Valerie Plame Wilson was an undercover operative in the CIA’s counter-proliferation division. That line of work is also known as “spying,” and in that capacity she made covert efforts to delay, deter and thwart rogue states and others from obtaining nuclear weapons. She performed such work for two decades, until her career was effectively ended after Washington Post columnist Robert Novak revealed her identity in a July 2003 column.
The fallout from “Plamegate” further divided an already partisan Washington, as accusations flew that the unwelcome revelation was made for political reasons (to embarrass or discredit her husband, Joe Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador to two African nations, who had just penned a New York Times op-ed piece casting doubt on the weapons of mass destruction narrative that had justified the Bush administration’s Iraq War).
Now Plame is combating fallout of a different kind. As a “movement leader” of Global Zero— an initiative to completely dismantle all of the world’s nuclear weapons — Plame is helping to kick off a high-profile campaign this week. This initial effort will culminate on April 5, a date that marks the four-year anniversary of a speech that President Barack Obama made in Prague, in which he “state[d] clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
Plame stopped by The Huffington Post offices in New York to talk about the Global Zero initiative.
Huffington Post: What are the specific details of Global Zero’s proposal to completely dismantle all nuclear weapons by 2030?
Plame: What we’re doing in launching this campaign this week, is taking two steps:
One, we’re calling on President Obama to further reduce the nuclear arsenals in the U.S. and Russia. We’ve made some good beginnings with the New Start Treaty, but a lot more can be done. And that was backed up by the Cartwright report. General Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who along with Chuck Hagel [current U.S. secretary of Defense] was an author, as was Thomas Pickering [former U.S. ambassador to the U.N.]. They released this report last year, testified before Congress, saying that we can cut to below 900 nuclear warheads, and still in no way have a deleterious effect on our national security.
The next really historic step is urging President Obama to call together the nuclear powers and hold international negotiations to reduce nuclear arms. That’s never been done. But nuclear weapons are a global problem and it has to be solved globally. We in no way are naive to think that just because Russia and the United States agree to reduce their arsenals, that everyone else will fall in line. “Gee, I didn’t think of that — what a great idea!” But it’s a great start.
So, to kick off the campaign, we have a short video, narrated by [actor] Michael Douglas. And then there’s also a letter signed by over 75 former prime ministers, presidents, defense chiefs, generals, students. There’s a petition and a declaration — recently passed by the European Parliament — all urging President Obama to pull together an international coalition of the nuclear powers and sit down and begin this negotiating process. We can’t afford these weapons. They don’t do what they’re supposed to do, which is keep us safe.
It is a step-by-step process. This is not something that’s going to happen next week or next month — maybe not even in our lifetimes. But I think we have this incredible opportunity right now. We have a president, in his second term. He’s clearly looking for legacy. And I know he believes deeply, personally, about this. He wrote, in fact, his senior thesis at Columbia on the twisted logic of nuclear deterrents.
HuffPost: How does the Global Zero plan account for rogue states, or non-compliant signers of an agreement?
Plame: It has to. One, it calls for highly intrusive inspections. You have to have the political will to do that — it is a step-by-step plan. And, of course, you have those outliers. North Korea is the errant teenage child, aren’t they? Or toddler — they’re holding their breath until they get their way.
Again, just the fact that U.S. and Russia have reduced their nuclear arsenals — and hopefully will continue to do so — is not reason to believe that everyone else will sign on. But it does begin to create an environment, a context, in which others go, “Okay, let’s just ratchet down the tension here.”
What happened after the Cold War was that this was an issue that sort of got pushed under the rug. “Phew, we don’t have to worry about that anymore — thank goodness!”
And it’s gone out of vogue, to even think about it or care about it. But the fact remains that with the proliferation of nuclear technology, as well as terrorist threats, this is a much more volatile, and much more dangerous world, than it ever was — even at the height of the Cold War, with some 70,000 nuclear weapons deployed on each side.
I believe, firmly, we’re at the point now where we have to drain the swamp [meaning eliminate all nuclear weapons]. There’s no way you can possibly intellectually justify, “Well, it’s okay for the Western Judeo-Christian countries to have nuclear weapons, but not for a country like Iran.” That logic goes nowhere fast.
HuffPost: Have the dynamics of a global war on terrorism — where nuclear weapons are not necessarily an advantage — played a role in the willingness of states to reduce nuclear armaments?
