The spy who went out into the cold

After the Scooter Libby trial, a blizzard of publicity from Vanity Fair to “The Daily Show” and an avalanche of books by journalists and key players, what is left to tell of the Valerie Plame Wilson story?

For the CIA, apparently quite a bit. Citing national security reasons, the agency wielded its black marker to redact page after page in the outed spy’s new memoir, especially in the chapters leading up to 2003. Plame sued the CIA to release the material, arguing that much of it was already public — for example, her work as a covert operative in Europe. She lost, but her publisher added an appendix, written by the journalist Laura Rozen, that fills out the broader story. Any reader would be wise to start the book there.

The redactions still make the book a surreal read. It’s akin to becoming absorbed in a gossipy radio talk show, only to be interrupted by static for minutes on end. In one early passage, following two fully redacted pages, she recounts getting into an elevator with an older woman in a Chanel suit, wheeling in a stroller two pugs in Burberry coats. Several redacted sentences follow, after which she mentions her husband, Joe Wilson, for the first time.

Later, she describes a tour of various unnamed Middle Eastern countries in 2002, when she was working at the CIA’s Counterproliferation Division (CPD). She is munching on a “delicious local sandwich” in the desert with colleagues. A few blacked-out lines later, she states, “War was going to happen. We didn’t know when, but it was all but a certainty.” The leaps from pugs to Joe Wilson, from sandwiches to war, are dizzying.

With so many narrative holes, it is fair to say the most coherent part is Plame’s account of her struggles as a new mother of twins. Racked by exhaustion and anxiety, she falls into a severe post-partum depression for months, on one occasional unable even to make it out the door to collect the mail. If nothing else, this sad chapter bolsters Plame’s argument that while she seconded a colleague’s suggestion to send Wilson on his fact-finding mission to Niger in February 2002, she was not happy with the idea of being left alone for 10 days with her two 2-year-olds. As such, she was unlikely to have volunteered him in the first place, as her detractors claim.

No Washington tell-all book would be complete without score-settling, and there’s plenty here. Most of her targets are not surprising: her un-masker Robert Novak, much of the Washington press, the White House and the CIA itself, which failed to provide her home with extra security after getting intelligence that al Qaeda might be targeting the Wilsons.

She also devotes a great deal of ink to excoriating the Senate Intelligence Committee — Republicans and Democrats alike — in one of the juicier passages. When the GOP-run panel released its report on pre-war intelligence failures in July 2004, three Republicans on the panel issued an “additional views” section charging that Joe Wilson’s Niger trip in fact corroborated the now-debunked uranium claim, and that Plame was the one who volunteered him. Plame furiously slams this view, writing that her husband’s trip clearly cast doubt on the uranium issue. Even more damning, she adds, the panel squelched the testimony of the CIA colleague who had in fact volunteered Wilson for the trip.

This junior officer, Plame writes, was so upset after the committee report came out that he asked his supervisor to go back to the panel and correct the record. His boss nixed the idea, and the man’s wife even feared that they would face the same retaliation that the Wilsons did.

Plame doesn’t let the Democrats get off easily, either. She describes them as either too distracted with other work or too uninterested to go back and rehash the paper trail. She cites as particularly galling a quote by Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) that the panel’s Democrats were “agnostic on Wilson.”

With hindsight, Plame says, she should have spoken with CPD’s management to correct the report, and asked for a probe of how the Senate panel came to its conclusions. She also regrets not making a copy of her colleague’s original memo proposing Wilson for the trip and keeping it safe. 

“I did none of these things,” she laments. “I was much too passive, feeling boxed in, afraid of repercussions. If I spoke out I would lose my job. If I didn’t, it might doom my marriage.”

Were the Wilsons truly partisan, as their GOP detractors charge? Here the picture is muddied. Plame gave money to Al Gore for his 2000 campaign (which she doesn’t mention in the book), but until 2003, there is little political color in her narrative. She comes across as the good soldier, a loyal CIA employee who did believe before the war that Iraq probably had some WMD capability and that it was her job to find it. Her Agency identity is so ingrained that when news breaks of the CIA’s secret renditions and “black” prisons, she calls the revelations “damn embarrassing” because they expose “lazy tradecraft.” There are no lectures on due process or the definition of torture here.

By contrast, Joe Wilson had more freedom to speak his mind, and more of an inclination to do so. Plame implies, but does not say outright, that she thought he was sometimes rash. But she also writes that he was neutral on the WMD issue when he went to Niger — it was only that fall that he had turned into a war skeptic. (They were too exhausted caring for the twins to have much in the way of political discussion at home, Plame adds.)

But by the spring of 2003, his dissents were well known among some journalists and in government circles. And by June, he was told that his name would surface soon as the White House ramped up its damage control operations amid the WMD fiasco. His July 6, 2003, New York Times op-ed debunking the uranium claim was an attempt to get ahead of his potential detractors. Instead, it set off a chain reaction, starting with Novak’s column revealing Plame’s identity and ending with President Bush’s commutation of Libby’s sentence, that no one could have foreseen.

Beyond the politics, the most shattering loss for Plame from those turbulent events was the great professional cost. Her life was invested in the CIA from age 22 on, and there is a quiet grieving in her book for her lost career. To be sure, the Wilsons have started a new life in New Mexico and can reap the fruits of their book contracts and speaking tours. But the reader senses that Plame would trade that back in an instant for her old life, toiling away in the CIA’s shadows.