"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
After serving in the American diplomatic corps for more than two decades, Joseph Wilson had retired from the Foreign Service in 1998 to enjoy his new family and pursue a second career as an international businessman. In February 2002, his government called on him to undertake a sensitive mission to the West African nation of Niger, which had allegedly agreed to ship uranium to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. He quickly agreed to handle the task without pay or credit.
When he boarded the plane for Niger, Wilson could not have imagined how profoundly that trip would change his life and that of his wife, Valerie Plame — nor how its consequences would disgrace the Bush administration, whose retaliatory actions against Wilson and Plame are still under investigation by a Justice Department special counsel.
He knew firsthand that the 16 infamous words in the president’s 2003 State of the Union address — “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa” — were false. He refused to remain silent as the nation was misled into war.
In his candid new memoir, “The Politics of Truth,” Wilson tells the story of that episode in great detail, but he also reveals himself as a moderate man driven to battle with extremists and liars. Growing up in a conservative Republican family in California, he rose to ambassadorial posts through merit and hard work, not as a political appointee.
Always more interested in policy than politics, Wilson served both Democratic and Republican administrations in various diplomatic posts throughout Africa, and eventually as ambassador to Gabon in West Africa. Before his clash with the White House, Wilson’s most difficult test had come during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, when he was acting ambassador to Baghdad. His courage and resourcefulness in confronting Saddam and protecting the Americans under his care elicited the highest praise from his superiors — including the first President Bush, who called Wilson “a true American hero.”
Wilson would live to hear himself portrayed quite differently by Republican attackers after his break with the White House. They called him a “playboy” and an “asshole,” and denigrated his diplomatic record. While those personal attacks were obnoxious, what astonished Wilson was the decision by senior administration officials to expose Plame, who worked undercover for the CIA to stem the spread of weapons of mass destruction around the world. Now he strikes back in a book that urges his fellow citizens to defend democracy against the unscrupulous officials who placed their own political power above the nation’s security.
As your new book comes out, the Justice Department investigation of what I no longer hesitate to call the conspiracy against your wife seems to be in a hiatus. Can you talk about what’s going on with the investigation? Do you know?
First of all, I think you’re absolutely right that it’s appropriate to call this a conspiracy, by people very close to the center of power in the United States, who decided that their political agenda was more important than the national security of the country. Now with respect to the investigation, I don’t know, but I will say that I have absolute confidence in the seriousness of purpose and the efforts of both the special counsel, Patrick Fitzgerald, and the FBI team that is working with him.
What is appalling to me in all of this is that the president said early on that he wanted to get to the bottom of this — and yet the people who work for the president did not heed his call and step forward. Instead they’re stonewalling, and appear ready to stonewall against his instructions indefinitely. Either he didn’t mean what he said, or else he doesn’t have authority over his senior staff, or they’re simply insubordinate.
In the book, you name several people in the White House whom you consider to be likely suspects in this conspiracy against you and your wife. Among them is Lewis “Scooter” Libby. You write, “The man attacking my integrity and reputation — and I believe, quite possibly the person who exposed my wife’s identity — was Scooter Libby,” the vice president’s chief of staff. What makes you suspect Libby?
It’s not so much a matter of my suspecting as of my being told by people close to the White House who have been following this assiduously and doing a fair amount of sleuthing on their own. For a long time I was kind of at the intersection of this information flow. Every time anybody got a piece of information, they would call me to find out what I knew, or just share it with me. So I’ve gathered a fair amount of stuff from a fair number of sources, all of whom wish to remain anonymous. And I think you can understand that after the publication of Bob Woodward’s book, in which he interviews 75 people, only two of whom were prepared to be quoted on the record.
Gleaned from all those crosscurrents of information, the most plausible scenario, and the one that I’ve heard most frequently from different sources, has been that there was a meeting in the middle of March 2003, chaired by either Scooter or the vice president — but more frequently I’ve heard chaired by Scooter — at which a decision was made to get a “work-up” on me. That meant getting as much information about me as they could: about my past, about my life, about my family. This, in and of itself, is abominable. Then that information was passed at the appropriate time to the White House Communications Office, and at some point a decision was made to go ahead and start to smear me, after my opinion piece appeared in the New York Times.
You mention two other names: John Hannah, who works in the Office of the Vice President, and David Wurmser, who is a special assistant to John Bolton, the undersecretary of state for arms control and national security. Last Wednesday, their names both appeared on a chart that accompanied an article in the New York Times about the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans and the war cabal within the Bush administration. Did these people run an intelligence operation against you?
I don’t know if it’s the same unit, but it’s very clear, from what I’ve heard, that the meeting in March 2003 led to an intelligence operation against my family and me. That’s what a work-up is — to try to find everything you can about an American citizen.
