Valerie Plame, America’s most famous ex-spy, finds her new identity
Democrat Valerie Plame — the former CIA operative running for Congress — campaigns by pitching in at Pancakes on the Plaza in Santa Fe on July 4. (Valerie Plame campaign staff)
SANTA FE, N.M. — Valerie Plame angled her face toward the sun. As someone who spent so much of her life in shadows, concealing her identity as an undercover operative for the CIA, she seemed to have gotten used to the golden light of New Mexico, energized by it, even. Energized enough — or perhaps foolish enough — to give up the privacy that was once so brutally ripped from her to run for Congress.
This fall morning, sitting outside a turquoise-painted diner called Harry’s Roadhouse, where she knows the owners, Plame — who is running as a Democrat — was taking notes and listening intently to an environmentalist with a fluffy white mustache talk for an hour about ranchers, the Mexican wolf and soil.
“What’s not in that farm bill? Holy moly!” Plame said at one point, referring to the 2018 piece of federal legislation that, among other things, legalized the growth of industrialized hemp — which Plame somehow knows enough about to casually mention.
On the patio at Harry’s, Plame was hard to miss with her blond hair, blue jeans and a pristine white short-sleeve shirt. She looks astoundingly good, at 56, as if the high-altitude desert air has preserved her skin since the day she arrived here 12 years ago. She’s joined artists, aging hippies and retirees in finding sanctuary in this charming town of oddballs. Attire at nearby tables included cowboy hats and Patagonia fleeces. Someone, somewhere, was surely wearing a bolo tie.
Speaking at town halls in high school gymnasiums. Visiting Native American reservations. Hearing concerns about irrigation. This is the new fabric of Plame’s second life in New Mexico, the life she was forced to create when senior officials in the George W. Bush administration publicly leaked her covert CIA identity, destroying her career and thrusting her into the center of a political scandal about the rationale for going to war with Iraq, a scandal that reached deep into the White House.
Ex-spy Valerie Plame is running for Congress
Former CIA operative Valeria Plame has reinvented herself from an ex-spy ousted by Bush administration officials to a congressional candidate. (Jada Yuan/The Washington Post)
Plame wasn’t a whistleblower back then. She just happened to be married to one. Her husband at the time, former U.S. ambassador Joe Wilson, had written a scathing op-ed accusing the administration of manipulating intelligence to make it seem as if the possession of a nuclear weapon by Saddam Hussein was imminent. The next week, he and Plame opened up The Washington Post to see a conservative columnist naming Plame as Wilson’s wife — who worked for the CIA in nuclear counterproliferation.
Wilson hadn’t so much blown a whistle as thrown righteous dynamite with his name attached.
“I was collateral damage, I guess,” Plame says today. “Whatever you want to call it.”
Now she’s the most famous ex-spy in America, experiencing political deja vu. Her reemergence comes at a time when President Trump and congressional Republicans are threatening to reveal the identity of another CIA employee who’d very much like to stay hidden: the whistleblower on the Ukraine call.
“I feel personally for this whistleblower. I know what he’s going through,” says Plame. “His career is over. His world, it’s already been upended. I don’t think he’ll remain anonymous for long.”
For those not following the news back then, it’s hard to grasp what a huge deal “Plamegate” was in its time. At stake were the lives of her covert assets overseas and the safety of her family.
Plame with then-husband Joe Wilson, who died in September, at the opening of the 2010 movie “Fair Game.”
Plame with then-husband Joe Wilson, who died in September, at the opening of the 2010 movie “Fair Game.” (NIKKI KAHN/The Washington Post)
Four years after the outing, Plame and her family fled Washington for one of the most sparsely populated states in the union. Their twins, Trevor and Samantha, were going into second grade. Wilson had seen his international consulting business fall to ruin in the scandal, too.
Why here, of all places? “It felt remote and safe,” says Plame, “and both of us were very, very alert about our security situation.”
