Inside Valerie Plame's Quixotic Mission to Buy Twitter-and Shut Down Trump
Can the ex-spy take away the president’s megaphone before he tweets the world into Armageddon?
Nearly 15 years after former C.I.A. operative Valerie Plame had her covert status leaked to the press by members of the George W. Bush administration, the outed spy has a new national security mission: saving the world from Donald Trump. She has been keeping busy in the years since she retired from the C.I.A. and moved, with her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, from Washington to Santa Fe, writing spy thrillers and raising teenage twins. She turned one of her books, a memoir about the 2003 scandal that bears her name, into a movie starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts. But it is her obsession with nuclear weapons that has inspired her most recent, and most quixotic, bout of activism.
This week, Plame, who works closely with counter-proliferation group Global Zero, announced a new crowd-funding campaign to buy a controlling stake in Twitter and force the company to ban Trump from the platform. “Time and again his use of this huge global platform has major consequences in the real world,” Plame writes on her GoFundMe page. “Trump has already brought us closer to nuclear war than any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis. We can’t take Trump’s nukes away (yet!), but we can take away his biggest megaphone and stop him from tweeting armageddon.”
The plan is ambitious, to say the least. Plame is seeking to raise $1 billion, in what would be the largest crowd-funding campaign of all time. Similar plans went nowhere when a group of shareholders petitioned Twitter to sell itself to its users earlier this year, nor when Mexican currency traders floated a bid to buy the company and immediately shut it down. Still, Plame is deadly serious about the idea—and thinks her activist investor strategy, as unrealistic as it is, is the best possible way to push Trump off the platform. (If she can’t buy a significant stake in the company, Plame says she’ll donate 100 percent of the money she raises to Global Zero.) Here, the ex-spy talks to the Hive about the limits of free speech, how she would use the $1 billion, and why threatening nuclear war should violate Twitter’s terms of service.
The Hive: How did you come up with this idea?
Valerie Plame: Well, John Oliver joked last week about how we never imagined that the invention of Twitter would lead us to the brink of nuclear Armageddon. A good chuckle, but the people who understand how crises escalate—I worked on counter-proliferation at the C.I.A.—we’re not laughing very hard. It is deadly serious. The threats he has posted with regard, most recently, to North Korea—”fire and fury,” this sort of casual use of this platform—is appalling. And I’m seriously afraid that we will stumble into a nuclear war with North Korea.
I’ve been working with Global Zero. They are a great organization leading the resistance against nuclear war and the elimination of nuclear weapons. And we came up with the idea of, “Wait, we can do a GoFundMe site and try to buy a controlling interest in Twitter.” Because their rules do say that they do not allow violence. And nuclear war, I think, falls into the rubric of violence.
Raising $1 billion would give you an 8 percent stake in Twitter, at its current valuation. That’s a bigger position than many activist investors take before seeking changes at a company. What’s the end goal?
It’s a very ambitious goal. I recognize that. One billion dollars is a whole bunch of money. But the real hope in launching the campaign is to shine a spotlight on how dangerous Trump’s use of Twitter really is. We don’t have to sit by while Trump uses his enormous global platform to undermine our national security. We would love to be able to actually force Twitter’s hand to live up to its rules, explicitly forbidding hate speech and encouraging violence.
It seems like if this were successful, it would inevitably incite a political fight with the president.
He has lots of other platforms! And he can use Twitter. I am just objecting to the fact that we could potentially stumble into a nuclear war. Whatever you think of Trump, I think most people would agree he is impulsive, and we certainly have an impulsive leader in North Korea in Kim Jong-un. That’s an unholy combination.
But the ultimate goal is to kick Trump off?
I think we would try to convince Twitter to live up to their rules. Perhaps he would tone it down a little bit. Look, again, the goal is really ambitious, but no matter what happens, I’m not keeping this money for myself, I’m not going to financially benefit in any way, I’m donating every last penny to Global
A group of Twitter shareholders tried something similar last year, when they petitioned to turn the company into a user-run co-op. The board ignored them. What would you do differently to ensure a more successful outcome?
If we get a controlling share, we can extend our influence in the company and put a proposal forward at the annual shareholder meeting
It sounds like a long shot.
I couldn’t put odds to it, but I’m going to give it my best shot. A lot of people are paying attention to this. We find that his use of Twitter—not just on nuclear issues, but across the board—is embarrassing, is humiliating to have our president speak like this. I don’t care if you are for having Mexico pay for the border wall, or you want to repeal and replace Obamacare, or if you want women to have complete access to reproductive rights—I don’t care. The fact is, if you don’t get the nuclear issue right, none of the other ones matter.
Have you talked to anyone at Twitter about this?
No, I have not.
Have people been generally supportive or critical of the campaign?
It falls in two camps: those who are really supportive and have contributed, and on the other side the two things I’ve seen—I try not to spend too much time on the comments—would be they believe this somehow infringes upon free speech. That isn’t how free speech works, actually; first of all, the First Amendment is to protect the people, and their free speech, from the government, and not the other way around. Second, there are limits to free speech. You cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theater or incite violence. I would put unintended or intended nuclear war into the “violent” camp.
You’ve been pretty active on Twitter in recent months. Lots of tweets about Trump and the resistance and things like that. Who do you follow?
There’s so much incoming. You have to be careful because sometimes snark is so easy, it’s a fallback position. I didn’t know her, but there’s a former C.I.A. ops officer, her name is Alex Finley. She’s very clever. I like John Oliver. You like smart, funny people who are pointing out the absurdities of the world we’re living in. This word has been way overused, but we’re really in an unprecedented time.
I started a few years ago, picking and screening because I had a couple of spy thrillers coming out. My publisher was like, “No! You really have to be on social media!” I’ve taken to it. It is fun. There’s a lot of hate out there, and I’ve gotten a lot of hate about this, as you would imagine. But people say things online that they would never say to your face. It is certainly an of-the-moment way of communicating, and I want to be sure Trump doesn’t use this so we stumble into a nuclear war.