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Joseph Wilson tells ECU audience to ‘stand up and participate’
GREENVILLE, N.C. (Apr. 8, 2009) — He owns an international consulting firm and lives in Santa Fe, N.M., with his wife and two children. But, six years ago, former ambassador Joseph Wilson and his family led a much different life.
For more than 20 years, Wilson worked in international relations under Republican and Democrat administrations. Among his successes was helping to free more than 100 American hostages in Iraq while serving as acting U.S. Ambassador throughout Operation Desert Shield.
But an incident that received worldwide attention turned Wilson from a servant of the government to an outspoken advocate against abuses of power, he told faculty, staff and students at East Carolina University April 7.
His talk, “Speaking Truth to Power and the Consequences,” was presented by the ECU College of Human Ecology’s Carolyn Freeze Baynes Memorial Lecture in Social Justice Series. Sponsors also included Student Union Programming Board and Office of Institutional Diversity.
The story begins in 2002 when the George W. Bush Administration asked Wilson to investigate reports that Saddam Hussein was seeking to acquire uranium from the West African nation of Niger for a nuclear program.
Wilson said he had good relations with Niger’s leadership from previous experiences. During the visit, he found no truth to the claim that Hussein sought uranium from the country; two other American officials and a French investigation came to the same conclusion, he said.
Still, Bush asserted in his 2003 State of the Union address, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” This became evidence supporting America’s invasion of Iraq.
Wilson said he reached out to the Bush administration to try to correct what he saw as a false claim that could violate a “solemn obligation” for citizens to “fully understand the reasons for war before troops are sent into harm’s way.” He talked to Senators, Representatives and others without result before taking his information public.
He made his case in a New York Times op-ed published in July 2003 and began appearing as a guest on cable news shows. He called this his “responsibility as a citizen when I realized the government had misled its people.”
Reaction from the Bush Administration came eight days later when senior White House and State Department officials leaked Wilson’s wife’s identity as a covert CIA officer, an act Wilson has called retaliation. Suddenly, attention turned from those 16-words in the State of the Union address to just two words: Valerie Plame.
“The way they decided to go after me was to go after my family,” Wilson said. He offered three guesses as to why the Administration chose to out Plame: to change the subject, to send a signal to the foreign policy/intelligence community and to fulfill a personal agenda to “bury Wilson” for ideological differences.
But, the betrayal of Plame’s identity was a crime, and it resulted in the conviction of Vice President Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff Lewis “Scooter” Libby on four counts of perjury, lying to federal investigators and obstruction of justice.
There is a lesson to the story, Wilson told the ECU crowd: “As citizens, we have a responsibility to hold our government to account,” he said.
In the six years since the incident, conventional narrative about the Iraq war has changed. Many people now recognize as questionable some of the intelligence that supported the invasion. Wilson believes he influenced this by speaking the truth.
He encouraged the ECU audience to do the same. “We all have a responsibility. We can and must be prepared to stand up and participate in government. You will survive the experience, and the Republic will be stronger for you having been in the fray,” he said.
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