Do you know whether you and your family were ever under surveillance?
I have no idea.
Have you swept your house for bugging devices?
No, I haven’t. I have no secrets. I have nothing to hide. I have heard one story that quotes [former Republican spokesman] Cliff May saying people have seen Valerie Plame leave her house and go to CIA headquarters every day. So perhaps they were following her.
If you’re right that they started to look at you as early as March 2003, that means either they were anticipating that you were going to tell what you knew about the Niger uranium question or they were upset because you were speaking out against the drive to war anyway.
I think it’s the former. As best I can figure out the timelines on this, I had gone on CNN and answered a question about the forged Niger documents and the State Department spokesman’s response that “we fell for it.” I said I believed that if the U.S. government looked into its files, it would discover that it knew far more about this than the State Department spokesman was letting on. My understanding is it was that statement that led to the so-called work-up meeting and what you called the intelligence operation against me.
In the book, you discuss the performance of the media in the crisis that befell your wife after Robert Novak published her name last July.
Novak obviously has his right guaranteed under our Constitution, which of course I support, to print whatever he and his editors may want. My beef about Novak is that it didn’t seem to me that [outing Valerie] added anything to the story. And what part of “no” didn’t he understand when he tried to get the CIA to confirm the story?
With respect to the rest of the press, there’s got to be some bottom below which you don’t sink in terms of sleazy reporting. I don’t think that this met the test of fair and balanced coverage. Novak tried to portray me as some Clinton appointee, when the only political appointment I’d ever received was from George H.W. Bush. By and large the press, in reporting on this case, felt a genuine fear about this White House.
You quote a journalist saying they were all afraid they’d be “shipped to Guantánamo” if they displeased the White House over this story.
That’s right. “Guantánamo” is now a metaphor for being cut off completely from access and sources. I’ve had any number of reporters who have talked to me about how even the most minor criticism of the administration led to phone calls to their editors from senior officials in the government. I think that’s a clear pattern of intimidation.
In the book, you mention that Novak ran into a friend of yours on the street, before he wrote the column about your wife.
One day last July — before he called the CIA to get clearance — Bob Novak was walking down Pennsylvania Avenue. And this fellow walks up to him, and they fall into conversation. And the conversation turns to the subject of the day, which is this uranium business. The fellow asks what he thinks about it, and Novak says the White House should have dealt with it weeks ago.
So this fellow asks a question, “What about this guy Wilson?”
And Novak responds, “Wilson’s an asshole and his wife works for the CIA on weapons of mass destruction.” Then they reach a stoplight and go their separate ways. Then this fellow, who’s a friend of mine, comes right over to my office and lays this all out.
This guy is somebody that Novak had never met?
Never seen, before or since. Now if it just so happens that Novak was telling this to a person who knows me, how many other people who don’t know me did he tell? And how many of them might bear a grudge against the CIA, and now they have a name that personifies that grudge? Of course the whole world has the name after he published it.
I called [CNN executive vice president] Eason Jordan at CNN that afternoon and said, “What the fuck is going on?” And he said, “Gee, I don’t know Bob very well. Why don’t you call him yourself.” And, of course, nothing has happened to that sleazeball.
Did it surprise you that all these journalists whom you had helped so much in Baghdad, as the deputy chief of mission during the first Gulf War, suddenly acted as if they didn’t know you? Even Novak’s byline had appeared on a column that lauded your heroism over there.
What we did for them in Baghdad far exceeded anything the U.S. government had ever done for journalists before or since. We actually had them filing out of our facilities because we had direct line access. As for Eason [Jordan], I think the lack of responsibility, the lack of willingness to take this on, was appalling. After all, we were talking about somebody who was wandering around the streets of Washington giving out classified information to strangers.
In the case of Novak, why should I be surprised? If you’re a bottom feeder, you’re always a bottom feeder.
At some point after the column was published, you actually ran into Novak at a TV studio and went out of your way to confront him.
I certainly made him walk by me to get where he was going.
You shook hands with him. Was that what you wanted to do?
I did shake hands with him, sure. No, there were other things I wanted to do, but he’s an old man. He might get away with pushing people down in the snow, but I don’t.
You’re a longtime member of the Foreign Service, and you know lots of Republicans. In fact you come from a Republican family. Have people from previous administrations or this White House expressed any regrets about what has been done to you and your wife?
Certainly a lot of people have reached out and have offered their thoughts, across the political spectrum, and I’ve been very grateful for that. Most Americans understand what it is we’re talking about here.
It doesn’t seem like a partisan issue.
