The exposed CIA agent and her ambassador husband are in the news again with the release of ‘Fair Game,’ the highly anticipated film about their lives. Here’s the backstory.
The movie based on Valerie Plame’s book, Fair Game, opened today. But last August, I met the former spy and discovered a very different woman.
Plame has transcended her identity as the elusive CIA agent whose family rarely knew where she went or what she was doing. She has survived the character assault by the Bush administration that began in 2003, which shattered her former identity and discredited her husband, career foreign service officer Joe Wilson. The movie shows how close those attacks came to tearing apart their marriage.
Last summer, Plame was convincing when she told me, “I feel more integrated now. I know who I am. I feel comfortable in my skin” – which, amazingly at the age of 47, shows no discernable lines. “I’m proud of this movie. I believe we are a strong enough nation that we can handle seeing our dark side.”
There wouldn’t have been a movie if Valerie Plame had refused to join her husband in his pugnacious campaign to expose the Bush administration’s use of false evidence to justify going to war in Iraq. She was afraid of the harm that could come to her children and herself, as well as to those she had cultivated as assets in the Middle East, if she spoke the truth to power. In Plame’s training as a CIA agent, paranoia was hardwired into her psyche. She learned to trust nobody. She never gave up information. She was certain she had no breaking point. Ultimately, it was her husband who forced her to see herself as a player in a much broader drama, one that repeats itself in American politics. Their story is as chilling as the Nixon Watergate saga. Joe Wilson finally convinced his wife that “It’s what can happen when a government’s powers are unchecked.”
As early as 1997, Wilson told me, he suspected that “Dick Cheney and his neo-conservative crowd had been marketing a war in Iraq. It went back to their Project for a New American Century.” Plame gives her husband credit: “Joe smelled their marketing campaign before I did.”
In 1997, Wilson wrote an article based on his experience as ambassador to Iraq. The article warned against the idea of starting a war in that volatile part of the world to rid the country of Saddam Hussein. He sent a copy to Brent Scowcroft, former National Security Advisor to former President George Herbert Walker Bush. Within an hour, Scowcroft was on the phone to Wilson saying, “The President needs to read this,” and asking if he could take it over to the Clinton White House. “Of course, that’s what we wrote it for,” Wilson said.
Several days later, Wilson says, he got a letter from Bush Senior, saying, “I agree with everything in your article.” But when his son was later successful in marketing the war to take out Saddam, Bush senior kept silent.
Fast forward now to July 2003, when readers to the Sunday New York Times awakened to a stunning guest editorial by Joe Wilson. He warned that the White House of George W. Bush was twisting intelligence about Saddam’s nuclear weapons program to exaggerate the threat and justify the invasion of Iraq. Wilson knew the intel wasn’t true because he had been sent by the CIA to Niger, as a former ambassador to that country, and found out the documents were fabricated.
Dick Cheney would never forgive Wilson for exposing the lie behind Bush’s rush to war. As the movie Fair Game shows, he later used his position as vice-president and uber-power in the Bush White House to “engage in a political vendedtta” against Wilson. He gave the job to Karl Rove, otherwise known as “Bush’s brain.” Rove devised a plot to to expose Valerie Plame’s identity as a covert CIA agent. Vilified by the media for putting an American agent and her sources in grave danger, Rove claimed she was “fair game.”
But since it is a federal crime to reveal the identity of a CIA agent, Rove made sure his fingerprints couldn’t be traced. The movie shows how Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, did the dirty work for his boss.
I first met Plame in Santa Fe, where she and her family relocated once they were able to escape Washington in 2009. “We felt trapped in Washington,” she told me. “We were never Washingtonians — inside the Beltway was only a parking space between our overseas assignments.” But once Plame’s identity as an undercover CIA operative was leaked to syndicated columnist Robert Novak in 2003, the couple’s nightmarish confinement of six years began. A federal investigation was launched, which led to a trial against Libby, and he took the fall for Cheney and Rove.
I wondered why Novak didn’t appear in the film. “Novak was a blade of grass,” Plame says contemptuously. The Department of Justice finally convicted Libby of perjury, obstruction of justice and lying to investigators, but that took until March 2007. “We had to stay in Washington to see it through,” says Wilson.
