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Hope for accountable government

For many months, Joseph C. Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame, were pop-up targets on the cable news circuit. Now Wilson spends his time doing two things: Suing Dick Cheney and campaigning for Hillary Clinton.

To him, the two activities are pretty closely related.

For anyone who missed the news from 2003 to 2006 – and trust me, you were probably better off – Wilson, a high-ranking career diplomat, was sent to the African country of Niger to check out reports that Saddam Hussein had tried to acquire uranium there for his nuclear program. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when it became clear Saddam didn’t, um, have a nuclear program, Wilson wrote an op-ed for the New York Times arguing that there was no way Saddam could have gotten uranium from Niger.

And then the roof fell in.

Conservative columnists, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Fox News joined in a full-throated baying denunciation, including the revelation that Wilson’s wife was an undercover CIA agent, and charging that she had arranged to have him sent to Niger as a personal boondoggle. By the time it was all over, Wilson and Plame had been vilified (and lionized), the White House declared that anyone leaking a CIA agent’s identity would certainly be fired, major national reporters had been subpoenaed, a New York Times reporter had been jailed for refusing to testify – and Scooter Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, had been convicted of four counts of obstruction of justice and lying to investigators.

Deeply moved by it all, President Bush commuted Libby’s sentence.

Now, Wilson and Plame have left government (and Washington), published books and are pursuing a lawsuit against Cheney, Libby, former White House political mastermind Karl Rove and former State Department official Richard Armitage, an admitted leaker of Plame’s identity. They have lost in U.S. District Court, but in mid-May their case comes up in the D.C. federal appeals court.

Meanwhile, Wilson is doing something else.

“In the darkest moments,” he remembered on a campaign trip to Portland last week, “when you would pick up the Wall Street Journal editorial page and, except for the fact that they were using the name ‘Joe Wilson,’ not know whom they were talking about, Hillary would reach out to us.”

Wilson knew the Clintons from his time as senior director of African affairs for the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, and he says he and the senator remained in touch.

“She always found time to take Valerie aside and give her a pep talk,” recalled Wilson. “She’d tell her, ‘I know how painful this is. You didn’t choose it. But it’s important for you to stay in the spotlight, because it’s not about you, it’s about how we do debate in this country.’ “

That kind of encouragement, at a time of what Wilson remembers as “lonely days and dark nights,” weighs heavily when the person involved is running for president. To Wilson, the impact is especially strong since he’s learned something more about how we do debate in this country, when Bush commuted Libby’s sentence.

“We now know,” Wilson explains, “that the president of the United States is an accessory to the obstruction of justice after the fact. He deprived the prosecutor of the one bit of leverage he had, that of putting Libby in jail.”

But his ties to Clinton go beyond his memory of who was on his side and who wasn’t. From his time as Africa expert for the NSC, Wilson recalls her as “the decisive voice” in arguing for Bill Clinton’s 11-day tour of Africa in 1998, which he considers a key turning point in U.S. policy toward the continent. Since then, Wilson and Clinton have been in touch on other foreign policy issues.

“I’ve taken everyone I know who knows anything about Iraq up to see her,” he says. “They all came away thinking that she had the best grasp of the subject matter of anyone they dealt with.”

And to Wilson, campaigning for Clinton and his lawsuit against the vice president are about the same principle: “You have to be prepared to stand up and hold your government to account for what it does.”

And sometimes, to change it.


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