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Valerie Plame was a career CIA covert operative whose work focused on efforts to detect and thwart Iranian nuclear proliferation plans. She is married to Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who investigated claims that Iraq was attempting to acquire uranium in Africa and established that the claims were false. When President Bush gave a state of the union speech repeating this claim anyway, Wilson wrote a column in the New York Times to set the record straight. Vice President Dick Cheney, and Presidential Advisors Karl Rove and Scooter Libby then set out to blow her cover as a retaliation against Wilson. After a lengthy investigation, federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald brought charges against Libby and secured his conviction, but decided not to charge Rove or Cheney. Now Plame has published Fair Game her account of her career in the CIA and the ordeal that followed the White House’s criminal attack on her and her husband. I put six questions to Valerie Plame.
1. Much of your career as a covert intelligence officer focused on blocking nuclear proliferation, and specifically it appears that you were focused on Iran. This past weekend, Vice President Cheney delivered a major speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in which he said that “if Iran continues on its present course,” it would face “serious consequences.” Those are exactly the words he used in the lead up to the war with Iraq to threaten war against Saddam Hussein. Do you believe that the Administration is now attempting to distort intelligence concerning the Iranian nuclear program? Can you cite any specific examples?
I resigned from the CIA in January 2006 after proudly serving as a covert operations officer, in a career I loved. Therefore, I have no current intelligence on the threat that Iran poses to our national security – nor can I comment on how imminent that threat might be. There is no question that for years, Iran has had a secret program focused on building a nuclear capacity. Our strategic mistakes in Iraq have put Iran in a far stronger position without too much effort on their part. However, given all that we know today about how this administration distorted and cherry picked very thin intelligence on Iraq’s WMD programs to build a rationale for going to war, it is fair to say that the credibility of this administration and our country has suffered immensely–one of the unintended consequences of the debacle in Iraq. My hope is that the story told in my book about the importance of holding your government to account for its words and deeds will inspire Americans to ask good, hard questions about our foreign policy and initiate a robust debate about our role in that region before giving this administration authority to conduct a military action in Iran. The administration made a conscious decision not only not to listen to but to suppress warnings of possible regional consequences spilling over from the war in Iraq. If the Administration refuses to learn from the mistakes of the past, Congress must when considering policy options towards Iran. Military action will provoke unanticipated reaction that may make situations worse and should be a last resort, not the option of choice.
2. The CIA seems beset with some serious morale issues. We previously reported on a number of resignations under Porter Goss. But it appears that his replacement with General Michael Hayden has done much to restore morale. Recently we reported on some aspects of an erupting feud between Inspector General Helgerson and Hayden, only the outward parameters of which have so far made it into the press. The core appears to have something to do with coercive interrogation policies, although we have no details. To what extent are the Bush administration policies favoring highly coercive techniques–waterboarding, long-time standing, hypothermia, sleep deprivation in excess of two days, the use of psychotropic drugs–causing problems within the Agency?
The “review” of the CIA’s Inspector General’s office by the office of the CIA Director is curious indeed; there are clearly overtones of intimidation and unethical meddling in the Agency’s watchdog office. I would argue that what I know from my former colleagues at the CIA, morale continues to be a problem and this stems from the unprecedented level to which politics has been allowed to seep into the Agency, distorting and weakening its core mission. Americans want to know that whatever intelligence lands on the President’s desk it is free from ideological taint and political pressure. We live in perilous times with serious and emerging new threats and it is ever more critical that our intelligence services provide our policy-makers with solid intelligence served up cold.
3. As an intelligence professional, do you believe that the Agency has drawn benefit from the use of highly coercive techniques like the ones I just described that could offset the damage to the nation’s reputation that results from the disclosure that they’re being used?
