What's ahead for Valerie Plame?
Lost in the din of the leak scandal that has consumed Washington is the very personal impact on the willowy blond CIA operative at its center. Plame, 42, wife of former U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson, has become the most famous spy in the world, but her career has been derailed. It appears likely she will leave the CIA, some acquaintances say, but she hasn't publicly signaled her plans.
Plame, the mother of 5-year-old twins, recently told a friend, Jane Honikman, that she intends to retire from the agency where she has worked for 20 years. "She really wants to be with her kids -- that's her plan, to be that mom," said Honikman, founder of a postpartum depression support network in which Plame has been active.
Although Plame has been under "tremendous stress" as the subject of global publicity and political spin, Honikman added, "she has a good sense of humor still and a wonderful, charming ability to look on the bright side." Several friends say she was devastated by the disclosure of her name in July 2003, but she went on with her life: She and Wilson circulated socially, took weekend walks along the C&O Canal and went to church. At events where media were present, Plame unfailingly smiled and exchanged pleasantries.
She has never granted an interview, effectively gagged by the CIA, whose guidelines require employees to clear media contacts and publications. But she hasn't been totally averse to publicity. She once posed for a Vanity Fair photograph in her husband's Jaguar, ala Grace Kelly, wearing sunglasses and a headscarf. For many critics of her media-savvy husband, that offered proof enough that she was out to capitalize on her notoriety -- further fodder in an affair that has become as highly politicized as any other White House scandal.
Wilson, whose credibility and qualifications have come under withering Republican fire ever since he went public about his CIA-sponsored trip to Niger and criticisms of the Iraq war, said yesterday in a statement: "While I may engage in public discourse, my wife and my family are private people. They did not choose to be brought into the public square, and they do not wish to be under the glare of cameras. . . . This case is not about me or my family, no matter how others might try to make it so."
Plame, the daughter of an Air Force colonel and an elementary school teacher, was recruited by the CIA at 22, shortly after graduation from Pennsylvania State University. She was in the 1985-86 class of CIA officers trained at "The Farm" near Williamsburg, where the curriculum included learning to drive under fire, blowing up cars and handling an AK-47.
Her career postings are classified, but she was one of the elite clandestine spies -- an officer with nonofficial cover who works overseas in business or other jobs and has no diplomatic protection if detected or arrested.
In 2006, she will have 20 years with the agency. As such she qualifies for retirement but would not receive full benefits unless she stays with the agency until age 50.
After she was named in a syndicated column by Robert Novak, Plame had no chance of working again in her chosen field, her friends say, and the strain of remaining at the agency has taken its toll.
"For all intents and purposes out at the CIA, she's like a leper . . . she's radioactive," said Larry Johnson, a former CIA analyst and acquaintance of Plame's who was in her officer training class. "There are instances where some people at headquarters have shunned her. In other cases they don't know what to say. It's like someone whose child has died: What do you say to them?
"There are a variety of things she could have done at the agency. She could have become a station chief overseas and run espionage operations. It has destroyed her life on that front. What is she supposed to do now, wear a button saying, " 'Hi, I work for the CIA'?"
Wilson and his lawyer, Christopher Wolf, would not comment on Plame's plans. But Wolf -- who has also been the couple's next-door neighbor for seven years -- said: "She was absolutely devastated by this on lots of levels. . . . Valerie was by definition the ultimate private person. She didn't seek any publicity or any acclaim or any thanks for her work."
After the outing, said Wolf, "her career was over, she knew it was over, and certainly her contacts were put in jeopardy . . . and her family was put at risk."
Last winter, Plame drafted an op-ed article to explain her role in her husband's Niger trip, but the agency would not permit her to submit it for publication. "While I would love to share Valerie's article with readers, so long as her agency refuses to allow her to defend herself, there is nothing she or I can do," Wilson wrote in the recently issued paperback edition of his bestseller "The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies That Led to War and Betrayed My Wife's CIA Identity."
In the book he quoted a CIA response to Plame telling her "publication of your article has the potential to affect your ability to perform your official duties and the agency's ability to perform its mission." As long as she remains in the CIA -- and even beyond retirement -- national security restrictions would typically apply if she wrote, say, a memoir.
Wilson and Plame, who were married in 1998, live in the District's Palisades neighborhood in a spacious home with a back-deck view of the Washington Monument. Their son and daughter are in kindergarten. (Wilson has another grown set of twins from an earlier marriage.) Before Novak's column, neighbors and friends had no clue she was a spy -- they knew her as a "consultant" in the energy business.
"She's going to be a huge asset no matter what she does," said Plame's friend Honikman, founder of Postpartum Support International, a group the CIA officer contacted for help in overcoming her own severe bout with postpartum depression. "She's too smart a woman . . . and would maximize whatever opportunities lie ahead."
Plame served as executive director of a local postpartum support chapter but had to resign because "it was too much stress" after she was outed, Honikman said. "She had to stay focused on herself and her family." Honikman added, "I admire her for the incredible strength she has shown to endure this."
There is no indication that yesterday's indictment of vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby will end Plame's time in the public firestorm. By late afternoon, Republicans were on television trying to reopen debate on just what Plame did at the CIA and how covert the woman really was.