Valerie Plame - an Interview
After Valerie Plame’s cover as a CIA operative was blown in 2003, ending her espionage career, she had to reinvent herself. The former spy has become the author of spy novels. “Blowback,” her first mystery with co-writer Sarah Lovett, follows a female CIA agent. Plame’s book tour recently brought her to town.
BOOKS: What books did you bring on your book tour?
PLAME: I just finished reading the “The Letters of Ernest Hemingway,” edited by Sandra Spanier, Albert J. DeFazio, and Robert Trogdon. I loved that. I read any nonfiction by Hampton Sides, who is a friend of ours in New Mexico. I just finished “Hellhound on His Trail,” which is about the hunt for James Earl Ray after he assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. I’m also reading Stella Rimington’s “The Geneva Trap,” a Liz Carlyle thriller, because she has a female protagonist like in my book.
BOOKS: Have you read any books that really captured the world of the CIA?
PLAME: I do like John le Carré and Ian Fleming, but I have yet to find a realistic portrayal of a female protagonist either in books or in pop culture. “The Triple Agent” by Joby Warrick tells the story of the CIA base in Afghanistan that was blown up in December in 2009. He shows how the bomber, a Jordanian doctor who was helping women and children during the day, became increasingly radicalized. You see the cascade of errors that led to such a tragedy. I knew the two female operatives who were killed in the explosion.
BOOKS: Do you read much about the world of espionage?
PLAME: I enjoy a Bond movie as much as anyone, but my reading tends to be much more across the board. When you’re inside the profession every little thing they get wrong irritates you. There is a book called “Horse Soldiers” by Doug Stanton about a CIA paramilitary group that went into Afghanistan after 9/11. They went into the mountains on horseback to work with the Northern Alliance to fight the Taliban. “Horse Soldiers” should make Americans feel proud.
BOOKS: Do they assign reading as part of your CIA training?
PLAME: During the recruitment process, which is quite extensive, at some point they gave me a reading list, books on the CIA. I read some of those. Then as you develop your expertise you read deeply on that. Mine was nuclear proliferation so I read far and wide on that, books such as “Command and Control” by Eric Schlosser about America’s nuclear arsenal and an accident with a nuclear missile. That was riveting.
BOOKS: Did you find a lot of other readers in the CIA?
PLAME: Many of the operations officers have a deep love of history and are very curious about the world. As a result there were a lot of readers. A mentor of mine recommended Graham Greene’s books.
BOOKS: Did any books influence your choice of careers?
PLAME: The first book I ever read on espionage was “A Man Called Intrepid” by William Stevenson about a World War II spy. I must have been a young teenager. I thought, “What do you know. People actually do espionage as a career.’’
BOOKS: When you had your cover blown did reading help you get through what must have been a difficult time?
PLAME: I read for a better understanding of US political history, especially to have a better understanding of the rise of the neoconservatives. I read “The Imperial Presidency” by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. about the rise of presidential power and how it crystallized under the second Bush administration. That was great. I read “Imperial Life In the Emerald City” by Rajiv Chandrasekaran about the post-war occupation of Iraq, which was riveting.
BOOKS: Did that reading help?
PLAME: It did. When you have a framework, you can look at the news and understand it better. There are a lot of codes, a lot of sayings you begin to understand better when you know the history of the situation you find yourself in.