Valerie Plame Wilson
There are very few heroic figures who, as one finds out more about them, actually live up to or even exceed their reputations, but, for me, Valerie Plame Wilson is one of them. Those who followed the events that surrounded Ms. Plame Wilson and her husband, former U.S. ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, as they began to unfold dramatically in 2003, know some of the key aspects of her story: The Bush White House had been trying to drum up support, both in Congress and in the nation, for an invasion of Iraq. Since their attempts to connect Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to the attacks of 9/11 had proven unsuccessful, this could have been a tough sell. So, as many journalists and historians have now confirmed, the Bush administration started cherry-picking intelligence-and using data from raw intelligence, or from unreliable sources-in order to bolster the narrative that Hussein had an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and was successfully developing nuclear capabilities that he could use against us.
In support of this march to war, President George W. Bush’s 2003 State of the Union Address asserted that the government had obtained reports from British intelligence that Hussein had tried to buy yellowcake uranium-a processed uranium ore that is used in the preparation of fuel for nuclear reactors-in an unspecified country in Africa. Wilson, a former Foreign Service diplomat whose first diplomatic posting had been in Niger, and who had served as ambassador to two African countries under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, listened to these accounts with disbelief. In February of 2002, the CIA had sent Wilson to Niger to investigate the intelligence report, and he concluded that the yellowcake uranium transaction was highly unlikely. Compelled to correct what he knew to be false, Wilson reached out first to the State Department and other members of government, and then later to op-ed columnist Nicholas D. Kristof at The New York Times, with whom he talked anonymously about his findings. But the drumbeat to war coming from the White House only continued to grow louder. So Wilson took matters into his own hands and wrote what would become a pivotal op-ed for editor David Shipley of The New York Times: a now-historic piece entitled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” which was published on July 6, 2003. (As it happens, I had a ringside seat to these events as they unfolded: I was married to David Shipley at that time.)
Almost immediately after reading Wilson’s op-ed, the White House retreated from the strict assertions of the president’s State of the Union address. But Wilson’s piece also unleashed a torrent of behind-the-scenes efforts to smear, target, and punish him and his family for his temerity in questioning the Bush administration’s rationale for going to war. Later, evidence presented during a court filing would reveal that Vice President Dick Cheney made notes on the op-ed itself, leading Wilson to believe that he was being targeted by the White House-and that one tactic of that campaign included ending his wife’s career.
Valerie Plame Wilson was a well-mannered Washington, D.C., mother of two who worked as a global finance executive. But that job was just a cover: In reality, she had been working as a high-level operative for the CIA, having risen through the ranks of the agency over a span of roughly two decades. Ms. Plame Wilson’s identity as an agent was leaked to the press, and ultimately revealed in a July 14 column by Robert Novak of The Washington Post, effectively breaching her cover and making it impossible for her to work in a covert capacity. But the example that was to be made of the couple did not stop there: what followed was a remarkable siege of propaganda aimed at the Wilsons by the White House, which cast Joe as a narcissistic blowhard who had been sent to Niger by his wife on a junket, and portrayed Valerie as a “glorified secretary” and a dispensable, low-level analyst. I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, was eventually indicted on one count of obstruction of justice, two counts of perjury, and two counts of making false statements to federal investigators for his role in the Plame Wilson affair. Through it all, though, the Wilsons have survived, and have entered the historical record as models of patriotism who put the country’s good ahead of their own safety, status, and well-being.
Fast-forward six years, and I had another ringside seat to events connected to this story-this time, as it lent itself to filmmaking rather than to journalism, and as the Wilsons were brought to life on-screen in director Doug Liman’s new movie, Fair Game. Now, as the girlfriend of Avram Ludwig, one of the co-producers, I had the privilege of observing as the screenwriters, Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, turned Plame Wilson’s story-which had never fully come out, since her own account in her book, Fair Game, was so mercilessly redacted by the CIA-into a narrative. But far more important than the oddness, for a journalist, of watching an historical episode with which I was so familiar transposed by a team of filmmakers, was the content of the film itself. From casual conversations among the team I realized early on that there was major news in the script. I will let you read the interview to find out for yourself just how major. I also knew that many dedicated reporters had sought the story that Jez and John-Henry had uncovered. Valerie’s answers in the interview-about why she gave this major news to a team of Hollywood filmmakers, rather than to reporters on major newspapers-is one of the most fascinating, if troubling, aspects of the interview below.
