Joseph Wilson, the former U.S. diplomat who publicly challenged the reasoning behind President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, died Friday. He was 69.
Wilson died of organ failure, his ex-wife, Valerie Plame, confirmed to several news outlets. Plame's identity as a CIA operative was revealed a week after Wilson contested the Bush administration in a 2003 New York Times op-ed. Plame and Wilson divorced in 2017.
The dispute between Wilson and the Bush administration began after President Bush declared in his State of the Union speech in January 2003 that Iraq was attempting to restart its nuclear program.
"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," Bush said.
The U.S. invaded Iraq seven weeks later.
But in an op-ed titled "What I Didn't Find in Africa" published in The New York Times, Wilson directly contradicted those 16 words. He claimed that the Bush administration was manipulating intelligence to justify the Iraq invasion.
"Based on my experience with the administration in the months leading up to the war, I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat," Wilson wrote.
For 23 years, Wilson served as a foreign diplomat in various locations — he was the senior U.S. diplomat in Baghdad during the first Gulf War. In 2002, as a private citizen, he was asked by the CIA to travel to Niger on behalf of the U.S. government to investigate claims that Niger had sold uranium to Iraq in the 1990s, according to his op-ed.
"I spent the next eight days drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people: current government officials, former government officials, people associated with the country's uranium business," Wilson wrote. "It did not take long to conclude that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place."
That op-ed set off a firestorm in Washington, D.C., as the Bush administration scrambled to justify Bush's State of the Union claim. A week after the article was published, Wilson's then-wife Valerie Plame's covert identity as a CIA operative was leaked to the press and then exposed by columnist Robert Novak. Plame had been undercover for most of her career.
"It just felt like I got a sucker punch to the gut," Plame told NPR's Fresh Air in 2007. "And I knew, of course, my career as I knew it was over."
She was forced to resign from the CIA.
"I was not surprised that the White House would attempt to discredit me. There is a long practice in this town of trying to destroy the credibility of the message by destroying the credibility of the messenger," Wilson told NPR's Renee Montagne in 2004.
"I was shocked that somebody in the U.S. government would take a decision that the political agenda that they were trying to protect or defend was more important than the national security of the country and expose my wife and her activities."
An investigation into the leak of Plame's identity later led to the conviction of vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr. for perjury and obstruction of justice. President Trump fully pardoned Libby in 2018.
Wilson and Plame became widely recognized celebrities for years after the events unfolded. Both wrote memoirs of the ordeal, and Plame's book Fair Game was made into a 2010 feature film starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts. Plame became a professional speaker and is now running for Congress as a Democrat in New Mexico.
In a telephone interview with The New York Times on Friday, Plame said that Wilson never regretted writing the op-ed that catapulted them both into the national spotlight.
"He did it because he felt it was his responsibility as a citizen. It was not done out of partisan motivation, despite how it was spun," she told the Times.
"He had the heart of a lion," she said. "He's an American hero."