It isn’t a partisan issue. It’s a truth issue.
Have any of those people expressed their feelings to the president or the president’s father — people who know you and your service and think, my God, this isn’t right?
Well, I wouldn’t know. I am demonstrably the last person that the president speaks to — hence the mess they’ve gotten themselves into. It isn’t that my report [on the uranium issue] was so enlightening; it was one of three reports in the files of the U.S. government. There was certainly a lot of information that, had the senior advisors been serving the president, would have prevented him from putting that in his State of the Union address.
In this memoir, you give us a broad picture of your life and your upbringing. One of the things that’s very clear is that you’re not exactly a left-wing pinko. Former Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker, who was your boss in the Reagan State Department, apparently was kind of shocked that you were suddenly being portrayed as a left-winger.
As I recall in the book, I once had a little discussion about this with Tony Blankley [editorial page editor of the Washington Times and former press secretary to Newt Gingrich]. He told me that you become a caricature in these sorts of debates — and that’s clearly what they’ve tried to do.
I grew up in an old California family where politics, and especially state politics, were the staff of life around our table. We had an uncle who was mayor of San Francisco and later governor of California. We had another uncle who had been a congressman.
We had an aunt whom we still jokingly refer to as “Mrs. John Birch.” It’s a staunch Republican family, but this [administration] isn’t their Republican Party.
What’s the difference in the GOP from when you were growing up?
If you’re fiscally responsible, this is not your party. If you believe in a moderate foreign policy characterized by alliances, free trade and the ability to operate in an international environment, this is not your party. If you believe in limited federal government, this is not your party. If you believe that the government should stay out of your bedroom, this is very definitely not your party. In fact, I would argue that unless you believe in the American imperium, imposed on the world by force, or unless you believe in the literal interpretation of the Book of Revelations, this is not your party.
In 2000, you at first supported George W. Bush.
I contributed to his campaign, which is different. In the primary season, I supported him as the candidate who best represented those core Republican values. Now that didn’t mean I was going to vote for him. In fact, I declined an opportunity to sign a letter supporting him from former ambassadors for Bush. I always sort of thought I would vote for Al Gore, whom I had known since I was a congressional fellow. But I still believe that the campaign and the platform that was being advanced by Bush were more in our interest than what was being advanced by John McCain.
But at a certain point, you became disgusted with the Bush campaign.
After they lost New Hampshire and decided that their tactic would be to move to the hard right. And then they ran this push-poll campaign denigrating McCain’s service to the country, [highlighting] his wife’s medical problems and mischaracterizing their adoption of a child — I believe from South Asia. Pushing that racist button was beyond the pale —
When you think about who must have been responsible for that episode with McCain.
It’s clear to me that the guys who did that were the Ralph Reed crowd and the people running Bush’s campaign. Let’s see, that would be Karl Rove and the “iron triangle,” as they called them.
Was that an early warning of what they would later do to you?
I guess it should have been. I assumed that when the president takes office, there’s a certain decorum that may not exist when you’re running a hard-fought campaign. There may be dirty pool in a political campaign, but when you’re president of the United States and your people do this against an American citizen — who, by the way, had done nothing more than invite your attention to the truth — when you do that to him, it’s frankly un-American.
You suggest in the book that the president isn’t really concerned about what happened to your wife, which is in real contrast with the way you believe his father would have acted under the same circumstances. How did we reach this level of polarization?
It’s not what I think his father would have done, but what I know he would have done. I fought a war with him. We were in the foxhole! Look, I bear no personal animus toward the president, other than in his apparent disregard for Valerie’s security. The only thing I can suggest is that this is a different crowd that surrounds this president. As most people know, the president is a captive of his team. People whom his father didn’t employ, or kept far away from the center of power, are now right at the center of power — including, of course, one of his father’s great rivals, Don Rumsfeld.
Some of them were around the first President Bush, such as Colin Powell and Dick Cheney. You fought a war with them, too.
Cheney always likes to point out that he never met Joe Wilson. And as I like to point out, I never met Dick Cheney. During the first Gulf War, there is some question as to whether Cheney held what I consider to be the extremist views he holds today.
Has the White House offered any assistance to you and your wife, any protection?
No. None at all. Not even an apology or a by your leave. Not even a “Fuck you, asshole.”
They sent that through other people. They’ve also tried to portray you, and all the other whistle-blowers who have spoken out against the administration, as partisan Democrats. Do you think that has been an effective technique?
It hasn’t worked with me. People are touched by this story because it gives a human face to a whole host of lies and deceptions that only now are becoming apparent to the American public. Americans don’t like this attitude. Americans don’t like to see their women taken out and beaten up.
Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.More Joe Conason.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)