jon Stewart show as some kind of affair of state, and chronicles every step he took in this process over 508 pages—while brushing right by a related and truly vicious tragedy, the suicide of British intelligence analyst David Kelly, after he was outed at the same time as Valerie Plame as the source of BBC’s allegation of “sexed-up” intelligence. Poor Kelly was a Graham Greene character. Lacking Wilson’s standing, or stout temperament, he was in the crosshairs in a different way, grilled by an angry Parliamentary committee. His story is much more wrenching. Or I think of the way Dan Ellsberg, an unquestionable hero, conducted himself after the Pentagon Papers caused him to be a victim of way, way worse than what Wilson has experienced. He has shown more class than Wilson, and more self-understanding: he knew that he had dared to take on the powers, and some of what befell him wasn’t about him, it was just politics.

P.S. Since posting this, I got a couple comments that were real smart. One change I’ve made is to remove the nasty term fathead.

Two other comments force me to reflect that I’m talking out of my hat on Plame’s outing—maybe I’m wrong. Wilson’s book in unconvincing on that score; maybe Valerie Plame’s book will make that case.