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Ex-Envoy Playing Politics, GOP Says

The spouse of the CIA operative advised Kerry and had links to antiwar group, Republican says.

October 02, 2003|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In recent days, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV has been portrayed as the victim at the center of a storm over allegations that the Bush administration revealed the identity of Wilson's wife, a covert CIA operative, as punishment for his public criticism of the Iraq war.

But in the latest twist of this fast-moving story, Wilson found himself on the defensive Wednesday against charges from the White House's top Republican allies that his motives are political.

"He is not an apolitical foreign policy analyst. He has a point of view," Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said of Wilson in one of several TV appearances and interviews on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Gillespie said that Wilson had made appearances for the antiwar group and had supported, both as an advisor and as a contributor, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Fearful that it would damage Wilson's credibility, the House Democratic caucus canceled plans to hold a meeting and news conference with him on Wednesday morning.

"With Republicans calling him partisan, we really didn't want to add fuel to the fire," said one Democratic official who asked to remain unidentified.

A self-described former California "hippie surfer," Wilson insisted Wednesday that "my goal has been only to try to ensure that this country is making wise decisions on matters of life and death." But he also said that he would endorse Kerry for president -- if asked.

"Is it better for me to endorse him or slam him?" Wilson joked. "He'll have to decide."

A career Foreign Service officer, Wilson, 53, came to prominence as the last American diplomat to meet with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and then-President George H.W. Bush introduced him to his wartime Cabinet as "a true American hero."

These days, the Republicans' language about him is far less lustrous. Indeed, said a Kerry advisor who requested anonymity, the Republican effort to discredit Wilson is a sign that "this story has legs, and it's got them worried."

But the former diplomat's willingness to publicly take on the administration, his open embrace of a Democratic challenger to Bush and his apparent relishing of the political storm breaking around him paint a picture of a complex man who, after a 22-year diplomatic career, has found himself at the center of two of the Bush White House's biggest embarrassments.

On July 6, an article Wilson wrote for the New York Times opinion page challenged the suggestion in Bush's State of the Union address that Hussein had sought uranium ore from Africa to build a nuclear bomb. A specialist on the region, Wilson had been asked by the CIA to go to Niger in 2002 to investigate the allegations, and he had submitted a report arguing that there was no basis for the claim.

Eight days later, syndicated columnist Robert Novak wrote that the trip had been arranged by Wilson's wife, a CIA employee, and he identified her by name. The statement that she had set up the trip was attributed to "two senior administration officials."

It is a felony, punishable by fines and imprisonment, for a government employee to disclose the identity of a covert CIA operative and, at the request of George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, the Justice Department opened a full-scale investigation of the incident this week.

In the weeks after his wife's identity and employer were revealed, Wilson continued to press for answers about the disclosures. He told friends that if the White House thought he was about to go quietly, they didn't understand him.

"They'll do all they can to point out that I'm a flawed character," Wilson said in an interview Wednesday, referring to White House officials. "But I've been fighting with these guys for months, and every time it ends up that what I'm saying is validated."

He insisted that political partisanship was not his motivation for speaking out, and noted that he had discussed the situation in Iraq before both liberal and conservative audiences.

"I've got nothing against this president; I want him to succeed in this war against terrorism, as we all do," he said. "I just wanted more discussion at a time when the neocon go-to-war juggernaut was the only voice being heard."

Wilson also pointed out that he and his wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, had contributed to Bush's campaign during the 2000 primaries. "I thought his 'compassionate conservatism' made him the most interesting candidate in the field," Wilson said.

Federal Election Commission records show that Wilson has contributed to several candidates in both parties in recent years. In addition to Kerry and then-Gov. Bush, contributions went to Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.), Rep. Edward R. Royce (R-Fullerton), former Vice President Al Gore and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

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