In the end, the Wilsons’ satisfaction was to be short-lived. Three months later, President George W. Bush commuted Libby’s sentence so he wouldn’t have to spend any time in jail. Rove rose from the sloughs of contempt to wield more power than ever in 2010, by raising enough right-wing money from anonymous donors to engineer the Tea Party’s sweep of the House of Representatives.
When Plame agreed to meet me at the Helmsley Park Lane Hotel for a final interview a few weeks ago, it was her husband who turned up first. “Valerie’s upstairs getting hair and makeup,” he said, happy to steal the limelight his wife prefers to avoid. Plame had written that she was desperate “to stop the slow slide of our marriage into nothingness.” I asked Wilson about the climactic point in the movie where Naomi Watts, playing Valerie, gathers up her two toddlers and runs out on their marriage, fleeing through a downpour to her mother’s home. Was Wilson prepared to sacrifice their marriage to pursue his war with the Bush White House?
“If Valerie was taking the kids to grandma to separate from me, I missed that completely,” he said. “But then, I’m a guy.” He peered at me over his reading glasses with a smirk, “You wrote Passages, you know about that.” He said he had to read his wife’s book to know how close she came to leaving him.
Plame joined us at the breakfast table wrapped in a black shawl over a black pants suit, looking very cloak and dagger. But up close, she is animated and even projects openness. “I feel content in my new integrated identity,” she says. She had no idea how divided she had been when she was sworn not to tell her own husband anything about her work. Too often she had to be away from her twin babies, born in 2000.
Then came the bloodless confrontation with her CIA supervisor in 2004. “It’s over,” he told her. She couldn’t believe she was being sent out into the cold. She had been such a valuable spy. “The package that I come in” — a beautiful blonde Westerner – enabled her to take on the role of a businesswoman at international nuclear weapons conferences and pass on intelligence to policy makers. She could also arrange to sit next to a valuable scientist on a plane and do a cold pitch to him to work for U.S. intelligence. “Whether you’re in law or business or the CIA, you’re that much more appealing if you are attractive and can pull people in,” she observes.
Her new identity combines that of author – Plame is now at work on a fiction novel — and analyst at the Santa Fe Institute, a non-profit research and education center. She still finds her skill set as a recruiter useful. She ensnared playwright Sam Shepherd to work at the institute for the next year. As Mrs. Joe Wilson, she says, “We have a really happy marriage; we’re blessed with two beautiful children, and I have two step-children.” She says she loves the work she is doing as an anti-nuclear activist. In the film Countdown to Zero, she appears as herself to warn of an Armageddon unless we rid the world of nuclear weapons.
The couple hasn’t completely purged their sense of betrayal by the Bush White House. “The assault by the administration and their right-wing allies was really debilitating ” Plame recalls. “Who anticipates that both of you could be blown up?” she asks rhetorically. Wilson adds, “They found my clients and basically took down my business.” Today, he is a director of the Symbion power company, a contractor doing work for the US in Iraq and Africa. “We’re the un-Blackwater,” he says proudly.
“We got out of Washington as soon as we could,” the couple says. It took them two years to choose a remote hideout. Weighing the advantages of Maine, Oregon, or the Bay Area, they finally settled on Santa Fe, which is close to Los Alamos National Lab. “Valerie had gone to Santa Fe a lot,” explains Wilson, “because if your job is to screw up somebody else’s nuclear weapons program, you go talk to your own nuclear weapons makers to figure out how best to do it.”
Plame smiles her enigmatic smile. “I always thought about Santa Fe: ‘nice place,’” she says.
Editor’s Note: As the bestselling author of sixteen books, including Passages, Gail Sheehy has changed the way millions of women and men around the world look at the stages of their lives. Her latest book is the critically acclaimed Passages in Caregiving. A contributing editor to Vanity Fair since 1984, she has profiled national and world leaders, including both Presidents Bush, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Margaret Thatcher, Saddam Hussein and Mikhail Gorbachev.