Moreover, Plame loved it. She’d visited Los Alamos National Laboratory — birthplace of the atomic bomb and 40 minutes northwest of Santa Fe — many times in her old life while doing classified work. She was entranced by the landscape.
“And when it became absolutely clear that we needed and wanted to get out of Washington, D.C., this is the only place I could consider coming,” she says in a stump speech she’s given all over the state.
“I had moved 22 times as an adult.”
Pause. “I’m not moving again.”
It always gets a laugh.
Plame's 'huh' moment
In many ways, the exposure of her secret identity became her whole identity, the thing she could not escape no matter how hard she tried. The year that she left Washington, Plame published a book, “Fair Game,” about her ordeal. The CIA censored it so heavily that it might as well carry the subtitle, “Text Has Been Redacted Here.”
Even the story of how she met Wilson, 13 years her senior, at a party at the Turkish ambassador’s house is missing.
The book became a thriller starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, from the director of “The Bourne Identity.”
Plame with actress Naomi Watts, who played her in “Fair Game,” at the Cannes International Film Festival in May 2010.
Plame with actress Naomi Watts, who played her in “Fair Game,” at the Cannes International Film Festival in May 2010. (Mark Mainz/AP)
She wrote a couple of well-reviewed spy novels with New Mexico author Sarah Lovett about a female CIA operative.
She flew off to give speeches sometimes, mainly as a source of income, slowly getting comfortable with her now-irrevocable status as a public figure.
Mostly, though, she was a soccer mom who volunteered for local nonprofits. “I didn’t want our kids to be isolated,” she says. “But they really couldn’t care less about their parents being famous or being on the news. They’re like, ‘Did you come to my soccer game?’ ”
Running for Congress wasn’t in the playbook, Plame insists. Then in March, Tom Udall, the high-ranking senator from a dynasty that has dominated Democratic politics in the West, announced he was retiring.
“And I thought, ‘Huh,’ ” says Plame.
Before Plame’s “huh” could cohere into a thought, Ben Ray Luján, a Democrat who has represented New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District (which includes Santa Fe) for 10 years, announced he’d be going for Udall’s seat.
“And so Ben Ray’s seat opened up,” says Plame. “And I thought, you know, I could do that. And I can do it well.”
Besides, now the twins were 19 and off at separate colleges in California, and here was a chance to define herself as something other than their mom and the ex-spy with the movie about her. A chance to be proactive rather than reactive. A chance to reinvent herself as congressional candidate and passionate New Mexican Valerie Plame.
'She's fresh. She's sincere.'
Plame was among the first to declare in May. Then, the pileup of declarations began. An open congressional seat in this northern district is so rare. It’s the same district that Democrat Bill Richardson held for 14 years before becoming governor of New Mexico. Only four people have held it since it was created as the state’s third congressional post in 1982. All of them have been men.
Plame’s race is a field of nine, a free-for-all of Democratic first-time congressional candidates scrambling to win the June 2020 primary, since this part of the state is so blue it’s a wonder Republicans even bother trying.
Her opponents will stress that this has been her community only since 2007, but Plame’s pitch is obvious. She has a national name. She will certainly garner attention if she goes back to Washington, attention that she could then use to put a spotlight on northern New Mexico and attract resources.
Plame testifies before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on March 16, 2007.
Plame testifies before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on March 16, 2007. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
After Harry’s and a nap, Plame changed into black suede boots for a meet-and-greet with 15 older, white liberal voters in the spacious Santa Fe home of a retired art dealer. She was joined by her entire ground staff at the time: campaign coordinator Michelle Barliant, who’d raised her kids playing soccer with Plame’s, and a young finance director, Daniel Garcia.
One man asked her why he and other New Mexicans should give her his vote. Plame answered without hesitation: “Because I get to work on Day One. I don’t have to wait around for seniority. I’m pretty sure my phone calls will be returned promptly.”
