SANTA FE — Joe Wilson, a career diplomat who set off a political firestorm by publicly accusing the George W. Bush administration of exaggerating the nuclear weapons threat in Iraq, has died at age 69 in Santa Fe.
Valerie Plame, Wilson’s ex-wife, who was outed as an undercover CIA operative after Wilson challenged the Bush Iraq narrative, posted Friday on Facebook: “It is with deep sadness that I share with you the passing of an American hero — Ambassador Joe Wilson.
“He had the heart of a lion. He was the father of four beautiful children and I wish him nothing but peace in his next journey.”
In a subsequent statement, she added: “As a patriot, Joe had the courage to write an Op Ed that told the truth about the justification for the Iraq war because he knew that with the privilege of citizenship comes great responsibility.
“He is already deeply and painfully missed,” she added.
Wilson wrote a New York Times op-ed in 2003 that attacked Bush’s claim that Iraq’s former President Saddam Hussein had purchased the makings for a nuclear weapon. Wilson had traveled to Niger for the U.S. government to investigate whether Hussein had acquired uranium yellowcake there.
In apparent retribution for Wilson’s critical article, the Bush administration leaked to a journalist that Wilson’s spouse, Plame, worked undercover for the CIA, blowing her cover and setting off a political scandal.
An aide to former Vice President Dick Cheney, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, was convicted of obstruction of justice and lying to investigators following the leak. Libby was pardoned last year by President Donald Trump.
Plame and Wilson moved to Santa Fe several years ago. Plame is now running for the U.S. House seat in New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District as a Democrat.
Throughout the day Friday, many tributes portrayed Wilson as a hero who spoke truth to power, posted online and from the political world.
U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, the 3rd District incumbent who is running for a Senate seat next year, called Wilson “a devoted patriot who put country and duty before politics, and who had the courage to speak the truth in the face of extreme criticism.”
“He embodied public service throughout his career and his record will serve as an example of dignity and fortitude amid challenging circumstances,” said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said Wilson was “dedicated to serving our country at home and abroad” with an “incredible legacy of public service.” U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., added that Wilson’s “service to our country will live on and inspire others to serve with the same honor and purpose that he carried forward throughout his life.”
A Connecticut native and graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara, Wilson’s career with the Foreign Service included posts in a handful of African nations. He was the senior U.S. diplomat in Baghdad during the first Gulf War and was the last American official to meet with Saddam before Desert Storm.
Wilson defied the Iraqi leader by providing refuge for 100 U.S. citizens at the embassy and at diplomats’ homes when Saddam was threatening to execute those who sheltered foreigners.
He spoke to journalists at the time wearing a hangman’s noose instead of a necktie. He later told The Washington Post that his message to Saddam was: “If you want to execute me, I’ll bring my own (expletive) rope.”
Wilson drew intense criticism from Republican lawmakers over his statements regarding Iraq in the lead-up to the U.S. invasion. A report by the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2004 pointed to inconsistencies. Wilson dismissed those claims, later authoring the book “The Politics of Truth.”
“Fair Game,” Plame’s memoir of the couple’s saga, was made into a movie with Naomi Watts as Plame and Sean Penn as Wilson. As the film premiered in 2010, Wilson told a Journal reporter how he worked with Penn as the actor tried to nail down Wilson’s personality. Of Penn’s performance, he said, “Valerie would say, she did say, Sean captures the intensity, but not the sense of humor.”
On Friday, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof tweeted that Wilson “first told me the story of his trip to Niger and let me write about it without using his name. When officials denied it, he went public. RIP, brave man.”