“Good evening. My name is Valerie Plame Wilson, and I have a story to tell you.” So began an hour-long talk by the former CIA operative, a central figure in a notorious investigation into criminal exposure of covert government agents. Wilson gave SMU’s 11th annual Louise B. Raggio Endowed Lecture in Women’s Studies Nov. 18.
During her career with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Wilson was an operations officer working on weapons of mass destruction. She found herself at the center of a political storm in 2003 when her covert identity was revealed in a syndicated newspaper column. Her outing as a spy led to the political scandal and U.S. Department of Justice investigation known as “the Plame affair.”
At SMU, Wilson discussed life at the CIA, the balance between freedom and security, and the story behind her book, Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House.
Wilson also said she was honored to be part of the Raggio Lecture Series. “When I heard of all Mrs. Raggio has done for women’s legal rights in the great state of Texas, I was absolutely stunned – first and foremost because she went through so much and broke so many traditional molds to do so,” she said. “It is because of women like her that I’m even here today as a CIA career woman.”
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What do you most want people to know about your story and what it illustrates about the decisions that were made in the run-up to the Iraq War?
Unfortunately I need to start with a bit of a caveat, so you understand some of the parameters in which I must work. The CIA has taken the position that I am not permitted to acknowledge my agency affiliation prior to January 2002 – this despite all the information out there in the public domain on who I am and what I’ve done. I can assure you that that has nothing to do with actually protecting classified information, and it is in fact further punitive action taken against my husband and myself. I just want you to know that I have to stay within those guidelines.
I served my country proudly in a career that I loved: the CIA. I got to do some amazing things. I got to jump out of airplanes, fire a variety of automatic weapons, work on counterproliferation issues – which means, essentially, keeping the nukes out of the bad guys’ hands. And then one day in July 2003, my husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times entitled, “What I Did Not Find in Africa.” And in it, he went after the central rationale that the Bush Administration gave for going to war in Iraq, which was the nuclear claim. Who can forget – and we heard it several times – that “We don’t want the smoking gun to come in the shape of a mushroom cloud”?
With the appearance of that op-ed, the Administration was infuriated. And they went after him, and then they went after me, by betraying my covert CIA identity. And what this has become should never have been a Republican issue, or a Democratic issue. This is an issue of national security. And what I think are some of the lessons we come away with, for starters, is how are we as a society going to conduct civil discourse? How do you manage dissent in a highly charged environment?
What can you tell us about the position you held with the CIA at the time this scandal broke?
I worked within the CIA’s Directorate of Operations in a place called the Counterproliferation Center. For the most part, the D.O. was divided geographically, but there were two divisions that worked transnationally – the Counterterrorism Center, and ours. You might recall that in 1996, there was a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, and that was the first time the U.S. government sat up and took notice of the emergent threat of weapons of mass destruction and what it meant. So they created a new division that would focus on this emergent threat.
I’m proud to say that the Counterproliferation Center has done and continues to do a hell of a job. I worked alongside my former colleagues to take down the A.Q. Khan network in December 2003. That ended with confronting the Libyans with proof of their nuclear program, sponsored by Khan, who is sort of a one-man nuclear entrepreneur. And the Libyans shut it down. This was a culmination of years of patient and creative operational work, and the Center continues to do really outstanding work.
How did your husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, become involved?
In February 2002, the 9/11 attacks had happened and we were well on our way to Afghanistan, but clearly there were clouds gathering on the whole issue of Iraq. A young woman who worked for me at CIA headquarters came to me clearly agitated, because she had just received a phone call from the Office of the Vice President. They had been asking about a report that had been circulating in the intelligence community about an alleged sale of yellowcake uranium from Niger to Iraq. And if true, this would be very significant, because it would prove that Saddam Hussein was seeking to reconstitute his nuclear program. But I wasn’t thinking so much about that – I was really nonplussed by the fact that someone in the Vice President’s office had called this very junior officer. I can assure you that we have entire protocols and channels formalized so that if a senior U.S. policy maker has a question about a report they’ve received, it goes down the chain of command, gets answered, and goes back up. You don’t just ring up a junior officer.
So I was still chewing on that when a reports officer said, “Well, what about Joe?” – meaning Joe Wilson, my husband. And he said that in the context of finding someone who could check out this report further. He knew Joe had served on the continent of Africa for more than 20 years as a diplomat and knew, literally, everyone you needed to know on the continent. He knew that Joe had served as our chargé d’affaires at the embassy in Baghdad during the first Gulf War, that he had confronted Saddam Hussein, that he had helped arrange the safe release of hundreds of American hostages, for which the first President Bush had called him “a true American hero.” And he also knew that Joe had done a similar mission for the CIA in previous years.