Since I understood that the revelation of Valerie’s true role, as it was revealed in the script, was newsworthy-and since this was a period when journalists were (as they still are) being intimidated with threats of prosecution for revealing classified information under the Espionage Act, I refused to read the script as the film was in production, since I did not want to learn information that I would then be ethically bound to report or to give to another reporter. (The screenwriters assert that they never knowingly passed on classified information, and Ms. Plame Wilson maintains that she never disclosed classified information.)
Because of my personal connection to one of the producers, it would be a conflict of interest for me to evaluate Fair Game here as a film. I can say, though, as a citizen, I am happy it exists-and, as an American, that the Wilsons were so very brave.
Photo: Valerie Plame Wilson at the Bishop’s Lodge Ranch Resort & Spa in Santa Fe, New Mexico, September 2010. This page: Jacket (vintage, throughout): Levi’s. Shirt (throughout): Ralph Lauren Blue Label. Tank top and jeans (throughout): GAP. Watch (vintage): Rolex. Blazer: Dolce & Gabbana. Boots: Hermes.
movies have the power to reach a broad range of people who maybe only vaguely know about that spy-girl story. movies, for better or for worse, have the power to do that.Valerie Plame Wilson
NAOMI WOLF: I think all of us were captivated by your story, and the revelation that this sort of vanilla-seeming wife and mother had this other cloak-and-dagger alternative life as a spy. And then, obviously, when you were outed as a CIA operative by people at the highest levels of government, that allegory-to which so many people responded-took on another dimension. Having said that, I want to begin by asking you, firstly, what drew you to becoming a spy-or, I should say, to serve your country in the way that you have? And, secondly, what was it like having to suffer the targeting of your family, the end of your career, and the smearing of your reputation and your husband’s reputation because your husband told the truth? I know that’s a tendentious way to put it, but I have to put it that way because that’s the way I see it.
VALERIE PLAME WILSON: I would start with your first question about why. It’s not like I grew up thinking that I would become a spy or go into espionage. I didn’t really put it forward as a viable career choice. I mean, I watched James Bond movies like everyone else, but I didn’t think, God, that’s what I really want to do! However, in retrospect, looking at my family’s history . . . My father was an Air Force officer. He retired in the late ’60s, and although he was quite senior, he was training the flyboys who were going over to Vietnam. He had to train them and send them off. Though I never really talked to him about it at any depth-it’s too late now because he died earlier this year-I do know that he had become increasingly uncomfortable with Vietnam. My brother was wounded in Vietnam-he was a Marine. But my father was nevertheless proud to serve his country-no question. My mother was also a public school teacher. So there was definitely this notion of public service as something noble, as something to aspire to in my family. So when I was offered the opportunity to join the agency, I did jump at it. I was delighted with the idea that the government was going to train me and let me live overseas and learn foreign languages. I certainly knew that I was not attracted to the corporate world. [ . . . ] I found that I really enjoyed [the work] and I was good at it. And as my career went on, I developed an expertise, particularly in the counter-proliferation area, and, more specifically, the nexus of terrorism and the nuclear threat, which I thought was really worthwhile. I think that if I hadn’t worked in that particular field, I would have left, because I thought I had the best job and I wasn’t interested in anything else . . . I think that when I’ve had an opportunity to consider all of this in a new way, it seems to me that we’re living and moving through the world, especially in America, in an environment where, for the younger generation-which means younger than you and I, Naomi-the concept of privacy doesn’t exist in the same way it does for us. So I think that the idea that someone would knowingly and willingly keep a portion of their life secret is really intriguing. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s my own thought.