Also, she added, “I, unfortunately, know how Washington works.”
Attendees seemed impressed: “She’s fresh. She’s sincere. She’s bright. And she wants to serve,” said Landt Dennis, a former journalist. “It’s an interesting election because she’s an Anglo — and she’s a blond Anglo! And here, Anglos vote for Anglos and Hispanics vote for Hispanics.”
If fundraising is perhaps the biggest determinant of who will win, Plame is way, way out front. A detailed report from the Albuquerque Journal shows she raised nearly $447,000 in the third quarter, and nearly $686,000 overall — toward a goal of $1.5 million to $2 million for the race — much of it in small donations (average: $26).
That’s practically double what her nearest rival, New Mexico native and social-issues defense litigator Teresa Leger Fernandez, has raised — though Leger Fernandez has a powerful endorsement from Emily’s List.
Plame’s haul is largely attributable to her notoriety and that slick campaign ad (her first and only) that looked like the trailer to a blockbuster spy movie and went viral in September. In it, Plame drives a speeding Chevy Camaro backward on a dirt airstrip outside of Albuquerque, just like they taught her in CIA training, while her voice-over says, “We’re going backward on national security, health care and women’s rights.”
Then she whips the car around 180 degrees, steps outside, and emerges from the dust cloud to say: “Mr. President, I’ve got a few scores to settle.”
In her first campaign ad, Plame drives backward on a dirt road.
In her first campaign ad, Plame drives backward on a dirt road. (Putnam Media/Valerie Plame for Congress)
That really was Plame driving. They did the stunt 43 times until the director had the shot he wanted.
One of her opponents, Santa Fe District Attorney Marco Serna, soon after came out with the first attack ad of the campaign, featuring footage from Plame’s video and a voice-over that begins, “Some people drive fancy cars and want us to think they’re a female version of James Bond.” Then Serna comes out riding a horse, as the voice-over talks about how New Mexicans want “someone who understands our values.”
The perception of being “not from here” is far more likely to affect her in the highly Catholic north where people tend to vote along ethnic and regional lines, according to Brian Sanderoff, an Albuquerque pollster. Of the top tier of candidates, Plame is one of two without a Hispanic last name in a part of the state that contains most of New Mexico’s Native American population and where the Hispanic population (known as norteños) dates back over 400 years.
Plame’s first, crucial task is to win Santa Fe (population 84,000) with its growing legions of white liberals known for high voter turnout, particularly in a presidential election year, says Gabriel Sanchez, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico.
The rest is going granular, visiting rural communities that are dying out amid a lack of jobs and crippling rates of drunken driving and opioid abuse. Plame’s territory is nearly half of the fifth-largest state, by land mass, and her new normal is road tripping across its canyons, mesas, mountains, plains and sacred sites to stand up in diners — often alone — to make her case to voters who’ve never heard her name.
“I reject the notion that you have to be born in a place to love it or to want to serve,” Plame says. “But if people aren’t going to vote for me because of that, then I’m never going to change their mind.”
Grief muddled by divorce
2017 was a very bad year. The kind of year that could lead anyone to want to start over.
It was the year Plame’s mother died. Along with her father, who died in 2010, she’d been one of the few people in the world who’d known Plame worked at the CIA — before everyone did.
It was also the year that Plame and Wilson separated, before divorcing at the beginning of 2019, after 20 years of marriage.
He’d moved into a little house, “a little casita out a ways,” Plame says, while she and the kids rented elsewhere as they tried to sell the big house.
She’s outside the house that she still hasn’t managed to sell, two years later, leaning on a black wire patio table, staring across the ridge at a lush valley and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains beyond. The building is beautiful: adobe with tons of windows and a traditional wood ceiling with beams made of branches stripped of their bark. “But it’s always been too much house,” she says — monetarily, maintenance-wise.
Plame has been sighing, as her sentences trail off, far more than perhaps she is aware she is doing.