Why did the CIA think it needed to send someone who didn’t work for the Agency?
The CIA did not have an office in Niger at that time. And I can assure you that if a question is asked by the Office of the Vice President, the answer is, “How high do you want me to jump?” My boss asked me to ask Joe to come into headquarters to help figure out what to do. So I conveyed that request. I was not at that meeting, but there were really only two people who thought Joe Wilson should not go on that trip: Joe Wilson, and the State Department’s Intelligence and Research analyst. And the reason they didn’t think he needed to go was that there were already two reports in the government files that said this sale was bogus. One was from our ambassador on the ground, and the other was from a 4-star Army general.
But it was a serious question that deserved a serious answer, so Joe agreed to go pro bono. Two CIA officers debriefed him – I was not present for this part of the meeting – and the next day the reports officer showed me the report as a courtesy. I didn’t change or edit anything. And off it went to the Vice President’s office. That was the end of it. I thought, “Well, I’m glad that he could go and serve his country, but he found just what the other two reports had: nothing.” And that was that.
Can you describe what you were doing at the CIA before the war began?
In 2002, I was the head of what I can call the Iraq Task Force within the Counterproliferation Center. I was in charge of operations. My job was to look at the scientists in Iraq and figure out what they’re up to, because of course we didn’t have an embassy there since the first Gulf War. The U.N. inspectors left in 1998, and we had very thin information on what they were up to. What was the state of their research? Where were they procuring their materiel? Did they have secret caches? It was my job to lead the effort to do that.
Jumping ahead to January 2003, almost a year after Joe’s trip to Niger, President Bush gave his State of the Union address. And in it, he used the now-infamous 16 Words: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
When I heard that speech at home, I thought, “That’s interesting” – because I flashed back to Joe’s trip previously. But Africa has at least three countries that mine yellowcake uranium, so I thought maybe it was another of those, and Joe thought the same. Three weeks later, Colin Powell gave his speech before the U.N. in which he essentially had to sell the invasion of Iraq to the rest of the world. I don’t know where you were when that happened, but I was at CIA headquarters, and I watched with rapt attention. Gen. Powell, of course, had a sterling reputation, and he has served his country honorably. I wanted to see how he would construct his argument.
And as I watched it unfold, my heart turned. It was very clear that what Powell was basing his arguments on was really thin, really patchy intelligence. And I knew that. I had access to quite a bit. I went back to my desk after his speech with a feeling of dread in my heart. For the first time, I have to say, I got my head out of the operational weeds. I’d been so consumed with running safe, secure operations – making sure A got to B, making sure money and people were where they needed to be – that I hadn’t looked at the broader picture. And this was the first time that I thought, “Wait a minute: What the Administration is saying is not matching up with what I know.”
The war began soon after that. What were your thoughts as that happened?
I went to work every day for at least a month feeling absolutely sick, because I thought we had failed. I thought we had failed miserably. I thought we had just not found the right person, that we heard yes instead of no, that we should have turned this rock over instead of that one, and that there was a very good chance that perhaps Iraq did have weapons of mass destruction and we just missed them. All I could think about was the safety of our U.S. troops, that they were in mortal peril. Saddam Hussein would use WMD if he had them, because he’d used them on his own people in Kurdistan.
As the war continued to unfold, Joe was talking discreetly and privately with his former colleagues in the State Department and his contacts up on Capitol Hill, trying to get to the bottom of the statement in the President’s State of the Union address. And he was essentially told that if he wanted to do anything about it, he would to have to do it himself.
Is that why Ambassador Wilson wrote the op-ed?
Two thing happened that June to precipitate the op-ed piece. One, then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice went on “Meet the Press” and said rather dismissively, “Maybe someone knew about that [Niger report] down in the bowels of the Agency, but certainly no one in my circles.” And Joe knew that not to be the case. And secondly, Joe was told – or rather warned – by journalists that this story was about to break open, that he was going to be named, and that it was spinning out of control. So he sat down in early July and wrote the op-ed piece as a matter of principle and conscience.
The very next day, the White House acknowledged that the 16 Words did not rise to the level of inclusion in the President’s address. Joe thought it was done. He had wanted to make sure the government had told the truth, had accounted for its words and deeds, and that’s what they had done. He literally turned off his cell phone and went to play golf.
Did you think there would be retaliation for it?