I believe it is imperative that our nation abide by the international conventions we have signed with regard to the use of coercive techniques on enemy combatants. More important, however, is the opinion of the vast majority of U.S. military leaders who believe that torture simply does not work to extract intelligence. A human being will say anything to make the pain stop. The significant moral issues aside, why apply techniques that are not effective and worse, do further violence to our international credibility? Torture has been rejected as an instrument of interrogation since the time of George Washington. Only George Bush, 42 presidents later, has seen fit to violate that important precedent.
4. As a CIA agent, you are required to submit any publication for review by the Agency. Your book ultimately appeared riddled with redactions, and your publisher took a novel step: it hired Laura Rozen, an investigative journalist, to write an essay filling in those redactions. Can you describe the review process, and explain, in particular, whether you believe the White House used this process to attempt to obstruct publication of your book?
Like everyone who joins the Agency, I signed a secrecy agreement that said I would not reveal any classified information in a published piece. I have upheld my responsibility. However, the Agency has taken the position that I may not acknowledge my government affiliation prior to January 2002, despite the vast amount of material about my background and career available in the public domain. The majority of the redactions in my book are linked to this issue rather than having anything to do with protecting genuine national security concerns. Although I looked forward to working amicably with the CIA’s Publication Review Board (the body charged with reviewing manuscripts for classified material), it quickly became evident that the Agency’s position had more to do with further punitive action against me and my husband and diminishing me and my responsibilities at the CIA than with protecting alleged “classified” information. When it became clear that the Agency was treading on First Amendment freedoms and practicing censorship, I and my publisher, Simon and Schuster, sued the Agency. The government submitted a classified brief to the judge that neither I nor my lawyers were permitted to see in defense of their case. It must have said that the world would stop turning if the public knew the length of my service to my country, because the judge ruled in the government’s favor. We are appealing. My lawyers have set up a website: FairGamePlame.com which provides all the court documents and background on this First Amendment case and demonstrates further abuse by this administration against its critics in a very user-friendly format.
5. The opening chapters of your book contain a description of the initial training as a covert agent. It looks like good material for a movie. Can you explain what attracted you to the covert service? Would you recommend it to a young college graduate today?
My father was a career Air Force officer who served in World War II. My brother is a Marine Corps veteran who was seriously wounded in Vietnam. So the theme of public service ran strongly in my family. I did not grow up thinking I wanted to join the CIA, but the prospect of serving my country overseas, was enticing. I derived great satisfaction working on counterproliferation issues, which are as critical to our national security as counterterrorism efforts. It is vital that the CIA continues to attract bright, young candidates from different ethnic backgrounds and with “hard” language skills to keep our intelligence service strong and relevant. I might suggest, however, that if a prospective qualified candidate asked me if he or she should sign on, that they wait a bit in the hopes that Congress and the Agency itself works to vanquish the politicization of the intelligence community.
6. After your identity as a CIA covert agent was disclosed, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence looked into the question and issued a report which, you say seriously distorted what happened in an effort to provide shelter for Scooter Libby. Can you describe how this happened, what evidence they suppressed or distorted? How did it affect your confidence in the Congressional investigative process?
The report in question is actually the “Additional Views” section written by three Republican Senators and attached to the main report. One of the most egregious “findings” was that Joe’s report actually strengthened the case for some analysts about the alleged sale of yellowcake uranium from Niger to Iraq. This is preposterous. The CIA told Congress in October 2002 there was nothing to the story and told the White House at least four times not to use the yellowcake allegation. NSC Chairman Steven Hadley offered his resignation because he knew that the President had been misled. Also, the Additional View section maintains that I suggested or recommended Joe for the trip to Niger. The entire interview with the CIA reports officer who did suggest Joe and published in the second SSCI report makes it clear that I had nothing to do with recommending Joe. The SSCI report Additional Views section was a further expansion of the character assassination campaign against my husband and me because the administration was furious that Joe had the audacity to speak out as a citizen, exercise his rights under our Constitution, to question the White House on the intelligence they used as their primary reason to go to war in Iraq.
Valerie Plame’s book, Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House can be ordered here.
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“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.”