Blowback is a spy story co-written by Valerie Plame with the thriller novelist Sarah Lovett, featuring a CIA operative, Vanessa Pierson, who is intent on protecting the world against the proliferation of nuclear weapons — much like Plame herself before she was “outed” as an undercover agent by Scooter Libby and others in the Bush White House during the aftermath of our Iraq invasion. Plame, who is married to Ambassador Joe Wilson, recounted that tale in the non-fiction Fair Game. It sold well enough that her publisher suggested she consider penning an espionage novel based on her own experiences as an undercover agent. Blowback is the result and likely the first in a continuing series featuring Vanessa Pierson. Plame, who now lives in Santa Fe, came to Denver’s Tattered Cover bookstore in LoDo for a book signing two weeks ago.
She remains a stunningly attractive woman of a certain age. Not the kind of spy you would expect to encounter, but more the one you pray you will meet. Plame gave short shrift to her book, summarizing it as an inquiry into a secret Iranian weapons facility and the international arms merchant who is attempting to buy a warhead there. She critiqued most spy thrillers for their gun violence, sexualization of women, and emphasis on serially sleeping with informants in order to uncover the truth. Apparently Vanessa Pierson is far more businesslike — a strong female protagonist who can locate the bad guys without dropping her knickers. It will be interesting to see whether there is an audience for this more realistic portrayal of what is likely often a very boring job — in between the very exciting bits, of course. Plame appeared more interested in revisiting her own personal grievances with the betrayal of her identity by her own government.
It was reported that former Colorado Senator Gary Hart would appear with Plame, but he was not in evidence on Tuesday evening perhaps deciding that a public appearance with another flashy blonde might push the boundaries of discretion. Plame reminded the crowd of a hundred or so booklovers that her husband was identified by President George H.W. Bush as a “True American Hero” for his service in Baghdad during the run up to Desert Storm. It was Wilson’s op-ed in the New York Times (“What I Didn’t Find in Africa”) regarding his failure to discover any evidence that Saddam Hussein had been attempting to purchase yellowcake uranium in Niger that opened the can of worms regarding the truthfulness of the Bush Administration’s rationale for war. It wasn’t long before both Plame and Wilson were roadkill in Washington’s nasty game of leaks to favored reporters. Plame, by all accounts an effective secret agent, lost the job she clearly loved in violation of federal laws that should have protected her identity. Wilson and Plame’s civil lawsuit for damages against Libby apparently continues a desultory trajectory through the federal courts.
During a question-and-answer period, Plame provided a few glimpses into the true nature of the ongoing global nuclear threat. She observed that Iran lives in a “tough neighborhood” — where they are hardly the only government seeking nuclear capability. And while she indicated she was opposed to an Iranian bomb and that she would prefer to see an international agreement outlawing all such weapons, she identified Pakistan as perhaps the most dangerous nuclear power in the world. Observing that Al Qaeda has extensively infiltrated the Pakistani intelligence services, it doesn’t require a lot of imagination to understand that Iran has genuine security concerns aside from antagonists in Israel and the United States. In response to a question about Wikileaks and its potential for damaging American security, she shrewdly observed that any system that provides “top secret” clearances to 1.4 million Americans, including civilian contractors, is almost certain to leak.
She also intimated that the vast expansion of security services since 9/11 has produced the perverse result of increasing compartmentalization within the intelligence community, aggravating the problem of the right hand not necessarily knowing what the left hand is doing. She called for a robust and regular conversation across these rapidly sprouting silos. Plame made enough sense that I found myself wishing she would tackle a non-fiction dissection of American security services. In the meantime, she is already at work with Sarah Lovett, conveniently a Santa Fe neighbor, on volume two in the Vanessa Pierson adventures. I find myself curious enough to give Blowback a read.