Of course, we were prepared for pushback. What we weren’t prepared for was one week later, on July 14, when Joe came into our bedroom very early in the morning, threw the newspaper on the bed, and said, “Well, the S.O.B. did it.” And I knew what he was talking about, and when I opened up the paper, it was like being suckerpunched in the gut. Because there was my name, and what I really did with the CIA.
So immediately, I’m thinking the career I love is over, my network of assets is in jeopardy, and the security of my twins, who were then 3-1/2, had been put into question. All this goes through your head in a moment. And overnight we went from being very private people to being very public personas. We would read about these people in the papers, Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson, who had no relationship to us. It was very strange. It was an out-of-body experience, truly.
What then began was a multi-year campaign of character assassination. My husband was called a liar and a traitor. I was accused of nepotism because I sent him on this “boondoggle” to Niger. I was called a glorified secretary. I’m not being immodest when I say that hundreds of thousands of dollars went into my training that was instantly taken off the table. So those were some very dark days. And I finally felt, in January 2006, that I needed to resign from the CIA. The job that I loved was no longer available to me. Too much had happened. We knew that the trial of Mr. Libby was coming up, and I felt it was time to turn the page.
When did you decide to write your book, and why did you think it was necessary?
It wasn’t until I resigned that I thought about doing a book, and there were two reasons for that. One – frankly very personal and selfish – I wanted to process everything we had been through at warp speed, so I could understand what that was. And second, as this unfolded, I began to realize that this was an important story that needed to be told.
When I joined the Agency, like everyone else, I signed a secrecy agreement in which I promised not to reveal any classified information. However, I knew that there had been literally dozens of other books by former CIA operations officers. The CIA has a Publications Review Board that reviews your manuscript for any sort of classified information. I didn’t wany any special treatment, just equitable treatment.
So I submitted my manuscript for review, and the chairman essentially told me, “There’s nothing the matter with this, except we will not allow you to acknowledge any Agency affiliation prior to January 2002.” Which makes a memoir really hard. I’m joking about it, but it was absolutely devastating. I felt like I had fallen down a rabbit hole where white is black and black is white. Furthermore, I felt like what the Soviets term a “non-person.” I apparently didn’t exist. I apparently just dropped from the sky as a senior CIA operations manager in January 2002. It was a brutal time, for over a year trying to come to some rational compromise so that I could publish my book and tell the story and still protect truly classified information.
How did you manage to finish the book for publication?
Last year, my publisher and I finally felt we had no choice, after all our attempts to be reasonable had failed, to sue the CIA on First Amendment grounds – on censorship. Because clearly, that was what was happening. The case was heard last summer, and in the course of that, the government lawyer submitted to the judge a classified file that neither I nor my lawyers were permitted to see. And the judge must have thought the world would stop turning if you knew how long I had served, because she agreed with the government. So when you’re stuck with that, how do you move ahead?
Simon & Schuster had two very good ideas. One, they kept in all the redactions. If you’ve seen my book, you know it has a lot of black lines. I assure you that under 98 percent of them, it has something to do with this notion that I did not exist until January 2002. It has nothing to do with protecting truly classified information.
The other decision was that the publisher hired a very well-respected investigative journalist named Laura Rozen, and she did what investigative journalists do. She looked at the public record, she did interviews, and she wrote a 50-page afterword so that for the reader, the story is a little more coherent. She is not bound by the same rules that I was. I didn’t know what she wrote until the day of publication. There was really a firewall there. I never spoke with her, never communicated with her in any way. And for the most part, she got it right.
We are now in the appeals process of that case. I just heard today from my lawyer that oral arguments will be heard in New York in January. I look forward to pursuing it further.
You and Ambassador Wilson also have a civil suit pending in the Scooter Libby case. What sparked that decision?
I’m not normally so litigious. When my husband first broached the idea of doing this, we had disagreements at very loud volume. I didn’t want to do it. I thought it would just be emotionally and financially devastating. But as time went on and I saw the damage that was done, and when I saw what all came out in Mr. Libby’s trial, we decided to move ahead.
We did it for three reasons, the first one being getting at the truth. As you may recall, one charge on which Mr. Libby was convicted was obstruction of justice, which meant the Special Prosecutor [Patrick Fitzgerald] could not get to the bottom of what happened. The second was for accountability. My husband and I happen to believe that public servants should not use their positions and your tax dollars to pursue a partisan agenda. And finally, for the future. I hope that my case is an anomaly, and that we don’t have to deal with anything like this again.
That case is also in the appeals process, and I also learned today that we will be applying to the Supreme Court for their review of the case.
What has your life been like since your resignation from the CIA?
