One evening this summer, former diplomat Joseph Wilson sat amid the African-themed decor of his spacious Washington home, sipping a glass of beer and talking about a trip he took to Niger for the CIA. His wife, Valerie, was in the kitchen, preparing chicken for a cookout and arranging red, white and blue napkins.

Suddenly a giggling boy streaked nude into the living room and jumped into his father's lap. Bath time was nigh. Valerie Wilson rounded up the towheaded 3-year-old and his twin sister, efficiently taming the household whirlwind.

When Valerie E. Wilson -- maiden name Plame -- introduced herself to a reporter in her home on July 3, there was no hint she was anything other than a busy mother with an unflagging smile and classy wardrobe. She talked a bit about the joys and challenges of twins, then faded into the background.

One might have thought her to be a financial manager, maybe a real estate agent -- but never a spy. Few knew her secret: At 22, Plame had joined the Central Intelligence Agency and traveled the world on undercover missions.

A few months after that July evening, her name -- and her occupation -- would be published and broadcast internationally. In the public imagination, she would become "Jane Bond," as her husband later put it. A clandestine operative isn't supposed to be famous, but her identity was leaked to journalists by administration officials for what Joseph Wilson alleged was retaliation for his criticism of the White House's Iraq policies.

The Wilsons -- he's 53; she's 40 -- are at the center of a growing political controversy as the Justice Department investigates her unmasking, which occurred in a July 14 column by conservative pundit Robert Novak, who cited "two senior administration officials" as his sources. The outing has sparked a furor in the intelligence community, with some saying they feel betrayed by their government.

"We feel like the peasants with torches and pitchforks," said Larry Johnson, a former CIA analyst who was in Plame's officer training class in 1985-86. "The robber barons aren't going to be allowed to get away with this."

In February 2002, the CIA dispatched Joseph Wilson, a retired ambassador who has held senior positions in several African countries and Iraq, to Niger to investigate claims that Saddam Hussein's government had shopped there for uranium ore that could be processed into weapons-grade material. He reported back that Niger officials said they knew of no such effort. His report has since been confirmed by U.S. intelligence officials.

On July 6, Wilson went public, saying the administration had exaggerated the case for war by including the so-called 16 words about uranium and Africa in the president's State of the Union message last January. A day later, the White House acknowledged it had been a mistake to include those words.

Novak's column suggested that Wilson got the assignment to Niger because of his wife, who was working on weapons proliferation issues for the CIA when she was outed. The agency and Wilson said Valerie Wilson was not involved in his selection. Wilson also said he was not paid for the assignment, though expenses for the eight-day trip were reimbursed.

Before the Novak column was published, at least six reporters were contacted by administration officials and allegedly told that Valerie Plame Wilson worked at the CIA. Whoever did so may have been trying to undermine the importance of Wilson's trip by implying it had been set up by his wife -- and therefore was not a serious effort by the agency to discover whether, in fact, Iraq had attempted to buy uranium in Niger.

The publication of her name left CIA officers aghast. "All the people who had innocent lunches with her overseas or went shopping or played tennis with her, I'm sure they are having heart attacks right now," said one classmate of Plame's who participated in covert operations. "I would be in hiding now if I were them."

Little is publicly known about the career of Valerie Plame (rhymes with "name"), and she did not respond to a request for an interview made through her husband. The CIA also declined to discuss her. But people close to her provided the basics of her biography: She was born in Anchorage, where her father, Air Force Lt. Col. Samuel Plame, was stationed, and attended school in a suburb of Philadelphia. Her mother, Diane, taught elementary school. She has a stepbrother, Robert, who is 16 years older.

Plame was recruited by the agency shortly after graduation from Pennsylvania State University, sources said. She later earned two master's degrees, one from the London School of Economics and one from the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium.

Plame underwent training at "The Farm," as the facility near Williamsburg, Va., is known to its graduates. As part of her courses, the new spy was taken hostage and taught how to reduce messages to microdots. She became expert at firing an AK-47. She learned to blow up cars and drive under fire -- all to see if she could handle the rigors of being an undercover case officer in the CIA's Directorate of Operations, or DO. Fellow graduates recall that off-hours included a trip to the movies to watch the Dan Aykroyd parody "Spies Like Us."

Plame also learned how to recruit foreign nationals to serve as spies, and how to hunt others and evade those who would hunt her -- some who might look as harmless as she herself does now as a mom with a model's poise and shoulder-length blond hair.