Plame: As Pentagon planners or any other defense chief looks out over the global horizon, they go, “Now how is it that these really expensive weapons — to both manufacture and maintain (in the United States, it’s $60 billion *a year*) — aren’t really providing us with defense, national security?” How is having one nuclear weapon going to deter any sort of terrorist action? It doesn’t. The threats of the 21st century are changing — the whole landscape has changed. When you have the former head of the U.S. strategic command — he was the head of all the nuclear forces — George Lee Butler, saying things like this whole notion of nuclear deterrents is really an intellectual slippery slope, that it doesn’t really work — it doesn’t translate well to the real world. The whole mutually assured destruction, which I’ve always loved that expression — it just doesn’t apply to this world in the 21st century.
HuffPost: How have hawks around the world received Global Zero?
Plame: (Laughs) I think it’s fair to say that, starting with Reagan, the notion of, “we cannot continue down this path” is increasingly mainstream, and those that continue to oppose it are more and more outside the mainstream. I really do think that this has been inverted. We’re talking about a long period of time, back to Reagan, and some rather fallow periods in there. But if you want, take the whole morality issue out of it. It comes down to: affording it, and does it really keep your country safe? And is it effective? And I think even hawks, both in this country and around the world, are starting to say, “it just isn’t providing us with what it had previously.”
HuffPost: How connected to the psyche of a nation is its membership in the nuclear-arms club? The very notion of being a “superpower” — is overcoming that psychologically an obstacle on the road to Global Zero?
Plame: It *is* a psychological barrier. Who doesn’t want to be in the Big Boys Club, right? And, maybe if you saw “Countdown to Zero,” the scenes of rejoicing in the streets of Pakistan with the Muslim Bomb, or in India, as well. It really is seen as a sign of prestige. But you can’t sustain that, when it costs billions of dollars a year. In a country like North Korea, where the citizens have no choice but to starve millions at the expense of building up a nuclear program — you cannot be considered a part of the community of nations if that’s how you’re going to pursue it. So, while you’re absolutely right, that psychological pull is there. But can you imagine, if Obama was to say “Here’s the road ahead,” and to begin this?
All of our weapons are still on hair-trigger alert. And this campaign, and what we’re urging Obama to do in future negotiations is let’s take these off hair-trigger alerts. ICBMS, no longer useful — they are just a big HIT HERE target — big bull’s-eye around these silos. That’s what’s happening with proliferation, where you have terrorists seeking nuclear capability: You can either buy a bomb, build a bomb or steal a bomb. They can’t build it without being caught. So there is a very active black market, as we saw with A.Q. Khan [the Pakistani nuclear scientist considered the “father” of that country’s nuclear program; he later confessed to selling nuclear secrets to several countries, including North Korea and Iran].
HuffPost: How did you personally get involved with Global Zero, and has that created any difficulties, either for you or for the movement?
Plame: I was first contacted by producer Lawrence Bender in 2009, who asked me to help narrate and appear in parts of “Countdown to Zero.” He’s the same one who did “An Inconvenient Truth,” and I realized that they were serious, and it opened up a door for me to remain engaged about something that I felt so passionately about. I loved my job, and I was very proud to do it. I thought my days of nuclear [work] was over, and it is, of course, in a covert sense, but I do it in a much more overt capacity now.
HuffPost: Have you ever ordered any dessert with yellow cake in it?
Plame: (Laughs) Not my favorite, but... In preparing that piece that Joe and I did, I was re-reading his op-ed piece... (sighs) I’m glad that’s in the rear-view mirror. Those were some tough years there. I became a public person overnight, which took me years to come to terms with, and it was nothing I ever wanted, nor desired. But, if you’re going to be a public person, to be able to use your voice about something you really care about and have maybe a couple of people pay attention? Huge. So that’s the silver lining.
And if the whole leak hadn’t happened, I would be overseas now, I’d be doing my job, I’d be chasing bad guys, making my government salary. And thinking I had the best job in the world. But that didn’t happen. So I get to work with great people at Global Zero. This is the issue of this century. We can’t continue the way we are.
One last point I like to make: All the things that you maybe care about personally, whatever that spectrum looks like: School reform, the environment, women’s choice: whatever it might be — if you don’t get this one right? None of the other ones matter. Because we can just forget about it. If a nuclear bomb goes off in any city, anywhere in the world, the fear and the ripple effect in this country would be so severe, it would put everything else on hold.
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