Then my cell phone rings, and I find that myself and the former CIA spy have been sitting at opposite corners of the lobby for the past five minutes waiting for each other. So much for tradecraft. Smooth move, James Bond.
For the few readers who don’t recognize her, Valerie Plame was the CIA Covert Operations Officer who was illegally identified by the office of the Vice-President of the United States in 2003 in a partisan effort to punish her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson. After being dispatched to Niger in 2002 to investigate claims that Sadaam Hussein was attempting to purchase yellowcake uranium, the Ambassador published a New York Times op-ed entitled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa.” Soon after, Plame was named in an article by journalist Robert Novak, the Washington Post’s “Prince of Darkness,” on the word of White House staffer Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Karl Rove and Secretary of State Richard Armitrage. With that single article, Plame’s CIA career was over.
I was curious to meet Valerie Plame partially because she remains something of an enigma. Characterized by some insiders as a “glorified secretary,” Plame endured incredibly harsh field training, speaks four languages, and is said to be spectacularly frightening with an AK-47. Her memoir, Fair Game, is one of the most redacted books in CIA history, as the former intelligence operative isn’t even allowed to acknowledge her relationship with the CIA prior to 2002. It’s a shadowy, contradictory history that doesn’t reveal itself easily.
I’m pleased to find that Plame is as smart, articulate and opinionated as I had hoped, and more candid than you might think. A decade after that ordeal, we’re face-to-face to talk about Plame’s debut novel, Blowback, co-written with Sarah Lovett, a well-known writer of a psychological suspense series starring Dr. Sylvia Strange. This novel stars Vanessa Pierson, a covert ops officer in the CIA who is pursuing the mysterious Bhoot, a ghostly nemesis who is the key to ferreting out a secret Iranian weapons facility.
“Sarah and I wrote the book that we wanted to read,” Plame explains. “We have a great working relationship and she really knows the craft of writing, which I am still learning, to say the least. We wanted a strong female protagonist who is not stupid and not collecting intelligence using sex. What an idea! Getting to create a character is one of the wonders of fiction. Vanessa really corrects some mistakes that I wish I had been smarter about.”
The book is an exciting mix of propulsive action grounded by the very real tradecraft informed by Plame’s career with the agency. Vanessa is a NOC—it stands for “Non-Official Cover,” meaning that she operates independently of any governmental protections. The designation is so serious that if a NOC is killed in action, their only acknowledgement is an anonymous star on the CIA’s memorial wall.
“I think the attraction of being a NOC is that it’s much more entrepreneurial,” Plame says. “If you’re an inside officer, you’re working inside an embassy and it’s much more bureaucratic as a result. Your judgment is more important than ever because there’s no one to fall back on. If you screw up, you screw up big. NOCs manage some of the most sensitive cases for the reasons that you can imagine—no government affiliation.”
One of her pet peeves is the portrayal of the CIA in the media in general, not to mention the depiction of female intelligence agents as the sort of sexy superwomen played by Angelina Jolie in the film Salt. She was very pleased when fellow CIA veteran and novelist Robert Bauer told her at a recent event in Los Angeles that she had gotten the tradecraft in Blowback right.
It was clear to me when I read Blowback that Plame has drawn heavily on real-life experience to lend weight to her fiction. One character in the book is a Pakistani physicist named Asad Z. Chaudhry, who bears a telling resemblance to A.Q. Khan, the “Merchant of Menace” who was personally responsible for a huge spike in nuclear proliferation during the last decade.
“Khan was really dangerous and amoral,” Plame acknowledges. “I’m thinking a lot about how he is, and I’ve read quite a bit about him. He did everything he did under the guise of Pakistani nationalism, but he was really working for whoever had the money. That was easy, to take someone like that and spin the tale. You’re also going to find out who Bhoot is in the sequel. He straddles two backgrounds: English and Pakistani. As a result, he was never fully accepted into either society and therefore carries a huge chip on his shoulder.”
Nuclear non-proliferation is an abiding interest of Plame’s and she is popular as a public speaker on nuclear security and the role of women in intelligence. In addition to her work as the Director of Community Research at the Santa Fe Institute, Plame works on behalf of Global Zero, the international movement for the elimination of all nuclear weapons. These are roles she had to back into following the circus of her exposure and the subsequent criminal and civil trials that followed.
“I loved my career but the truth is that millions of people have lost their jobs through no fault of their own,” she says. “The circumstances surrounding that change were a little bizarre, I’ll admit. I did Fair Game, which was really more in that moment of ‘Wait, what just happened?’ I was just mortified by all that attention. I would say the light bulb went off when I narrated the documentary Countdown to Zero. All of a sudden I realized I could use my voice and my so-called ‘notoriety,’ and my expertise to serve a cause I really care about. Then it became about something I care deeply about, rather than being about me.”
Plame is asked often about the triangulation of the revelation of the NSA’s Prism surveillance program, the disclosures of CIA contractor Edward Snowden and the leak of classified materials by Private Bradley Manning to Julian Assange’s Wikileaks organization. She expresses a surprising amount of ambivalence on the upset in the intelligence sector.
“What is clear from the Snowden case is that we need better channels, protocols and whistleblower protections,” she says. “Snowden obviously felt he could not do this through open channels, and he’s right. I think Bradley Manning’s treatment in incarceration shows that fact. We don’t know all the facts about what Snowden had or what he tried to do but one thing is clear. We need to have stronger channels for someone to speak up when they think something is wrong.”
The years following the disclosure of Plame’s identity were difficult ones, depicted accurately as terrifying both in Plame’s memoir and the accompanying Hollywood film Fair Game. It’s good to see that she’s in a much different place today.
“I don’t think of myself or Joe as a whistle-blower,” she says. “Joe says that he did what he thought his duty was as a citizen. He was the first establishment voice to say that the reasons they gave for going into Iraq didn’t match the reality of the situation. They had the Ambassador and his blonde CIA wife and by pure coincidence, I was working on tracking weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in the run-up to the war. I was just sort of a casualty of that action.”
We’re also pleased to report that while Blowback was submitted to the CIA’s Publications Review Board for vetting, it has survived intact.
“I’m not curing cancer here,” Plame laughs. “This is just a spy thriller. Yes, it’s built around the building of a secret Iranian nuclear plant and part of what I did in the CIA was nuclear non-proliferation, so it’s something I care about. It’s fun to think about again.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.