WOLF: Well, that certainly escalates the intrigue-if you’re old-school. [laughs]
PLAME WILSON: Yeah. There has also always been this fascination with the CIA, with espionage. It peaks at various times in history, and we’re in a time where maybe it’s peaking again. I think the roundup this past summer of the so-called Russian spy ring and that cute little Russian redhead got everyone thinking about this again. We’re also living in a time where there’s intense scrutiny on the government. I think what the government is up to is on people’s minds again, and the CIA seems to play into that because of its mission to provide sensitive information to our senior policymakers. So I think we’re back in a time right now-this year in particular-where this fascination with what’s going on is once again there for people. And then, as far as my own personal story is concerned, I think that, yeah, as you say, I’m a wife and a mother who was doing this other work that people found interesting.
WOLF: You know, you’re so skilled and media savvy. You just very eloquently sketched out the current state of things in America right now without actually going into detail about the nitty-gritty of your own experiences as a wife and mother by day who was fighting evildoers in dark alleys half way around the world in this other part of your life. I wonder if this is part of what they teach you down on “the farm,” or whatever they call the site where they give you your spy training. Is that because you are obliged to not give examples or narrate scenes from that double life, or is too much to ask directly?
PLAME WILSON: [laughs] I mean, like any working mother, you’re constantly trying to juggle and balance between work and family and marriage and feeling like you’re failing dismally at all of them at any given moment. [ . . . ] Well, it was an unusual career choice. Like all of my former colleagues who are really dedicated to particularly working in the field of counter-proliferation, I had good days and bad days the way you would in any other job. [ . . . ] In the run up to the war, I was based in Washington, I had traveled extensively in covert capacity around the world, trying to figure out what the state of the Iraqi WMD program was, trying to get to their scientists and to understand what their procurements were and who was who . . . Honestly, I loved my job. It was a great career, and then it all came to a shattering halt.
WOLF: One of the most gripping things about Fair Game-and I need to disclose again that I am in a romantic relationship with one of the film’s producers-is watching your character, played by Naomi Watts, juggle the quotidian side of her life with the covert side of her life. Now, even though you can’t go into the details of those scenes, what you have summarized for me and for the readers is the fact that you were traveling around the world in a covert capacity trying to figure out what was going on with WMDs and the level of research in Iraq. Is that correct?
PLAME WILSON: Correct. All good.
WOLF: All right, now let me speak to that. Most people-even those who were following the story fairly closely-really never seemed to know exactly what you did, and I think many of them will be shocked when they see the movie. For many reasons, you haven’t been permitted to disclose the details of your work-although you just said quite a bit more than was revealed in the last generation of news around this issue. But the Valerie Plame Wilson character in the movie is doing a job that is far more senior, sophisticated, sensitive, and important for our collective well-being than the job that Valerie Plame Wilson was disclosed to have been doing when Karl Rove and Scooter Libby went after her.
PLAME WILSON: The Republicans. It was the Republicans. The Bush administration message machine rolled out steamrollers early and often. Their messaging was so loud-and they had control of all the levers-that that story line, that narrative, continued for a long time.
WOLF: So in the narrative that they presented, what was Valerie Plame Wilson’s job?
PLAME WILSON: I was called a “glorified secretary.” I was accused of nepotism, having sent my husband on this boondoggle to Niger to check out these intelligence reports. According to the narrative, I had done all of this because my husband Joe and I were setting up the president for a fall a year in advance because we were angry at the political landscape and so forth. I was portrayed as a really second-rate officer.
WOLF: And as a low-level player who was vindictive.
PLAME WILSON: Oh, yes. Right. And I found it all, in a sense, ironic, because, on the one hand, I was supposedly nobody and a nothing, but then on the other hand, I apparently had access to so many classified secrets that the CIA made the decision that I’m not committed to acknowledge any CIA employment prior to 2002. So the story didn’t actually follow. But in terms of what I really did, I was so grateful to have the opportunity to participate in the documentary, Countdown to Zero, which came out recently and was directed by Lucy Walker. It shows in much clearer focus what I actually did.
