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Norah Levine

Our Spy

Up close with Valerie Plame and her new novel

October 1, 2013, 12:00 am
Valerie Plame gets annoyed when she sees female characters in books and film come across like “girls as props.”

Now, Santa Fe’s most famous spy aims to offer a stronger, more real woman in her own spy series, which is centered around a 29-year-old secret operative named Vanessa Pierson.

Due to hit bookshelves this week, Blowback is a novel Plame penned in collaboration with Santa Fe mystery writer Sarah Lovett. It’s the first in a planned franchise centered around Pierson, who spends her days in the CIA hunting Bhoot, a dangerous international nuclear arms dealer who sells weapons to the highest bidder.

While Pierson is clearly a younger, fictional impression of the author, Plame says her true motivation for writing the series was to draw on her job experience and depict how the CIA really operates.

“What I really wanted to do was write a story about a female CIA operative [who] wasn’t a total cartoon,”  Plame says, rather than the “cardboard characters” that are plentiful.

It’s been 10 years since Plame’s covert identity as a CIA operative was infamously outed in a Washington Post column by Robert Novak.

Novak wrote the column in response to Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s op-ed the week before claiming President George W. Bush had misled the public about Iraq’s nuclear capability to justify war. The disclosure turned Plame’s life upside down.

Both Wilson and Plame, who have been married since 1998, have long asserted that the leak of her name was politically motivated payback for Wilson’s public challenge to military action in Iraq.

In her 20 years with the CIA, Plame had been working in covert nonproliferation, or, as she likes to put it, “making sure the bad guys don’t get nuclear weapons.” She sometimes traveled on secret missions to other countries to find information on illegal nuclear weapons trading. During her testimony before Congress in 2007, she said she could only count on one hand the number of people who knew the true nature of her work before the Novak column was published.

Blowing her cover was tantamount to jeopardizing her nonproliferation work and putting national security at risk, Plame and her supporters argued.

The leak was eventually traced back to I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who served as the chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney. As the scandal deepened over the next few years, Plame and Wilson became household names. The fallout eventually led to the indictment of Libby, who's 30-month prison sentence was immediately commuted by President Bush.

Plame moved on, resigning from the CIA in 2005 and leaving Washington D.C. for Santa Fe with her husband and twins in 2007. Here, she wrote most of her memoir of the scandal, Fair Game. She describes writing the first book as a “catharsis” to “sort of process what happened” during what came to be known as the Plame Affair.

“It was like if you said, ‘So, tell me what happened,’” she says. “Well, how long do you have?”

While Blowback marks her foray into fiction, Plame and Wilson are also staying publicly focused on current events, most recently with a joint June op-ed in the London Guardian that warns about how the National Security Agency’s large dragnet capabilities are “ripe for abuse.”

SFR recently sat down with Plame to talk about her new fiction series, as well as her thoughts on current events like the intelligence leaks of Edward Snowden, the potential US military strike on Syria and her life in Santa Fe. The interview has been condensed and edited.

SFR: The book is pretty fast-paced and action-packed. How does that compare to the actual job?
Valerie Plame: I would say the difference is in real life there’s a lot of downtime—a lot of sitting in a bar or at a street corner or waiting for intelligence to put the picture together. So you can’t really include that without the reader putting down the book and snoozing off. But there are times when it’s extremely adrenaline fueled, and you want to make sure that you were doing the best job you could possibly do. I never had an asset die on me, thank goodness. But definitely the book draws upon my experiences, the characters I met—they’re walking characters.

SFR: What kind of influences did you have when you were writing Blowback?
VP: I love Ian Fleming and John le Carré. But again, across popular culture, [there’s] not a whole lot of good female characters that I thought, “Now there’s someone!” There was a hole in the market. We see Carrie in [Showtime’s] “Homeland,” but she’s pretty much damaged goods. She may be brilliant, but I’d like to see someone who’s a little bit more balanced but still willing to take risks and relates to the world in a much better way. So, totally compelling TV, but the character’s not realistic. She’s manic-depressive, she has no friends. When you’re in intelligence work it really is helpful to have a deep curiosity about the world around you. And as far as I can tell [Carrie] really doesn’t exhibit that.

SFR: What did you try to do differently with Vanessa Pierson?
VP: I tried to make her realistic. She’s a little too ambitious, but smart. She gets herself in trouble, but she knows enough just to pull back. She experiences loneliness. I mean she has this crazy relationship with somebody she met at the [CIA], an inside officer, and they’re not supposed to be together. Who can she tell? She loves her job but it’s also infuriating. Very complex.

SFR: There’s a scene where the agency psychologist is interviewing Vanessa. It seems like there’s this theme that if you’re working in the CIA you can’t even trust the psychologist.
VP: Well, the psychologist works for the agency. They’re not your private psychologists you can go and talk to about how your parents screwed up your upbringing. It’s a very fine line they walk, it’s an extremely stressful job, but they are not there to help your mental health, generally speaking. The psychologists there are really more there to help you with your operations, understand the targets of people you’re going after. Of course there’s failures, but for the most part the agency tries to hire people that are going into operations, people that are really mentally tough, really mentally balanced. Which is not to say there’s not plenty of jerks in the lineup.

