Joseph C. Wilson, the long-serving American diplomat who undercut President George W. Bush’s claim in 2003 that Iraq had been trying to build nuclear weapons, leading to the unmasking of his wife at the time, Valerie Plame, as a C.I.A. agent, died on Friday at his home in Santa Fe, N.M. He was 69.

Ms. Plame said the cause was organ failure.

Mr. Wilson’s decision to challenge Mr. Bush’s argument that Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator, was secretly reconstituting his nuclear program changed both the narrative and the politics of the war. It forced the White House to concede, grudgingly, that Mr. Bush had built the case for the invasion of Iraq on a faulty intelligence report — one that critics said was cherry-picked to provide an urgent rationale for a war that quickly turned into a morass.

Mr. Wilson’s action ultimately created a rift between the White House and the Central Intelligence Agency and led to inquiries about whether intelligence had been politicized, a debate that racks Washington to this day. And the unmasking of Ms. Plame — who worked in the C.I.A. unit responsible for determining whether nations were building weapons of mass destruction — led to investigations and ultimately a trial for Vice President Dick Cheney’s top national security aide.

A big personality whom some found prickly and difficult, Mr. Wilson served in numerous posts, many in Africa, in a 23-year diplomatic career that began in 1976. One posting was to Niger, and in 2002, by then a private citizen, he was asked by the C.I.A. to return to that country to try to verify reports that Niger had sold uranium yellowcake to Iraq in the 1990s. That material is essentially raw uranium that can be turned into nuclear fuel with considerable processing.

At the time, the Bush administration was building to a crisis point with Iraq, and the key issue was whether Mr. Hussein had resumed his quest for nuclear weapons.

It was a legitimate question. After Mr. Hussein was defeated in the Persian Gulf war in 1991, international inspectors found, and dismantled, what appeared to be an advanced program to develop nuclear weapons that Western intelligence agencies had missed.

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CreditEvan Vucci/Associated Press

But Mr. Wilson concluded from his trip that the reports of a Niger-Iraq deal were false. Nevertheless, in his State of the Union address in January 2003, President Bush declared that “the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” He ordered an invasion of Iraq seven weeks later.

Soon after, the intelligence behind Mr. Bush’s “16 words” from the State of the Union speech was under attack. American military teams could find no evidence of an active nuclear program in Iraq.

Mr. Wilson felt that the record needed to be corrected. In an Op-Ed article in The New York Times on July 6, 2003, titled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” he argued that the intelligence had most likely been twisted to create a rationale for the invasion.

“If my information was deemed inaccurate, I understand (though I would be very interested to know why),” he wrote. “If, however, the information was ignored because it did not fit certain preconceptions about Iraq, then a legitimate argument can be made that we went to war under false pretenses.”

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For Op-Ed's 40th anniversary, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV recounted the story behind his Op-Ed from June 2003 and the series of events that followed its publication.

That challenge did not sit well with Mr. Bush or Mr. Cheney, who ripped the article out of the paper and began annotating it with questions, some of them wondering why a civilian had been sent by the C.I.A. to figure out what had happened. “Or did his wife send him on a junket?” Mr. Cheney wrote.

The White House story about how the language got into the speech — and why “British intelligence” was cited — began to shatter. The day after the Op-Ed article was published, Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, was challenged by a Times reporter about how the 16 words had gotten into the speech.

“So it was wrong?" he was asked.

“That’s what we’ve acknowledged,” Mr. Fleischer said.

Only the White House had never acknowledged it, and his admission engulfed the Bush White House in a tide of criticism and led to years of investigations.

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CreditJames Estrin/The New York Times

A week after the Op-Ed was published, Robert Novak, a syndicated columnist with conservative leanings and Republican connections, wrote a column identifying Ms. Plame as a C.I.A. operative — a startling breach, since she had been under cover for much of her career.