WOLF: Weren’t you basically one of the heads of nuclear counter-proliferation with a specialty in Iraq?
PLAME WILSON: Um, what I can say is that in the run up to the war in Iraq, I was working on operations that were focused specifically on Iraq, but I had other responsibilities as well, connected to nuclear counter-proliferation, and, as I said, the nexus terrorist nuclear-
WOLF: But the true nature of your job changes how we understand what happened to you-and, by extension, what happened to us when your identity was revealed. I know that we can’t paint a complete picture of the work you were doing, but is it accurate to say that you had a level of expertise, skill, and seniority that was not easily replaceable? Is it safe to say that when they took you out, they took out someone who was not some low-level player, but an agent who had been successfully tracking scientists and the production of nuclear warheads and intervening in nuclear proliferation in a way that helped keep our families safe? Can you confirm that?
PLAME WILSON: Uh, yes. I mean, I don’t like to take individual credit. It’s always depicted as, you know, the lone wolf out there keeping the world safe for democracy. But it truly is a team effort.
WOLF: But you were on the team that was doing that. That was your team.
PLAME WILSON: And I loved it, and that’s why it was so painful to have to leave. I could no longer serve overseas in any kind of covert capacity. Simply too much had happened from the time of the leak until when I thought I needed to resign from the agency.
WOLF: But that changed the narrative for me. Apart from your own personal suffering, a critical human asset that had been successful in helping to protect our position in this very delicate international chess match was taken out of action for political purposes-and our safety was jeopardized as a result. There is another dimension to it as well: the Bush administration was intimidating reporters who were covering your story and digging into who you were and what you actually did. This is part of the reason why I imagine this movie, Fair Game, is going to be maddening to journalists-or at least controversial. When all of this was going on, many serious and reputable journalists sought to break the story about what the hell you really did and what really happened. And many of these same people got dragged into problematic discussions as they followed the story because of the way that the Bush administration was using the issue of classification against journalists who reported on the leak. People like the late Tim Russert [journalist and moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press] were actually questioned by Patrick Fitzgerald [the prosecutor in charge of investigating the Plame Wilson affair]. And then, in the wake of all this, Doug Liman and his screenwriters, Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, waltz in, and because they’re making a movie and playing on a different field as far as what you can say and do, they’re able to piece things together in order to present a fuller picture of what you actually did and what went on in Fair Game.
PLAME WILSON: Well, the Butterworths did an amazing amount of research. They turned over every stone. They talked to a lot of people. I think they sat in on every day of Scooter Libby’s trial. Obviously, Fair Game is not a documentary, but Doug very much wanted to make it as realistic as it could possibly be. I am still bound by my secrecy oath, which I take very seriously, not to reveal sources or methods-and I never have. So, in certain areas, the writers needed to fill in the blanks. But I think that with a movie you can tell a story, condense it, and reach a greater number of people than maybe you can through other sources of media. People are drawn in emotionally to a movie, as well. This is a story that went on over a long time. It waxed and waned depending on what was happening, and some people lost the thread. So what a movie can do is put it in order and in context.
WOLF: But Fair Game does contain some big news. As a journalist, I followed this story very closely, but I had no idea that, [as the film portrays it] the CIA was taking apart some nuclear devices, secretly, or getting them stolen, taking them to the Unites States, messing with them and putting them back. [both laugh] Nuclear warheads-that is news.
PLAME WILSON: When this was all happening, at the height of it-or maybe the depth of it-I could not speak publicly. I was still working for the CIA, so I could not speak publicly and was forbidden to do so. Joe was carrying the water for both of us, and every time he said anything, he was accused of being a show horse. His character was maligned.
WOLF: I’m being an advocate on behalf of my profession here, but why did you give this story to a filmmaker and not a journalist?
