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The Rise and Decline of Joe Wilson

From the May 17, 2004 issue: His new book is out, but his "Notoriety Quotient" is on the way down.

May 17, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 34 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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New York

ON A THURSDAY they had the book party. It was a simple affair: just family, friends, coworkers, and journalists. They came to Ambassador Joseph Wilson's house, nestled in the ritzy Palisades neighborhood of Northwest Washington, to celebrate the release of his first book, The Politics of Truth. One thing Joe Wilson keeps track of is his "Notoriety Quotient," or the amount of attention he receives from the media. And that Thursday it seemed to be on the rise. For the past week The Politics of Truth was mentioned in the same breath as Ron Suskind's The Price of Loyalty and Richard Clarke's Against All Enemies. Like those books, it was said, Wilson's would contain damning charges against the Bush administration.

The media jumped on the story. On Friday the book would be released and Wilson would appear on NBC's Dateline. On Sunday he was booked on Meet the Press. On Monday, Larry King Live. And on Tuesday he was scheduled for his favorite: comedian Jon Stewart's satirical news program, The Daily Show.

Then the book tour would begin, with a trip to California ("my fiefdom," he calls it). After California he'd travel to Seattle ("where of course they love me," he says). And after Seattle he'll come back to Washington via Chicago. It's a packed schedule. Wilson says he is looking forward to it.

At the moment, however, three days after the book party, late in the afternoon of Sunday, May 2, Joe Wilson is sitting in a small bistro on New York's Upper East Side, his back to the Madison Avenue traffic, sipping Pellegrino with lime. He won't drink coffee until later this evening, a few moments before he talks with CNN political analyst Jeff Greenfield in front of several hundred people at the nearby 92nd Street Y. He needs to be "on" tonight, after all. He hopes the talk will be a repeat performance of this morning's Meet the Press. "I didn't see it," he says. "I just did it. But the response I've gotten is that it went very well."

Wilson is a big man, broad-shouldered, with a mane of perfectly coifed gray hair. He is 54 years old. Also, he is angry. He is angry because someone told journalist Robert Novak that his wife, Valerie Plame, worked under cover for the CIA. Others--including the CIA itself--confirmed this fact, and in July 2003 Novak used it in a column he wrote about Wilson's trip to Africa in February 2002. The CIA had sent Wilson to Niger, in West Africa, to investigate whether Saddam Hussein had ever sought uranium there. The idea behind Novak's column, it seems, was to explain why Wilson, who later turned out to be a vocal critic of the Bush administration's Iraq policy, was sent on the mission in the first place. This is what Novak wrote:

Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me his wife suggested sending Wilson to Niger to investigate the Italian report. The CIA says its counterproliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him.

Everything in the passage above is true. Wilson never worked for the CIA. And his wife was, until her cover was blown, an agency operative on nonproliferation. She still works for the CIA today, but in a different capacity. Two senior officials did tell Novak that Plame suggested her husband for the job. (Wilson, Plame, and CIA spokesmen deny that.) And the CIA says its own people asked Plame to act as a liaison between the Agency and Wilson. In fact, Wilson and Plame admitted as much to Vanity Fair reporter Vicky Ward last November. "[Wilson] was not unduly surprised," Ward wrote, "when, one evening in early 2002, his wife asked if he'd come in to discuss Niger and uranium--a subject he'd discussed with the CIA before."

The problem is that whoever told Novak about Plame may or may not have committed a federal crime. In 1982 Congress passed, and President Reagan signed, the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which makes it illegal to reveal the identity of a covert agent who "is serving outside the United States or has within the last five years served outside the United States." Maybe Plame fits that description. Maybe she doesn't. Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago, is leading a grand jury investigation into the matter. So far the grand jury has issued no indictments.