Revealing a C.I.A. agent’s identity can be a crime, and an investigation into the leak led to charges against Mr. Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby Jr. But Mr. Libby was not charged with leaking the information — it had come from a top State Department official who acknowledged that he was the source — but with lying to the F.B.I. about his conversations with reporters.

After a long trial that involved testimony from a parade of administration officials, news editors and reporters, Mr. Libby was convicted. President Bush later commuted his 30-month prison sentence. Mr. Cheney, however, did not believe that commutation was enough. He insisted on a full pardon. The split on the issue contributed to a breach between the president and his vice president, and Mr. Cheney was increasingly marginalized in the administration’s second term.

Last year, President Trump issued Mr. Libby a full pardon.

Mr. Wilson and Ms. Plame did not flee the spotlight once they had been thrust into it. They posed for photographs in a convertible parked near the White House. Their story was told in a 2010 movie, “Fair Game,” in which Mr. Wilson was played by Sean Penn and Ms. Plame by Naomi Watts.

For Mr. Wilson, the decision to write the Op-Ed article was a matter of patriotic duty.

“The path to writing the op-ed piece had been straightforward in my own mind,” he wrote in a 2004 memoir, “The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies That Put the White House on Trial and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity.” “My government had refused to address the fundamental question of how the lie regarding Saddam’s supposed attempt to purchase African uranium had found its way into the State of the Union address.

“Time after time during the previous four months,” he continued, “from March to July, administration spokespeople had sloughed off the reality that the president of the United States had sent our country to war in order to defend us against the threat of the ‘mushroom cloud’ when they knew, as did I, that at least one of the two ‘facts’ underpinning the case was not a fact at all.”

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In a telephone interview on Friday, Ms. Plame, whose marriage to Mr. Wilson ended in divorce this year, said he had never regretted writing the article.

“He did it because he felt it was his responsibility as a citizen,” she said. “It was not done out of partisan motivation, despite how it was spun.”

“He had the heart of a lion,” she added. “He’s an American hero.”

Joseph Charles Wilson IV was born on Nov. 6, 1949, in Bridgeport, Conn., to Joseph Wilson III and Phyllis (Finnell) Wilson. Both parents were journalists, and young Joe had a colorful upbringing because of it.

“I had spent my high school years in Europe following my parents in their quixotic quest to be expatriate journalists and authors,” he wrote in his memoir. “We had first traveled to Europe in 1959, driving around in an old Citroën taxi that was low-slung like the gangster cars in old movies.”

That background was a foundation for his diplomatic career, but his first job on graduating from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1971 was as a carpenter. Within a few years, though, he had taken the Foreign Service exam, and in 1976 he received his first posting, to Niamey, the capital of Niger.

He was there for two years. Then came assignments in Togo, South Africa, Burundi and elsewhere, including Iraq. There, from 1988 to 1991, a tense period that included Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, he was deputy chief of mission, the No. 2 job in an embassy. He left in early 1991, just before the United States and its allies launched the military action known as Operation Desert Storm to force Iraq out of Kuwait.

In 1992, President George H.W. Bush named Mr. Wilson ambassador to two African countries, Gabon and the island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe, a post he held for three years. He finished his government service as senior director for African affairs for President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council. He then started a consulting business.

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CreditLawrence Jackson/Associated Press

Mr. Wilson’s first marriage, to Susan Otchis, ended in divorce, as did a second marriage, to Jacqueline Giorgi. He married Ms. Plame in 1998.

He is survived by a brother, William; two children from his first marriage, Joseph Wilson V and Sabrina Ames; two children from his marriage to Ms. Plame, Trevor and Samantha Wilson; and five grandchildren.

In his memoir, Mr. Wilson found a positive side to his and Ms. Plame’s experience.

“I come away from the fight I’ve had with my government full of hope for our future,” he wrote. “It takes time for Americans to fully understand when they have been duped by a government they instinctively want to trust. But it is axiomatic that you cannot fool all of the people all of the time, and our citizens inevitably react to the deceit.”

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