Last night, before an intimate group of mostly women, Valerie Plame Wilson—a poised, voluble blonde—relived the political saga that turned her life as an under-the-radar CIA spy into that of a public target. In the space of a few years, Plame became the subject of countless editorials and the scapegoat for the Bush administration's erroneous involvement in the Iraq war; her family received death threats; her CIA cover was blown. But since relocating from Washington, DC to Santa Fe, Plame and her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson, say they've been welcomed—a fact evidenced by her relaxed demeanor and uncanny ability to laugh at even the darkest times of her life.
Plame's talk, structured partly around introducing her 2007 book,
, was hosted by Women's Voices of Santa Fe, an organization that meets for monthly discussions at Collected Works. The book, Plame said, is so full of CIA-mandated redactions that its publisher, Simon & Schuster, added an afterword by investigative reporter
to serve as an unofficial source for the story's missing details.
Still, she told the audience, “My story is one that has waxed and waned, and it's hard to keep track of the narrative.” She took it upon herself to retell her story, beginning in February 2002, when Plame was part of the CIA's task force on Iraq. One day, she recounted, Plame received word from one of her staffers that then-VP Dick Cheney's office had passed on a report that Iraq had bought large amounts of yellowcake uranium from Niger. Ultimately, the CIA decided to send Wilson, Plame's husband, to Niger to verify the report; he had decades of diplomatic experience in Africa and had volunteered to look into the report pro bono.
Wilson found the report unsubstantiated, but the Iraq war began anyway, with what Plame describes as “those 16 words” of then-President George W. Bush's
in January 2003: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Wilson was astounded; that July, he wrote the now-famous
New York Times
.” (Halfway through Plame's talk, Wilson made an appearance and compared reading his op-ed to being at Woodstock: “Five thousand people were there; five million say they were there.”)
What happened next was a public firestorm the Wilsons won't easily forget. A week after Wilson's op-ed was published,
revealed Plame's identity as a CIA operative. Shortly thereafter came what Plame describes as “a sustained and very well-orchestrated character assassination” by the Bush administration.
“It was shocking to be such a public person,” Plame told last night's sympathetic audience. “I found it bewildering and very frightening.” Even when poisonous newspaper articles and death threats caused Plame to fear for her family's safety (she and Wilson have two young children), the CIA denied her request for additional security. Finally, Plame said, they decided to fight back.
“Secretary [Hillary] Clinton, like her or not, is a woman who's walked through fire, and she knows what it's like,” Plame said. “She would call us and say, ‘Hey, keep your eye on the ball—the reason the attacks are so furious is because you're getting to them.'”
“The other thing [Clinton] said was, ‘No matter how bad it gets—and I know how bad it gets—it's important that you stay in the public square,'” Wilson chimed in. Plame resigned from the CIA in 2005; in 2006, she and Wilson filed a civil suit against I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Dick Cheney, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Karl Rove. (The Supreme Court
this June, a development Plame calls “not surprising but disappointing.” Another suit is pending regarding the CIA's redactions in Plame's book.)
They left Washington in 2007, the week of Libby's
. “I think we gave at least as good as we got,” Wilson says. “It's about controlling the narrative. We now control the narrative.”
Indeed: The audience was rapt, peppering Plame and Wilson's impromptu tag-team talk with expressions of enthusiasm and sympathy. One woman confessed that her morning exercise consists of kickboxing the imaginary head of Dick Cheney. But even though history may have come down on Plame's side—most people now admit that the Iraq war was begun under false pretenses—the Obama administration hasn't, at least not unequivocally.
“They haven't touched us with a 10-foot pole,” Plame says, noting that some of the Obama Justice Department's actions seem vaguely Bush-esque. “Power is not relinquished easily, no matter who has it,” she adds. “The Obama administration, no matter what they say, [is] not going to willingly hand it back. It will have to be fought for in each and every case.”