Three weeks after Plame had declared her congressional run in May, Joe had gone into hospice. Then six days before that afternoon on her patio, he’d died of organ failure. He was 69.
That casita Joe rented, “that’s where he died, actually,” Plame says.
Plame and Wilson arrive at the Bloomberg after-party following the 2006 White House correspondents’ dinner.
Plame and Wilson arrive at the Bloomberg after-party following the 2006 White House correspondents’ dinner. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
It’s so much harder than she’d anticipated, she keeps saying, this grief that’s muddled with divorce. “I knew it would be sad, but I didn’t know it would be the way that it is,” she says. “As sad. As overwhelming. I feel like I’ve been mourning, mourning, mourning. But this is pretty final, right? Which doesn’t really occur to you.”
On Plame’s left ring finger is a beautiful emerald engagement ring. It’s not the one Wilson gave her. It’s the one her dad gave to her mom. “It reminds me of her.”
When she met Wilson, Plame didn’t know who he was, just that he’d been “a larger-than-life character,” she says. Then she looked him up and she says, “I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ ” He’d spent much of his career in Africa, was the last American diplomat to see Saddam Hussein before the Persian Gulf War and in 1990 protected 60 Americans from being held hostage. He was also separated from his second wife and had twins from his first marriage, who were 20 when Trevor and Samantha were born.
“He was just so, in my eyes, you know, movie star handsome,” says Plame. “And he spoke French, and he lived all over the world. At that time, I was like, ‘I’ll never meet anyone that would understand my job.’ And so I felt really lucky that way.”
So much of her story is also Wilson’s story, so what does her story look like without him?
“I’m in a bit of a fog, truthfully,” says Plame, staring out at the view. “Look, a complicated man. That’s all I’m ever going to say. Father of my children, hero, you know, a real patriot. Complicated.”
Plame had written in her book that their ordeal with the leak nearly destroyed their marriage. Was it responsible for the end? “I don’t know,” she says softly. “It didn’t help any.”
Reminders of the past
At her house that day, after the meeting with the mustachioed environmentalist and before the meet-and-greet at the art dealer’s house, Plame had been getting her place ready for another real estate showing, “because I have nothing else going on!”
Despite her stump speech, she does want to move again. Her campaign is hiring more staff and moving its headquarters out of her kitchen. She dreamed of getting someplace tiny in downtown Santa Fe. “When I sell this house,” she said, “I’m going to move into a concrete cube.”
Plame kept apologizing about how impersonal and empty she had to keep the house for buyers. Empty of people, maybe, but full of things and full of history.
In her guest bathroom was a framed copy of the single cover for the Decemberists song “Valerie Plame,” from 2008, written from the point of view of one of her covert contacts — with a major crush on her — at the moment he learns her true identity.
“Oh Valerie Plame, if that really is your name / I will shout the same to the world.”
Greeting all new visitors with a bark was their genial 12-year-old shelter dog, Artemis, whose black hair had hints of white.
Artemis’s name was itself a relic of Plame’s time being stationed in Greece as a CIA operative. Everywhere in the house there was Greek art for her and African art for Wilson.
Down the hall in Samantha’s room, on a bulletin board packed with silly photos, is one of her and her brother with their dad, gray-haired and healthy. Her mom thinks Samantha will save elephants in Africa.
Down the other way is Trevor’s room. He’s got both of his parents’ books stacked under a soccer trophy, and a little frame Plame made him with his grandfather’s World War II medals. His mom could see him going into the diplomatic corps like his dad.
It’s sad to think that soon, when they come back to Santa Fe, their rooms, all this could be gone.
She’d made a new life before, when she’d signed up for the CIA all those years ago. And in June 2020, she’ll know what this new life will look like. Win or lose, she’ll have created something different, something her own.
She looked around the house. Beams of afternoon light laid stripes across the tiles in her living room. “I’m out of here,” she said.