SFR: It seems within the agency there can’t be any secrets between people, but outside of the agency everything has to be a secret.
VP: Yes and no. Obviously, it’s like any milieu. You speak the same vernacular, understand what others are going through and the lifestyle and the sacrifices it entails. I imagine it’s like two actors that get married, they understand on set versus off set and all that. At the same time, of course it’s highly compartmentalized. What you are working on doesn’t mean that your colleague should know about it, can know about it and be helpful. So there’s many different barriers. But I wouldn’t say that it necessarily gets in the way of a collegial environment where that’s possible.

SFR: How did you come up with Bhoot?
VP: I was fortunate enough to work with a group of people at the agency that was responsible for bringing down [Pakistani nuclear scientist] AQ Khan and his network. I found him to be fascinating. He really is an amoral person. He would sell nuclear technology and widgets to whoever paid. He might have put a façade of Pakistani nationalism or Islamic acquisition of the nuclear weapon as a cause, but really he didn’t care. He acted as a broker. And I found that amoral approach to be the most frightening of all. So Bhoot, that’s a starting point. And then you create someone who, in future books, you will find out more about why he is so damaged and what his background was, and how he came to be doing what he is doing.

SFR: In the book, you write alarmingly about a militant, neoconservative faction in the Pentagon that wants to bomb Iran.
VP: Well, I think we see this today, literally today when Obama’s at the UN,  and maybe he will, maybe he won’t shake [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani’s hand. But there is a strong, powerful contingent within US policy circles that continually want to exert military force. Exhibit A is Iraq. Exhibit B would be Afghanistan. And for the moment, Exhibit C seems to be put on the shelf with Syria. There’s a strong neo-con influence that despite their abject failure in Iraq to bring about anything close to what their objectives were—which was to be a really infantilized, broken up Middle East to protect Israel—they have failed utterly. Despite that, their voices and influence are still pervasive. And I find it in the case of Iran absolutely shocking that there has been absolutely no official communication between the government of Iran and the United States in 30 years. And if today Obama meets Rouhani and shakes his hand, that would be the first. I’m not a diplomat by training, but I really do believe that war is a lack of imagination. And too often we seemed to revert to our unparalleled military prowess.

[Editor’s Note: Obama and Rouhani did not shake hands, but Obama phoned him later in what officials say was the first direct contact between the nations since 1979.]

SFR: The relationship depicted in Blowback between Vanessa and Khoury, does that happen in the CIA? Do agents have affairs? Is that common?
VP: It’s definitely the world’s biggest dating agency, but for the reasons that you can understand — that the stresses are known to everyone and the kind of weird lifestyle it produces. It just kind of makes it easier. You have less to explain. Having said that, the divorce rate is also astronomically high. [There are] a lot of other substance abuse issues. But I wanted [Khoury to be] this character that is coming under suspicion because of his Muslim birth. Even though he’s sort of the all-American guy, he didn’t start out that way. On one hand what makes him valuable to the agency—his family background, his cousins, his Arabic and French and knowledge of that dangerous part of the world—are also the things that, of course, put him under suspicion.

SFR: And you saw some of that at the agency when you were there?
VP: There were a couple of Muslim officers, but not many. After 9/11, the then-Director George Tenet—and even before to be fair—worked very hard to enhance their recruitment of a wider swath of Americans, you know, not just white males from the Ivy League. And what he ran up against was how difficult it is to do security clearances, as we now see once again with [private intelligence] contractors. But Khoury is a compilation of a couple of different characters.

SFR: You and your husband recently wrote an op-ed in the Guardian bemoaning how private intelligence contractors owe their loyalty to the people who write their paycheck rather than their country.
VP: That’s one problem, not the only problem. It’s estimated that 60 percent of our intelligence budget is spent on contractors. The American public has been told that contractors are more efficient, more cost effective. And it really is a political ideology that the private sector is better. And in some cases that’s maybe true, but certainly not in intelligence work. And it is so out of control now, and they’re not cost effective. The Project for Oversight in Government did a great study on this, and guess what? It costs a third more. And so the government is blindly continuing to contract out, contract out, without really taking a look at not only the bottom line, but what are the other eroding effects of contracting?

SFR: Are you going to take on this issue in your fiction?
VP: I might. Because it’s something the public is becoming much more aware of. Through Edward Snowden, through the Navy Yard shooting tragedy. Really, when you have 1.4 million Americans with top-secret clearances, is it any wonder that you’re going to have a couple of problems here and there?

SFR: What are your thoughts on the leaks of Edward Snowden?
VP: For too long, the media was much too focused on Edward Snowden because he was sort of the shiny object that they were chasing after. The issue is much more profound and broader and deeper. It’s the issue of security versus privacy. When you talk to the person on the street, they kind of shrug, because we have been inured to our privacy being sort of dissolved before our eyes. Well, they’re missing the point. The problem becomes that when the government amasses this huge amount of metadata—and we’re just beginning to understand from Snowden what it entails—that power of information is astounding. And it only takes a couple overzealous prosecutors. It really goes against the 4th Amendment and what we Americans like to think of as our open and accountable government that we hope for, strive for. I think it’s bad news, it’s really bad news.