We moved about 18 months ago from D.C. to Santa Fe. Joe and I woke up one day and said, “Why are we still in Washington?” We didn’t have jobs. We didn’t need to be there. And we’re very happy in New Mexico. It’s been good for our family as well. Our twins will be 9 in January. They take everything in stride. We’ve tried not to isolate them, but to insulate them as best we can. But it’s important for them to understand why we’ve done what we’ve done. When they’re older and they really understand what’s at stake, and they ask us, “Where were you when it counted?,” we want to have a good answer for them.
And frankly, Joe and I never lose sight of the fact that despite how personally difficult this has been for us, it is nothing compared to the sacrifice of the families of men and women in uniform in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the anxiety and pain they face every day.
What do you see as the important issues for the next administration?
We have just been through a truly historic election. We are on the cusp of great opportunity, but also a time of crisis. And it will be absolutely fascinating to see how this new administration will deal with what might be called the excesses of the current administration.
I was fortunate enough to meet with about 30 students before the lecture tonight for a question-and-answer session. And my question to them was, “How many of you are considering public service for a career?” I was so pleased to see about half the hands go up. Because despite what happened to me, I would urge any young person to consider a career in public service. I think it needs to be all hands on deck right now. There are too many things that need to be fixed, and we need all the bright young minds we can possibly attract to go into government and to work for the public good. It sounds corny, but it’s true: You are working for something bigger than yourself. And that does carry a sense of satisfaction in and of itself.
There’s a quote from Thomas Jefferson, which I think best encapsulates what I’ve experienced. Jefferson wrote, “When the people fear their government, there is tyranny. When the government fears the people, there is liberty.”
What special challenges exist for women who are interested in intelligence as a career?
Let me address the issue of sexism in the CIA: Of course it’s an old boys’ network! That’s where it started – that East Coast, Ivy League group in the aftermath of World War II. But I would say that just like any large organization in the United States, it’s come along. It’s slow, and there are dinosaurs, but it’s coming along.
I grew up in an era when Title IX was coming downstream – equal funding for men’s and women’s sports – and I had parents who never gave me any indication that my gender should affect what I do. They always said, “Just show up and try your best.” So I entered into the work force with this in my head.
Of course, reality quickly alters that sense of confidence, but I will say I was fortunate. I did not have supervisors that were very sexist. The way I coped with it was that I didn’t go for things I knew I couldn’t get. I went for what I could get. And in many parts of the world, women are virtually invisible, and therefore nonthreatening. So I took what could be called a disadvantage and turned it into my advantage.
If Ambassador Wilson had been the covert agent rather than you, do you think he would have been outed the way you were?
That question is a real what-if. I do know that as this story played out, and I was repeatedly described as a “glorified secretary,” there was a real undertone of misogyny. The implication was, “How could a girl do any sort of important work at the CIA?” That note was definitely there. But I think it was the whole package that made it a juicy story. I think the story really mushroomed because it was the first time anyone with the serious credentials that Joe had, had really challenged the Bush Administration.
There’s a very interesting book about Dick Cheney by Bart Gellman, called Angler. And in it David Addington, who is now Cheney’s chief of staff, makes it very clear that they were going to keep pushing and pushing and pushing [on the limits of power] until they met resistance. I like to think that we were on the vanguard of that resistance.
Do you believe that Scooter Libby will get a full pardon?
Oh, I think there’s no doubt. Last July, on the eve of his sentencing, President Bush decided to commute his sentence – which meant that he still had to pay the fine, but he didn’t have to go to jail. It’s only a matter of time. I think Libby is probably first on the list as President Bush leaves office. He will be rehabilitated, and he will collect his government pension.
In your opinion, what were the White House’s genuine motives in the run-up to the Iraq War?
This is obviously just my personal opinion, but I will say that the best way I can understand it is that it was a truly perfect storm. You had a president in place who was maybe a little unsure of his own foreign-policy credentials. You had a vice president who apparently has had a chip on his shoulder since Watergate about the diminishing power of the executive branch and was looking for a way to shore that up again. You had neoconservatives in positions of power and prominence throughout Washington – and in 1998 their dogma was laid out in the Project for a New American Century, in which they talk about expanding America’s power and influence primarily through the use of the military, and that they would need something catastrophic along the lines of Pearl Harbor to initiate this process and remake the Middle East.
So lo and behold, 9/11 happens, and it’s like a cascade. The smoke is literally still clearing from the World Trade Center, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is leaning over the target map of Iraq on a conference table at Camp David. It took no time at all for them to make that leap and those decisions. And as more and more information becomes public, I believe it will become more and more apparent that the decision to go to war was made months before the public was informed of such.
