Portraits of Resilience – Valerie Plame Wilson
On Sept. 11 I was in the CIA headquarters. I was a senior operations manager. I was working on something called the Iraqi Task Force, and our mission was to try to understand what was going on with the presumed WMD program of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. We had no embassy in Iraq since the first Gulf War, and in 1998 Saddam Hussein kicked out the U.N. weapons inspectors. So our intelligence on Iraq, which the Administration was beginning to focus on even prior to 9/11, was really thin. My job, and my former colleagues’ job, was to get to the scientists and understand what was the state of their R&D, what his weapons capability looked like, where were they procuring the material. And we were building up, ramping up our worldwide operations to try to get decent intelligence to senior U.S. policymakers.
I was a covert operations officer until my true identity and affiliation was exposed in a column by a conservative writer in July 2003. When you are in that covert category, you cannot tell even your closest friends who you really were. In my case, my husband knew, my parents knew, and that was about it, outside of the intelligence community.
Obviously 9/11 was a jolt to the entire intelligence community. We had just been attacked on our soil, like what had happened at Pearl Harbor, and what this meant without doubt was we were at war. Everyone in the CIA understood that. The energy and the intensity that radiated from that moment on to what everyone was doing, whether you were the secretary or the DCI [Director of Central Intelligence], was palpable. What that translated into for our task force and the people that were there was, we have very little understanding of what really Saddam Hussein has in terms of weapons capability. Does he have a nuclear capability? There were concerns about that, particularly after the first Gulf War, when the CIA discovered, quite to their surprise, how advanced his nuclear program was. So there was everywhere that surge of energy and focus. Until that point, for some years, I think it’s fair to say that the CIA was drifting a little bit. Because of course, the Cold War was over. The raison d’être for which it had been established had evaporated. And everything snapped into place Sept. 12.
Just a couple months after 9/11, there had been a report circulating within the intelligence community about this alleged sale of yellow-cake uranium from Niger to Iraq. Five hundred tons. And if that were true, that would be really significant, because it would be indicative that Saddam Hussein was in fact seeking to reconstitute his nuclear program. As we were discussing this, a reports officer heard about this and he said, “Well, what about Joe Wilson?” — my husband. He suggested that Joe go investigate this report to feed something back, for a couple of reasons: my husband had been the chargé d’affaires in the embassy in Baghdad during the first Gulf War. He’d negotiated the release of the hostages with Saddam Hussein. He had lived and worked in Africa as a diplomat for over two decades, and he had done a previous classified mission for the CIA. He was a known quantity.
So he did go to Niger, and when he came back he was debriefed immediately by analysts, and he said, “I looked into this thoroughly. It’s totally bogus, and here’s why.” That report was disseminated throughout the intelligence community. In fact, it matched two others — one from our ambassador and another from a four-star Army general.
Fast-forward to January 2003, and the President gives the State of the Union address. In it, he says the now infamous 16 words: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
I remembered, of course, thinking about my husband’s trip, but there are other countries in Africa that mine this yellow-cake uranium, so maybe the President was referring to one of those. But it was strange.
Then Secretary of State Colin Powell gave his speech before the U.N. I personally was very interested to see what General Powell had to say, how he was going to make the case to go to Iraq, a preemptive war. This was really unprecedented. And as I listened to him, I was experiencing cognitive dissonance, because what he was saying did not match the intelligence to which I had been privy. It was the first time that I pulled myself away from our truly frantic-pace operations trying to find people that would give us intelligence on the state of the nuclear program or other WMD. And I felt — I was deeply disturbed, because for me it was the first time that I truly recognized that the Administration’s rhetoric was not matching up with the intelligence. But of course, we went to war in March 2003. And it quickly seemed to dissolve into complete chaos. It wasn’t a cakewalk as so many had been suggesting it would be.
During this time, there’s stories in the press about an unnamed retired U.S. ambassador who had gone to Niger, investigated these reports, and come up with nothing. My husband was warned, finally, that this story was going to break open, and you’re going to be named, and if you want to do anything about it, you’re going to have to do it yourself. In July 2003 — July 6 — he wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times titled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa.” He went after the central rationale that the Administration gave for their war, which was an imminent nuclear threat. My husband wrote 1,500 words that said, I went on this mission and investigated this particular claim, and there is no validity to it. I believe that the intelligence has been manipulated. And clearly the Administration was feeling perhaps a bit vulnerable at that time because no WMD had been found and immediately went into oppositional mode. A week later my name and true agency affiliation was exposed in a syndicated column. So I knew my career was over, my assets with whom I had worked were in jeopardy, and it was a completely different ball game. It was like falling down Alice’s rabbit hole.