Her activities during her years overseas remain classified, but she became the creme de la creme of spies: a "noc," an officer with "nonofficial cover." Nocs have cover jobs that have nothing to do with the U.S. government. They work in business, in social clubs, as scientists or secretaries (they are prohibited from posing as journalists), and if detected or arrested by a foreign government, they do not have diplomatic protection and rights. They are on their own. Even their fellow operatives don't know who they are, and only the strongest and smartest are picked for these assignments.

Five years ago Plame married Joseph Wilson -- it was her second marriage, his third. They crossed paths at a reception in Washington. "It was love at first sight," Joseph Wilson reports. When they met, in 1997, Wilson held a security clearance as political adviser to the general in charge of the U.S. Armed Forces European Command.

For the past several years, she has served as an operations officer working as a weapons proliferation analyst. She told neighbors, friends and even some of her CIA colleagues that she was an "energy consultant." She lived behind a facade even after she returned from abroad. It included a Boston front company named Brewster-Jennings & Associates, which she listed as her employer on a 1999 form in Federal Election Commission records for her $1,000 contribution to Al Gore's presidential primary campaign.

Administration officials confirmed that Brewster-Jennings was a front. The disclosure of its existence, which came about because it was listed in the FEC records, magnifies the potential damage related to the leak of Valerie Wilson's identity: It may give anyone who dealt with the firm clues to her CIA work. In addition, anyone who ever had contact with the company, and any foreign person who ever met with Valerie Plame, innocently or not, might now be suspected of working with the agency.

Friends and neighbors knew Valerie Wilson as a consultant who traveled frequently overseas. They describe her as charming, bright and discreet. "She did not talk politics," said Victoria Tillotson, 58, who has often socialized with the Wilsons.

"I thought she was a risk assessment person for some international investment company," said Ralph Wittenberg, a psychiatrist who chairs the nonprofit Family Mental Health Foundation, where Valerie Wilson is a board member. In recent years, he said, Valerie Wilson has been an "unstinting" volunteer, running peer support groups for women who suffered from postpartum depression, as she had.

"I would never have guessed in a million years" that she was a spy, Wittenberg said.

Another acquaintance active in raising awareness of postpartum depression, Jane Honikman, briefly contemplated the image of Valerie Wilson slinging an AK-47 assault rifle. "I can't imagine her holding anything other than a spoon, or a baby," she said.

A few months after delivering the twins in January 2000, Valerie Wilson "had a serious bout of postpartum depression and she'd had a terrible time getting help," Wittenberg said. "She didn't want any other woman to have to go through that."

He and others at the foundation knew her as someone willing to help anytime. She gave speeches to medical groups about the need for better screening of new mothers and mobilized resources for crisis interventions. Wittenberg said the foundation's hotline has helped save depressed mothers from killing themselves and their children.

"She's affected hundreds and hundreds of people's lives. . . . She's helped them," said Wittenberg, who added that Valerie Wilson had authorized him to talk about her.

Valerie Wilson's parents knew she worked for the CIA and fretted about her trips abroad, but said they never asked for details.

"We didn't want to know, and she never offered," Diane Plame, 74, said in an interview. She added that, since high school, her daughter had wanted "to do something of value to others, and she felt she was achieving that in what she's done in her work. She wanted to be of value to the country and to be patriotic.

"We've been very proud of her -- no question," she added. Diane Plame and her husband, who is 83 and a World War II veteran, are "very angry" about the disclosure and fearful for their daughter's safety.

"They spoiled it. They more than spoiled it -- they brought a lot of harm," Diane Plame said, referring to the leakers and to Novak. "For people to come out and say this would cause no harm, what kind of IQs do they have?"

Novak wrote in an Oct. 1 column that "the CIA never warned me that the disclosure of Wilson's wife working at the agency would endanger her or anybody else." He added, "It was well known around Washington that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA."

Over the July Fourth weekend, the Plames were with the Wilsons, assisting with the twins and other chores. After feeding the children and completing most of the preparations for a barbecue, Valerie Wilson announced from the kitchen: "Bath time!"

She gave instructions to her mother -- "Everything's here" -- and announced to her father, "I have to leave right now."

The twins whined for her to stay. She gently told her son, "Mommy has to go to a meeting."

It turned out Valerie Wilson was to lead a postpartum support group that evening. A group of other mothers was waiting at her church. The spy exited into the twilight.