I’ve never had any confidence in the notion that [the war] was for control of oil, but there is something to be said for having power over a very strategic part of the world. That’s the only way I can understand it: that everything was in place to allow this to happen. And here we are. Historians will spend a lot of time looking at that, but the fact remains that we’re still there now, and our fellow countrymen are being killed every day, and we have to figure out how to get out of it.
In view of our location on the SMU campus, is there anything in particular you’d like to see brought out into the open and put on display when the Bush Library opens?
I’m thinking maybe my scarf and glasses from that infamous Vanity Fair photo. I do not mean this in any disrespectful way, but I’m curious to see how the President and his advisers will seek to show this administration. What are the highlights of their 8 years in power? I don’t mean that as a laugh line. It’s going to be very interesting to see how they seek to portray that.
As someone who’s obviously very passionate about her work, how did you represent yourself externally to friends and acquaintances when you were with the CIA?
It would depend on where I was and what I doing and what my cover was. I will explain a little bit about cover: On one end you have official cover, which is when you have an overt affiliation with the U.S. government. That might be, for example, that you are a diplomat in a U.S. embassy overseas, when you are in fact an intelligence officer. So the taxpayers are really getting two for the price of one, because you’re expected to do all your embassy work as well as your real job.
The other end of the scale is non-official cover, or NOC [pronounced knock]. That is when you do not have any official affiliation with the U.S. government. You might be anything from an architect to a business person. That’s what you do during the day, and what you really are doing is CIA work. That is saved for the most sensitive cases, as you might imagine. There are lots of stops in between, and it depends on what you need to do and what the mission is.
You can imagine how difficult it is in the age of Google to maintain that fiction and how deep your cover may have to be, depending on whom you’re meeting. Sometimes superficiality is all you need, but sometimes you need a backstory so deep that no matter how many times someone clicks on Google links, you are who you say you are. It’s very complicated and difficult to do.
At the time that I was outed, I think my neighbors thought I was a soccer mom. I said I was a consultant, but everyone in Washington is a consultant, so no one pays any attention to that. I think it’s fair to say that my neighbors were truly shocked.
If or when Scooter Libby is pardoned, do you think anyone else in the Bush Administration will be brought to court?
We do have our ongoing civil suit, so I would love to take Karl Rove’s deposition. And I do think it will be very interesting to see how the new administration deals with the sins of the old. There are so many problems facing the country today. They may take the temperature and decide the American public simply has no appetite to pursue any additional investigations. I’ll just say that that’s essentially what happened when Clinton came into the White House after Iran-Contra. They said we really just needed to move on. But guess what – the same people showed up again, and now you have convicted felons on the National Security Council.
Certainly, this administration has amassed so much power in the executive branch, and power is not relinquished easily. So whatever the intentions of President-Elect Obama, is he going to voluntarily give up that power? Maybe he’ll retain it. We’re in for interesting times.
Can you talk about the ethical challenges you face when a senior official asks you to do something illegal when your life is on the line?
As intelligence officers, as military people, as diplomats, when you’re serving overseas you’re not serving as a Democrat or a Republican. You serve as an American. You’re going to have personal feelings, and your own moral compass may tell you that maybe you don’t agree with the administration’s policy. That has always been a difficult question. Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of resigning in protest. You may have two kids in college, and you’d like to be able to do it, but it’s going to be so painful that you cannot. In the case of the CIA, I do know for sure that dozens of Agency operations officers walked out the door. We’ve lost hundreds of years of operational experience – good, professional people who want to serve – because they couldn’t take it any more, it was so politicized. It’s going to take a lot to right that boat.
Specifically, to the question of morality, no one wants to open up the Pandora’s box of torture and what was allowed and what was not. It is going to be a nightmare to pursue that. To the best of my understanding, and I don’t mean to sound like I’m splitting hairs, it was contractors to the CIA that were doing this sort of detention work. It was not CIA staff officers – not that it makes much difference, because they still had oversight. I don’t know for sure, but for the most part I would think they were given assurances and promises that this was perfectly legal, that this request came from the White House. And you snap to when you do it.
Everyone has their own moral compass about what they’re being asked to do. My career was based on asking foreigners to put their lives and maybe their families’ lives in jeopardy for the sake of United States security. For me, I thought the greater good was served, and I always tried my absolute best to ensure their safety. But I think as we look back on these last 8 years and the lessons learned, a lot of people will be asking themselves, “What is the right thing to do? What is the balance between freedom and national security?”