It’s rare to meet real people behind the headlines. But a few weeks ago, Valerie Plame and her husband, Joe Wilson, traveled to my new hometown of Taos, N.M., to give a public presentation to a crowd of about 100.
Plame, a former CIA operative, came into view in 2003 when she had her cover blown by orders of the Bush White House. This act, which effectively ended her career, was committed as a vendetta against Wilson, a former ambassador. He had written an article for the New York Times accusing the Bush administration of blatantly lying about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq during the build up to war. History, of course, has proven that Wilson was right.
Since her dismissal, she has published a nonfiction account of her ordeal titled “Fair Game” and is about to launch a series of spy novels. More importantly, she is involved with the organization Global Zero, which works to end nuclear proliferation.
I entered after the talk began and squeezed into a space by the door. Plame came across as very grounded and straight-forward, an attitude she reinforced by declaring that her former work as a CIA agent in no way resembled the violent and over-caffeinated antics one found on shows like “24” or “Homeland.” In real life, intelligence gathering is all about human interaction and, as she emphasized, once you pull a gun, you’re doing the wrong thing. It’s a slow, careful and very intimate process. Likewise, she considered torture both morally odious and ineffective.
After her presentation, there was a question-and-answer session divided into two parts. The first was an interview with a local reporter with a set of prepared questions. Naturally, the subject of whistle-blower Edward Snowden came up. Plame was asked rather bluntly, is he a traitor or a hero? She answered deftly, asserting that the question missed the point in that everyone was focusing on the messenger and ignoring the message.
For her, the issue was more about the “abuses of government power,” which should concern all Americans regardless of party affiliation or who inhabits the Oval Office.
Her husband, standing on the sidelines, offered that if sitting at the supper table with Snowden, he would enjoy a more honest conversation than he would with any of Snowden’s critics.
This answer said much about Wilson’s style. I liked this guy. Pugnacious, outspoken and a born fighter, one gets the feeling that he would be just as happy in the boxing ring as in a foreign embassy — especially if his opponent was a neo-conservative, the type of creature that sold a phony war to the American people and tried to ruin his family’s life. Wilson later joked that he carried a supply of sharpened stakes with him in case he ran into some stray “chickenhawk” neo-cons on the street.
When asked about the Benghazi episode, he had nothing but withering contempt for the Republican politicians who sat safely behind a desk while criticizing those who risked their lives on the front lines of Foreign Service. His advice to Hillary Clinton when confronted by their self-serving outrage was to “punch them in the nose.” Hillary, of course, would not. Wilson just might.
Plame then talked about her efforts with Global Zero. To her, the most dangerous nation in terms of nuclear weapons is not Iran or even North Korea. It is our “ally” Pakistan, which controls so many and has been recklessly selling parts and parcels of bomb-making apparatuses to any lunatic or terrorist who has the cash. The situation is almost as bad in the “Stans,” the unpronounceable nations of central Asia. She shared a story of an unnamed official who did, in fact, sell a small amount of nuclear fissionable material to a shady buyer. What was his motivation for such a dire act? She answered that he merely wanted money to buy a new refrigerator. The crowd gasped. On such trivialities hinges the fate of humanity.
The second half of the Q and A was open to the public. I raised my hand and asked the last question. I noted that in February 2003, millions of American (including myself) marched in the streets of many American cities, making it clear that we weren’t buying Dick Cheney’s lies. Was anyone in their diplomatic or intelligence circles, I inquired, curious as to why we were out there in such numbers?
Plame gave a slight smile but it was Wilson who answered. He wanted me to know that “I was out there with you,” speaking on college campuses to forestall the countdown to war. There were others in government who agreed with him. In the end, they were all “steamrollered” by the White House. He ended his speech by giving me the peace sign. “Peace,” he then roared. I responded in kind. Everyone cheered. I blushed.
And with that, the evening was over.