By Alan Cooperman
Senior editor for non-fiction at Book World
Monday, October 22, 2007
My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House
By Valerie Plame Wilson
Simon & Schuster. 411 pp. $26
Mothers who are spies, it turns out, face the same juggling act as other working moms.
After a year at home following the birth of twins, Valerie Plame Wilson returned to work in April 2001 in the Iraq branch of the CIA's Counterproliferation Division. "When I had to deal with pressing operational issues I had no choice but to bring the toddlers into my office on a Saturday," she writes in her memoir, published this week. "Making decisions on how much money to offer a potential asset while handing crayons to my daughter who sat under my desk was strange indeed, but not without humor."
Since senior administration officials whispered "Valerie Plame" and "CIA" in the same breath to half a dozen journalists in 2003, some people have not very subtly suggested that her work couldn't really have been all that hush-hush if she had an office job, not to mention blond hair and little kids. "She was not involved in clandestine activities," Robert D. Novak, the syndicated columnist who first published her name, wrote earlier this year in his dueling memoir. "Instead, each day she went to CIA headquarters in Langley where she worked on arms proliferation."
There are lots of she said-he said moments in the Plame affair, matters on which an impartial observer can only conclude that, well, both sides have a point. But this is not one of them.
Before her retirement in 2006, Wilson spent more than 20 years in the CIA, including six years, one month and 29 days of overseas service. We know this because the agency, in a bureaucratic blunder, put it in an unclassified letter about her pension eligibility that it later tried desperately to recall, and that she has included as an appendix to "Fair Game."
We also know that she worked on the operations side, the part of the CIA that runs agents and covert activities, rather than on the analytical side, which tries to make sense of all the information flowing in. From her former CIA "classmates," we know that she went through the agency's elite Career Trainee program, including paramilitary training at the classified location known as the Farm, and was one of just three in her class of 50 who were chosen to be NOCs (pronounced "knocks"), or non-official cover officers, the most clandestine in the agency. And from her memoir, we now know how deeply secrecy was ingrained in her.
Imagine when, in her mid-20s, after a first CIA tour in Greece under diplomatic cover as a junior State Department official, she gave up her diplomatic passport and any public affiliation with the U.S. government and switched to being a NOC. Part of the transition involved coming home to the United States, ostensibly jobless, and moving back into her parents' house while studying French. How many 20-somethings still living with Mom and Dad fantasize about saying, "Actually, I work for the CIA"? In young Valerie Plame's case, it was true -- and she apparently didn't tell a soul. When she became famous a decade later, her dearest friends were stunned, and she feared they might not forgive her for all those years of lying.
True, the CIA recalled her from Europe in 1997, fearing that her name might have been passed to the Russians by the mole Aldrich Ames. But, she writes, she still took different routes to work each day, "traveled domestically and abroad using a variety of aliases" and continued to hope for another foreign posting.
There is no reason to doubt that Wilson wrote "Fair Game" herself. To put it kindly, the memoir lacks the sheen of a ghostwriter's work and has the voice of an ordinary person caught up in extraordinary events. It doesn't help that the CIA redacted the manuscript heavily before approving it for publication. Each time she is about to launch into a juicy anecdote, it seems, lines are blacked out, sometimes for pages on end.
The book is, however, greatly assisted by an afterword by Laura Rozen, a reporter for the American Prospect. Rozen faithfully echoes Wilson's point of view but fills in many of the censored dates, places and other details from published sources. Readers would be smart to turn to the afterword first, before tackling Wilson's disjointed narrative.
The outlines of the story are familiar: In 2002, the CIA sent her husband, former U.S. ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, on an unpaid, eight-day fact-finding trip to Niger. Within hours of his return, he told eager CIA debriefers (while Valerie Wilson was ordering takeout Chinese food for them) that there was no evidence that Iraq had tried to buy yellowcake uranium from the African nation.
When President Bush nevertheless included the uranium allegation in a State of the Union address, Joe Wilson wrote an op-ed for the New York Times accusing the administration of misleading the American people. Both of the Wilsons firmly believe that she was outed, in retaliation, by White House officials who sought to discredit him by telling reporters that his trip was arranged by his wife, who worked for the CIA. Tapped to investigate the leak of her name, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald put that theory before a jury, which never got to the heart of the matter but did convict the vice president's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, of perjury and obstruction of justice. Bush then commuted Libby's 30-month prison sentence.
The question remains: Was she behind her husband's trip to Niger? "Fair Game" gives a nuanced answer that is largely, but not entirely, in her favor.
She says that when the vice president's office asked the CIA about the uranium allegation, a "midlevel reports officer" suggested in a hallway conversation that the agency could send Joe Wilson to investigate. The suggestion made sense because Wilson had served as an ambassador in Africa, was the top Africa expert on the National Security Council in the Clinton administration and made a previous trip to Niger at the CIA's request in 1999. She and the midlevel officer brought the idea to their boss, who liked it and asked her to send an e-mail up the chain of command. "My husband has good relations with both the PM [prime minister] and the former Minister of Mines (not to mention lots of French contacts), both of whom could possibly shed light on this sort of activity," she wrote.
Thus, by her own account, Valerie Wilson neither came up with the idea nor approved it. But she did participate in the process and flogged her husband's credentials. When Joe Wilson learned about her e-mail years later, she says, he was "too upset to listen" to her explanations.
"Fair Game" reveals some intimate details of the Wilsons' lives, including her battle with postpartum depression. Sudden fame and withering political attacks made Washington so "toxic" to them that they began fantasizing about moving to New Zealand and ultimately decamped to New Mexico. Relatives came forward, and, like Madeleine Albright, Valerie Wilson discovered she was part Jewish. But the book is less forthcoming about her politics; she does not mention, for example, that she made a $1,000 contribution to Al Gore's campaign in 1999.
One other matter begs clarification. As Rozen notes in the afterword, there is "an undeniable irony to Valerie Wilson later being exposed by the White House in a subterranean tussle" over prewar intelligence because "Valerie was not one of the intelligence community dissidents arguing against the threat posed by Saddam Hussein."
Quite the contrary: Wilson makes clear in "Fair Game" that she and her colleagues in the Counterproliferation Division were very worried that Iraq would use chemical or biological weapons on U.S. forces. They were dumbfounded when no weapons of mass destruction were found, and, in a telling passage, she says their spirits were "briefly buoyed" when coalition forces in northern Iraq discovered curious flatbed trailers that the CIA thought, at first, might be mobile bio-weapons labs.
Yet, in one of the memoir's deeper insights, "Fair Game" suggests that if you knew what she knew at the time, you would have feared both that Saddam Hussein had WMDs and that the Bush administration was overstating the case for war. In the bowels of the CIA, she and her colleagues clustered around a TV as Secretary of State Colin Powell laid the evidence before the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003. "It was a powerful presentation," she writes, "but I knew key parts of it were wrong."