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Government, Politics & Issues

The Wilsons warn about outing a spy and fighting for democracy

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 30, 2011 - As she talks about her past and present, Valerie Plame Wilson is short and succinct. "I'm a wife, I'm a mother,'' she says. "And I was once a spy."

Plame Wilson was a veteran CIA operative when her cover was blown by the Bush administration and columnist Bob Novak in 2003 during a dispute over the reasons for the Iraq War.

"I loved my job, I loved what I was doing," Plame Wilson said Tuesday night. Her career was killed, she said, "as political payback for my husband."

Her husband, former U.S. Ambassador Joe Wilson says that he hopes Americans take away at least one fact from the eight-year controversy that continues to swirl around Wilson and his wife. 

"You can stand up to your government. Your government is not all-knowing," Wilson told those gathered in Maryville University's auditorium Tuesday afternoon for the first of two appearances by the couple as part of the St. Louis Speaker Series.

During their main event Tuesday evening at Powell Hall, Wilson added, "Democracy is not for couch potatoes. Democracy is not a spectator sport."

The Wilsons emphasized that neither they nor the Bush administration were the ones who really suffered as a result of miscalculations that led to the Iraq War, now in its ninth year. "The real victims have been the service people and their families,'' Joe Wilson said.

He cited the 4,500 deaths of American troops, the injuries suffered by tens of thousands more, as well as the deaths of an estimated 1 million Iraqis, mostly civilians.

Joe Wilson said the American public must share in the blame for Iraq's deteriorating situation "because we simply did not pay enough attention'' when the Bush administration drove the United States into war.

"Look around at the mess that Baghdad is today,'' he said. Wilson contrasted his latest visit almost a year ago to his stint more than 20 years earlier when he was in charge of the U.S. Embassy in the Iraqi capital.

During his most recent trip, Wilson said, his security escorts said it was too dangerous for him to visit the old embassy or his former residence.

"The winner of the second Gulf War was Iran,'' Wilson asserted, predicting that Iraq could well see ongoing sectarian violence -- regardless of when American troops leave.

Both Wilsons emphasized their shared belief that U.S. troops need to leave as soon as possible.

Plame Wilson said that her husband, then retired from the State Department, was chosen because he had been in charge of the U.S. Embassy in Bagdad during the first Gulf War in 1991, and knew Hussein well, as well as most of the major political political players on the African continent and in the Middle East. (The couple have been married since 1998.)

She said she had no role in her husband's selection and was not present during his de-briefing sessions upon his return. Wilson told the CIA that the report was bogus, which was in line with reports from two of the agency's other high-level sources.

In January 2003, the couple said they were stunned to hear President George W. Bush make reference to the discredited Niger allegation in his State of the Union address, and for then-Secretary of State Colin Powell to make the same point to the United Nations.

The Gulf War began in March 2003, with the Niger allegation "a fundamental part of the case for war," Wilson said -- even though documents later proved that many administration officials knew the allegation was wrong.

That summer, the couple said, they began hearing rumblings that Wilson's Niger trip was going to become public, and perhaps in a way to mischaracterize his involvement and his findings. So Wilson opted for pre-emptive action by writing an oped piece that ran in the New York Times on July 6, 2003. In the article, he said the Niger report was wrong, and cited his trip.

Soon after, syndicated columnist Novak wrote that Wilson had been sent to Niger by his wife, a CIA operative.  Novak identified her by name.

Plame Wilson said she then knew that "my career is done," and that the lives of untold CIA contacts around the world were in danger. The controversy also killed her husband's growing consulting business, the couple said.

A special prosecutor subsequently dove into the matter, which resulted in the indictment and conviction of Lewis "Scooter" Libby, top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney.

The Wilsons filed suit in 2006 against Libby, Cheney, Bush adviser Karl Rove and other administration officials. The case was dismissed in 2008.

In the meantime, the couple wrote two books. One of them, Plame Wilson's memoir "Fair Game," was made into a movie in 2010 featuring actors Sean Penn as Wilson and Naomi Watts as Plame Wilson.

The couple and their two young children moved from Washington to Santa Fe, N.M., to start a new life.

The Wilsons said their aims now include making it more difficult for any administration, Republican or Democrat, to put the nation's security at risk by disclosing the identities of covert national-security officials or undercover operations because of politics.

The couple said their lives were in turmoil for eight years because, as Wilson put it, "I stood up and challenged the administration for its abuse of the facts."

He faulted the press, early on, for being too quick to embrace Bush officials' assertions, including those that disparaged Plame Wilson.

They also remain critics of the reasons used for getting the United States into a longstanding, expensive war in Iraq that killed about 4,500 American troops, and wounded far more, along with tens of thousands of Iraqis.

"We were misled into a war of choice," Wilson said.

He added that he also believes that Cheney would have been indicted, "had Scooter Libby told the truth."

However, Wilson did offer praise for then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who he said showed integrity by appropriately recusing himself from the investigation into the outing of Plame Wilson. Ashcroft's action led to the appointment of the special prosecutor.

Looking ahead, the Wilsons said they hoped Americans would now be wary of new calls by some Republicans to consider waging a war with Iran.

Joe Wilson paraphrased a warning more than 200 years from Ben Franklin, who declared in 1787 that it was up to individual Americans to protect the republic that had just been created.

With that admonition in mind, Wilson offered measured praise for the tea party and Occupy Wall Street movements. Regardless of their beliefs, he said, such activism highlighted the political energy and interest that average Amercans need to embrace if the nation -- and its liberties -- are to survive.

"In order for us to have another 230 years," Wilson said, "we really need to get off our butts."

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