Awards & Events

Plame Urges Audience to Hold Government Accountable

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — The main lesson Valerie Plame Wilson says she and her husband drew from her 2003 outing as a covert operative was the importance of holding government accountable for what it does.

Plame’s career as a covert intelligence officer for the Central Intelligence Agency ended when a conservative columnist Robert Novak identified her. The action was in apparent retaliation for a New York Times op-ed written by her husband, retired ambassador Joseph Wilson, that questioned the central premise that the administration of President George W. Bush gave to justify the invasion of Iraq.

The author of her memoir, Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House, she spoke Wednesday night at Stambaugh Auditorium as part of Youngstown State University’s Skeggs Lecture Series.

“The takeaway is how important it is to hold your government accountable for their words and deeds,” Plame said during a news conference hours before her lecture, a message she emphasized last night.

Plame joined the CIA shortly after graduating from Pennsylvania State University in1985. During her time with the agency, she focused on nuclear counter-proliferation, or “making sure bad guys did not get nuclear capability.” She was hired at a time when women were just then being recruited to serve specifically in operations after decades of being relegated to support roles.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted that while Afghanistan, where efforts to find the perpetrators were focused, offered few targets, there were more targets in Iraq. Subsequently the CIA established an Iraq task force, which she headed, to “try to figure out the state of play” of Iraq’s presumed weapons of mass destruction program. U.S. intelligence in the region wasn’t good, she said.

There was also pressure to get results. She recalled an incident in February 2002 when one of her employees reported she had received a call from the office of the vice president that asking about intelligence reports circulating about the sale of yellowcake uranium. If true, that would be significant, but she said she was “more taken with the notion” that someone from the vice president’s office would make the inquiry directly of a lower-level employee.

Wilson, who the CIA had asked based on his experience in the region to investigate the claims that Iraq sought to purchase yellowcake uranium from Niger, found the claim to be “bogus” following his investigation. Alarmed by subsequent claims on the part of the Bush administration, including in the 2003 State of the Union Address, he argued in the July 6, 2003 NYT piece, “What I Did Not Find in Africa,” that the administration “cherry-picked and manipulated” intelligence to justify the invasion.

“That White House didn’t take criticism very well, to say the least,” Plame said. Anyone who “had the audacity” to go against the White House premise that the invasion would be a “cake walk” and would be paid for by Iraqi oil revenues, and that U.S. forces would be greeted as liberators “was immediately labeled a traitor or worse, and that’s what happened to my husband,” she said.

Novak, who died in 2009, was one of at least half a dozen journalists who “carried water for those who wanted to pursue a partisan agenda,” she said.

“To this day I don’t know who passed my name from the CIA to the White House but it was absolutely proven that there was a conspiracy behind it,” she said. The prosecutor in the investigation of her outing, which resulted in the conviction of Bush administration official Lewis “Scooter” Libby, said there was a “cloud over the office of the vice president,” then Dick Cheney.

Plame described the experience as “falling down Alice’s rabbit hole.” When her covert status was disclosed, she not only realized her career was over but worried about her network of assets and the safety of her then-3-year-old twins.

“Obviously my career was predicated on discretion,” she remarked. She resigned from the CIA the week of Libby’s 2007 conviction.

Many of the problems the United States continues to face in the Middle East have their roots in the Iraq invasion, which Plame described as “one of the worst foreign policy decisions in the history of our nation.”

The world is better off without Saddam Hussein, she said, but he was “contained” and “controlled” prior to the invasion and “there’s a lot of dictators who need to get in line if you want to start knocking them off one by one.”

Although she finds many portrayals of the CIA in television and movies entertaining, Plame, who was consulted on the pilot for USA series Covert Affairs, “can’t think of any that come anywhere close to reality.” One she pointed to was The Peacemaker, a 1997 film starring George Clooney and Nicole Kidman. The core of the film’s plot, which centered on a “loose nuke” from a former Soviet republic, was “very plausible,” she said.

She also finds the series Homeland very engaging but noted the Bourne films portrayal of the “lone wolf” Jason Bourne don’t match well with reality. “If you’re going to be successful in intelligence, you really need to … work and play well with others,” she said.

Members of the audience Wednesday night said they enjoyed Plame’s presentation.

“I liked the point she made about holding the government accountable for word and deed,” said Diana Awad Scrocco of Youngstown. “I thought that was important, especially as people lose more and more trust for government.”

Somewhat familiar with the events surrounding Plame from when they transpired, “It was nice to hear her first-hand account from it,” said Bob McGovern of Youngstown.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.