Curiously, what gets lost in this story is — literally the next day — the White House acknowledged that those 16 words did not rise to the level of inclusion in a presidential speech. So after a fashion they really apologized. I mean, that’s as far as it got. But that wasn’t the end. For years my husband and I were subjected to a real character assassination campaign. I was accused of nepotism, that I had sent him on this boondoggle. He was called a traitor, I was called a glorified secretary, we were both called liars, and we had all the power of the Administration and everything that they had at their fingertips thrown at us to try to discredit us and make the story go away. But it did not.
Ultimately it led to the conviction on four out of five counts for Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby. For my husband and myself, the most important count was obstruction of justice, because as [special counsel] Patrick Fitzgerald said, it was like throwing sand in the umpire’s eyes — you couldn’t get to all that really happened. Of course I would’ve liked to see justice further meted out, and there are plenty of potential targets in that, but we put our faith in the justice system, and we’re grateful, ultimately, that the truth has come out. Except for very few people, in the conservative wing of this country, almost everyone now will say, Yes, the intelligence was manipulated, and the American people were sold a war that maybe wasn’t in our best interest.
I had the best job that I thought there was. My husband’s business was destroyed, and we saw things happening to our country that we had both served collectively for a long time, loyally. We didn’t recognize some of the things we were reading about in the media — from unwarranted NSA wiretapping to what appeared to be the rounding up of young Muslim men in this country just because their skin was dark or they had an Arabic name. And the list of abuses goes on. We are and remain very sad about that chapter in our history. I don’t think history will judge those decisions well, because we are now 10 years since 9/11, but we’re almost eight, nine years into two wars, and the amount of blood and treasure that has been spent by this country — not to mention the civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan — is incomparable, and I’m afraid it is a legacy that will endure for generations.
It took a couple years to acclimate myself, and feel like I found some sea legs. I found it mortifying truly to hear my name on the TV, listen to the radio, or in the newspapers. They were talking about these people, Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson, that had nothing to do with us or who I knew we were. But a couple years ago we moved out to Santa Fe, N.M., and we really have worked hard to rebuild our lives professionally and personally. And I feel grateful, because I get to work on issues that I still care about deeply, namely counterproliferation — making sure the bad guys don’t get nuclear weapons — but in a much more obviously overt capacity. I’m an advocate for Global Zero. When I was working at the CIA, I was trying to stop or delay or impede the proliferation of nuclear weapons, to rogue nations — to nonstate actors and so forth. I’ve evolved to the point now where I truly believe we need to have as an objective a nuclear-free world, a world without nuclear weapons, because you have to drain the swamp. The genie really is out of the bottle. And it’s going to cost about a trillion dollars over the next decade for the world’s nuclear-declared nations to maintain and build and develop their nuclear programs. A trillion dollars. No one needs to be told that, certainly in the United States, that is money that could be directed toward making our country stronger in other ways.
President Obama is a huge advocate as well. He declared in Prague [in 2009] that this is our No. 1 security concern. I think there is a window of opportunity to actually move the ball forward. It’s obviously going to take an orchestrated, disciplined, multilateral approach, but I just think you have to do something. You have to start somewhere.
I think our story is illustrative of how important it is to hold your government to account for their words and their deeds. We live in what I believe to be the greatest democracy. With all its failings, it’s still the best model that we’ve come up with, and it is really imperative that people take the last decade and the lessons learned and make sure that you apply them and hold your public officials to account and ask those questions. I dare say that in general the media would say that they failed in the run-up to the war with Iraq by not asking really hard questions. And it is truly painful to see where we are as a nation today as a result of our extension in Afghanistan and Iraq and all the negative things that have come from that.
I’ve had enough of politics. But it has been a pleasant surprise in a way because I do have more of a public voice and I can advocate for things that I care about deeply, whether it’s my school board in Santa Fe or postpartum depression or writing a spy thriller or working on behalf of Global Zero. I get to do things. Doors have opened for me that were not otherwise available.