PLAME WILSON: [laughs] I guess because I believe that movies have the power to reach a broad range of people who maybe only vaguely know about that spy-girl story. Movies, for better or for worse, have the power to do that.
WOLF: I’m sorry to push you on this, but do you think that releasing this information-or having your colleagues release this information-in the context of the film, rather than, say, on the front page of The New York Times or The Washington Post, protects everyone?
PLAME WILSON: Well, we didn’t disclose this information. But there is something to be said when you are under threat. Sometimes having a higher profile acts as sort of a protective frame . . .
WOLF: Valerie, is this movie true?
PLAME WILSON: [laughs] Yes, it is true. It is not a documentary, so there are areas, of course, that needed to be filled in.
WOLF: Did Doug Liman or the screenwriters make up what your job was? Or is the job that we see Naomi Watts’s character doing in the film the job that you did?
PLAME WILSON: That was my job.
WOLF: The one that’s portrayed in the film?
PLAME WILSON: That was my job.
WOLF: Do you think it’s an accurate depiction?
PLAME WILSON: Yeah.
WOLF: So who do you think spoke to the screenwriters?
PLAME WILSON: I have no idea. I really don’t. The Butterworths are both very smart and they just threw themselves into it. Despite the fact that they’re British, they got these themes that were universal, about the importance of holding your government accountable, of transparency. They went after it.
WOLF: So are you concerned that you or your colleagues or the people involved with the film will get into trouble now since there is what appears to be new information disclosed in the film, some of which may or may not have been classified at various points?
PLAME WILSON: I don’t even want to . . . I hope not. I don’t think so, but I don’t want to speculate. The government has, at this point . . . This is retelling. This is history. I think the government has a lot of other things to worry about right now.
WOLF: As we’ve discussed, your family has suffered through a lot. What is it like for you to see it all come to life now on-screen?
PLAME WILSON: Well, my husband’s business was completely destroyed. We were called liars and traitors in the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal and by other advocates of the Bush White House. I had to resign from my job, my career. We had small children. My concern was about the unbalanced people out there-that, for them, the CIA is a red flag. So I was deeply concerned for the safety of my children. There were some really dark days. Our marriage was falling apart. There was so much external pressure that was rushing in and there was nowhere to go. Joe and I joke about it now, but it feels like we’ve been married for 40 years because we’ve been through so much together. But we’ve come out the other side. We’re happily married. Our children are doing well. But it took a lot out of us. So seeing ourselves portrayed on-screen is surreal. Joe and I took turns being on the set [The Wilsons were both consultants on the film]. We had seen a couple of cuts of the film before, but when we went to the screening at Cannes, it was the first time that we actually sat down in a proper theater and watched it. The whole time I was conscious of the fact that I was sort of moving in and out of this permeable barrier of “Just watch the movie. Just watch the movie,” and actually getting lost in it . . . I’m biased, of course, but I think Naomi and Sean [Penn, who plays Joe Wilson in the film] both turn in powerful performances. I wouldn’t have chosen Sean, physically, to play Joe, but as he does, he completely disappears into his character. You’re not watching Sean Penn-you’re watching Joe Wilson and his family go through this. Very few people imagine that they’re going to have a movie made about a portion of their lives, or that has anything to do with them. It’s so strange. But we’re hopeful that the movie does well, because it’s about an important piece of our history.
my husband’s business was completely destroyed. . . . we were called liars and traitors . . . i had to resign from my job, my career. we had small children. my concern was about the unbalanced people out there—that, for them, the cia is a red flag Valerie Plame Wilson
WOLF: So what’s your focus on now?
PLAME WILSON: Moving ahead . . . moving on. I hope to continue to do my work and speak out more publicly on the whole issue of nuclear proliferation. After the movie comes out and things settle down a bit, I’d like to throw myself into that with more energy. And I’m writing a book of fiction and raising a couple of kids. We are enjoying our life far away from Washington.
