Former CIA officer Valerie Plame might be one of America’s most famous spies. She has inspired a Hollywood depiction of her life, pop music songs and a question on the game show “Jeopardy.”
Plame says that her public role today is another world compared to the 20-year career working covertly overseas for the Central Intelligence Agency, chasing down nuclear threats and lying about her true job even to her closest college friends.
Plame, 52, described to a rapt audience of about 400 at Wells Fargo Center of the Arts in Santa Rosa what it was like when her covert status was abruptly blown, and her career with the agency ended, in a storm of political retaliation after her husband Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson penned a July 2003 op-ed in the New York Times.
In the column he described how he believed that the George W. Bush administration exaggerated the threat of Iraq’s nuclear weapons program in order to justify its decision to invade Baghdad in March 2003.
“We were labeled liars, traitors, I was accused of nepotism, a member of Congress called me a glorified secretary, I guess because girls can’t do ops,” Plame said.
Plame said she and her husband were shamed, their lives utterly upended, and they were compelled to move away from the Beltway to the relative isolation of New Mexico. The experience showed her that politics can obstruct the truth.
“The lesson we drew from that is how important it is to hold your government to account for their words and deeds,” Plame said.
The political backlash not only ended her career, it also led to the conviction of Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney for his role in the leak that made her name public.
Plame spoke Tuesday in the second event of the Sonoma County Women in Conversation series, produced by Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat. Veteran CBS newswoman Lesley Stahl kicked off the series last month.
Plame answered questions posed on stage by Press Democrat Executive Editor Catherine Barnett and others provided by audience members.
She weighed in on the current presidential election, saying “the stakes this year could not be higher” in the campaigns for the Democratic and Republican party nominations. Plame supports Hilary Clinton and has donated to her campaign.
“The thought that Donald Trump would have access to our nuclear command and control is unimaginable,” Plame said in response to a question about the presidential race.
Plame’s 2007 memoir, “Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House” told much of what she could about her career undercover for the U.S. government and what it was like to witness members of the George W. Bush administration, one by one, repeat unfounded basis for the invasion of Iraq.
The CIA has prohibited Plame from discussing the first 17 years of her career, which remains classified.
On Tuesday, she said that a fair assessment of the recent Iran nuclear deal has been obscured by “incredible rhetoric” in public discussions. But the pact was in her opinion, “far better than expected,” noting that the United States “hadn’t spoken to Iran for 30 years.”
“It might not work, they might cheat, but I’d much rather try diplomacy,” Plame said. She answered questions about her experience as a woman in the CIA and how she views the need for more women in positions of power.
“We are still obsessed with Hillary’s hair,” Plame said of the former secretary of state. “She’s been first lady, senator, secretary of state, and we still think she only had a little trim. We simply don’t view male figures with the same scrutiny.”