SFR: When you talk about 1.4 million Americans with top-secret clearances and the likelihood of leaks, what do you think needs to be done about that?
VP: A couple of things. The president has spoken about putting together a commission to look at the NSA. And it’s the usual suspects. It’s always the insiders of insiders that are going to be on that commission. You really need a truly independent, unbiased few. And those who may be called whistleblowers—Thomas Drake or William Binney—include their voices as well. Furthermore, the issue of contracting is so vast. As Eisenhower famously said in his parting address, “Beware of the military-industrial complex.” Well now it’s the military-industrial-intelligence complex that is so vast there is not one person, not even the president, that fully understands its reach. And when you go to Washington D.C., it’s booming. The restaurants are full, the cars are new, the buildings are being built, and the cranes are in the sky. You can’t get a reservation anywhere. And where does that come from? That is the fountain of money that is raining down on that city from everything to do with Homeland Security.

SFR: It’s been about 10 years since you were outed. How does that feel?
VP: It’s been a lifetime in a decade. I thought that if I was lucky and continued to work hard, I would finish my career as a senior intelligence officer somewhere overseas. And it didn’t turn out that way. So, life has been very different. Fortunately we were really welcomed in Santa Fe and we’re very happy here. It’s a great community; it’s not perfect, no place is, but I’ve lived a lot of places and I really like it.

Valerie Plame and Sarah Lovett will speak about Blowback in Albuquerque at Bookworks on Oct. 29 and in Santa Fe at Collected Works on Nov. 6.




EXCERPT FROM BLOWBACK

by Valerie Plame and Sarah Lovett

In the muted glow of the tastefully appointed office in the medical division, Dr. Peyton Wright’s glass-green eyes drilled into Vanessa. “You must know there is concern about your immediate ability to function effectively and safely as a case officer.”

It took all Vanessa’s willpower to stay seated in the soft, padded leather chair, but she knew enough not to interrupt the Agency psychologist’s opening statement. There would be nothing diplomatic or therapeutic about this evaluation. Dr. Wright had an agenda, and Vanessa had one question to answer as quickly as possible: Did the shrink have it in for her, regardless of what happened during this hour or two, or did Vanessa have room to maneuver?

“For the moment, let’s skip over the fact your asset in Prague disappeared seven months ago with a noticeable sum of the taxpayers’ money. Some of your more recent decisions in the field have been, at the very least, questionable.” Dr. Wright held up her slender, manicured index finger. “Failure to obey a direct order to abort a mission, a failure that resulted in the death of your high-level asset in Vienna.”

The statement hit Vanessa with a jolt—Chris must have spoken directly to Dr. Wright. Not exactly a shock, but still . . . a shock. Now she did pull halfway out of the damn chair. “As you must know, I was debriefed by the DDO and Chris Arvanitis directly, and it’s in my official report—when the order to abort came, my asset was within a few meters of me and I made a judgment call to continue the operation at least long enough to hear if he had actionable intel. He risked his life to meet with me—”

“And died because of it,” Dr. Wright finished tersely.

“You don’t know that,” Vanessa shot back. “My asset was targeted, and it’s probable he would have been killed even if I had aborted that meeting, and we would certainly not have his intel now—intel that’s driving a vital CPD op.”

Dr. Wright raised her pen above the clipboard in her trim lap, but she kept her eyes on Vanessa. “You’re right,” she said. “There is no way to know absolutely if your asset would still be alive if you had obeyed orders—but it is possible he would have escaped assassination.”

Vanessa suppressed a shudder, only too aware she was under minute scrutiny—body language, vocal inflection, facial expression.

Where the hell did Peyton Wright get off judging the actions of case officers when she’d no doubt spent most of her fifteen-year career in twelve-by-twelve windowless offices, typing up reports based on soft science? What the hell did she know about the reality of the ops world?

But Vanessa checked herself sharply. Peyton Wright was working her—part of her job as Agency shrink. It wasn’t her job to dole out therapy. If you have issues, resolve them outside these walls or don’t. The only relevant question in here: Can you do your job or not?

And Vanessa could damn well do her job, so she took a breath and eased her hands to her lap. “No one regrets the out- come of the operation in Vienna more than I do.” She kept her voice steady and firm. “First and foremost, I am responsible for the security of the operation and the safety of my assets. Whether I like them or not, I am responsible for their well-being. I am responsible for their lives.” Her voice cracked just a little on the last word. She took another breath and finished what she needed to say. “Their safety is paramount. I never let myself forget that. I not only cared about the asset who died in Vienna, but I also had great respect for him. With that said, I stand by my judgment call.”

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story stated that President Bush pardoned I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Bush, in fact, only commuted Libby's prison sentence. SFR regrets the error.

 

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