WOLF: If there’s a 16-year-old watching Fair Game who really has no idea about any of this, what would you like him or her to take away from the film? What’s the lesson, from your perspective?
PLAME WILSON: No matter what age people are, I hope the lesson is to be engaged. Understand what your government is doing. Follow them. Ask questions. There is a price to be paid for speaking truth to power, but you can live through it. I’m often asked, “Gee, after all that’s happened to you, would you still recommend someone go into the CIA?” And I say, “Absolutely.” Whenever Joe and I speak to college students, we always emphasize public service and the idea of serving something larger than yourself and applying your brains and your expertise to something that is worthwhile. It’s not going to be a lucrative career, but I can guarantee you it will be a satisfying one if you do it right.
WOLF: So you still believe in those American ideals that took such a beating?
PLAME WILSON: Oh, I do, without a doubt. I really believe that even with all of our problems, we’re still the best nation in the world. The idea of the United States is why millions of people want to come here every year. The reality is sometimes different, and we certainly have many things to fix, but I really believe that we have in our national DNA the ability to be a great nation that leads the way to progress. How are we going to do this better? How are we going to get along better? I just think that there’s no other possibility for anyone right now to do a better job than what the United States is placed to do.
WOLF: “Placed to do.” Well put. I wanted to ask you one final question about integrity. It took a lot of courage to do what you and Joe did, to stand on principle and to keep hanging in there and saying, “This is wrong”-even when members of the most powerful government on earth were allied against you. Where do think that courage came from? What did you gain from standing up? What do you think you would have lost if you hadn’t?
PLAME WILSON: Well, I would say that during some of the worst days, I sort of thought I was shell-shocked. I am so in awe of Joe because he never lost focus. He’s much more politically savvy than I am-or certainly than I was. His anger sometimes boiled over, but he understood what the big picture was early on. He was the only one speaking for us for a long time. He, too, comes from a family of service. His father was a Marine pilot who flew one of the last planes off the Franklin during World War II before it was bombed by the Japanese. Anyone who knows Joe Wilson will tell you that he is tough. We weren’t always pulling in the same direction just because all of these mortars were going off all around us. Most of the time, I think, we would say that we would pull each other. One would be strong while the other one was just thinking, I’m sick of this. But he was the one who really understood early on what this was about and who was not prepared to give up. Of course, we didn’t know how it was going to play out. Joe genuinely thought that after he wrote his op-ed piece that it would be a two-day news-cycle thing. And, in fact, a few days later, the White House did acknowledge that what President Bush’s 16 words in his State of the Union Address-“The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa”-“should not have risen to the level of [inclusion in] a presidential speech” or however they put it. That was the closest they ever got to saying, “We’re sorry. We screwed up.” So we didn’t know how this was all going to unfold, but we’d obviously touched a nerve-or Joe’s op-ed did-because things were not going very well for the Bush administration at that particular time. And there you have Joe Wilson, who at that point was considered to be holy establishment. He was made an ambassador by George H.W. Bush. And he was going right at the heart of the George W. Bush administration’s entire reasoning and rationale for going to war, which was an alleged imminent nuclear threat. So they didn’t like that. If anything, the courage-and you don’t know you have it-came from living through it and trying to protect our children and trying to keep our marriage together in really difficult days.
WOLF: I had this notion that when people do rise to the occasion, even if it’s scary, they’re often somehow more alive subsequently. What do you think would have happened to you and Joe and your family if you had just thought, “Okay, these people are bigger than we are. They’re going to steamroll us. Let’s just be quiet and go along with it”?
PLAME WILSON: Honestly, I don’t think that was ever an option.
Naomi Wolf is a best-selling author and co-founder of the American Freedom Campaign. Her most recent books include The End of America and Give Me Liberty.
Photo: Cosmetics: Kett Cosmetics, including hydro foundation. Styling: Moses/Margaret Maldonado agency. Hair and makeup: Katie Douthit. Special thanks: Bishop’s Lodge Ranch Resort & Spa.