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Valerie Plame: From Real Life Covert CIA Operative To Writing Fiction

October 10, 2013 1:25 p.m.


Valerie Plame, author, former CIA covert operative.

Related Story: Valerie Plame: From Real Life Covert CIA Operative To Writing Fiction


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: We don't often talk about spy novels on Midday Edition, and it's not because we don't like a good read. But our focus is San Diego news, not foreign intrigue. But when a new spy novel is written by a woman who dominated national headlines ten years ago, we are happy to make an exception. Valerie Plame used to work as a covert CIA agent before her cover was blown by a member of the Bush Administration. And that act was apparently in retaliation for his ambassador husband's refusal to go along with a story about Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction. Valerie Plame is out with the first in a spy thriller series. The novel is called Blowback, and it's co-written by Sarah Lovett. Welcome to the show.

PLAME: Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: You've gone from being a covert CIA operative to an internationally known figure. That must be a weird transition.

PLAME: Surreal. It took me a couple years honestly to come to terms with it. Because I literally went overnight from being a very private person in my covert capacity and a job that I loved, to the next day being this very public persona and described in ways and in terms that I did not appreciate or understand because it was so partisan. It was a really white-hot light for a while.

CAVANAUGH: It was indeed. And I'm wondering, what was the weirdest thing about it? Was it the TV cameras? The fact of reading about yourself all the time?

PLAME: It is sort of an out of body experience. Because it was so partisan in nature. My husband and I went through the ringer. We were called traitors and liars, and I was accused of nepotism, having sent my husband on this trip to Niger, which started it all. I was accused of not being convert, that everyone knew who I was and where I worked, which was not true. But in any case, hearing about that, and reading it, really weird. It had nothing to do with who we were and our character and our values. So it was some tough times.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you what exactly does it mean to be a covert CIA agent? What did most people think you did for a living?

PLAME: What it means is you do not acknowledge that you are working for -- it really depends what your cover is. But you really do not acknowledge working for the CIA. Your cover could be that you were working for the State Department or perhaps another government entity. Or on the other end, you in fact are a commercial business person. And there's many variations in between there. So in your training and the type of people they hire, it becomes -- it's not as weird as it sounds because it very much is interwoven in your life and your lifestyle. And I found it -- I guess it wasn't until I left they found it a little bit strange.


PLAME: But I loved my career. And I was really proud to serve my country.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you wrote a memoir, are not the book we're talking about today, but Fair Game. Of course it became a movie. Was it important for you to tell your side of the story?

PLAME: Oh, it was! From the time my identity of betrayed in 2003 until I resigned from the CIA in 2007, I could not speak publicly. So my husband had to carry all that water for us, defend us, and push back on the attacks. So fast writing that book was a very selfish experience, in that it was a catharsis, and an attempt to understand, now, what just happened? What was that? So by contrast, in contrast, Blowback has been a heck of a lot more fun to write and to do and to talk about because it's obviously informed by my experiences in the CIA, but it is fiction.

CAVANAUGH: A lot of your memoir was redacted by the CIA. There are pages with big black lines. That had to be frustrating. And I wondered if it's one of the reasons that you're now writing fiction. &%F0

PLAME: Well, I had to do Fair Game for me and for my own coming to terms with what we went through. When you join the CIA, you are obligated to sign a secrecy agreement. You promise not to reveal sources or methods. I completely appreciate that and support it. What happened with Fair Game because it was so politically, and there was a lot of retribution involved with it, like 99% of the redactions have nothing whatsoever to do with national security. But in any case, I submitted it to the CIA for their prepublication review. And they couldn't that I was not revealing classified information. But I tried to make it as realistic as possible.

CAVANAUGH: Now, the heroine in the novel, Blowback, Vanessa Pearson, shares a number of similarities with you, including initials. Is this you in disguise?


PLAME: I've done the disguise thing already! I would say Vanessa is a much smarter and certainly younger version of me. But I was able -- it was really important to me, the genesis was I wanted to have a really strong female protagonist. Because how pop culture portrays females in the espionage genre is for me just eye-roll. They are just cardboard characters. They are highly reliant on sexuality or gun play. And there's nothing there that I recognize, really! So Vanessa Pearson, she's a young woman in her late 20s, still figuring it out, trying to hone her judgment. Very smart but has flaws for sure. In addition to that, having the trade craft correct was important to me. So how you communicate with an asset clandestinely, how you move in and out of a country. All of those things are really usually very poorly done in popular culture. I wanted to get it right.

CAVANAUGH: I hear that real espionage is a lot duller than what we read and see in thrillers. How do you make it accurate but also --

PLAME: You cut out a lot of the waiting! You cut out the times that you're waiting at a restaurant for someone to show up. Or the rabbit holes that you go down and nothing is there. So obviously if you put all that into a book, people would not be reading it! So I consolidated a lot of it. Like anything in this world, there's moments of frustration and challenges, but overall, my experience with the CIA, and I focused primarily on nuclear counter proliferation, was -- I derived a great sense of satisfaction out of working on those issues.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you left the CIA before the era of WikiLeaks and the release of classified information on the internet. What is your take on this kind of information being made public?

PLAME: Julian Assange of WikiLeaks is a really unsavory character. It's really hard to feel any sort of sympathy for him. But that should -- that is a distraction from the real issue, which is the onus should be on the government to say what is classified, what is not. A lot of the information that he -- that WikiLeaks put out raised some very deep questions about what are the actions of some rogue members of our military in Iraq, and so forth. For me, it wasn't a surprise for instance when they had diplomatic cables that they have an ambassador saying one thing publicly and another thing privately. No surprise there! But when you have now I believe over 1.4 million Americans with a top secret security clearance, why is anyone surprised this in the case of private manning, a 22-year-old, just a kid, that he had -- why did he have access to what he did? And is it any surprise out of that 1.4 million Americans with top secret security clearance that leaks will happen?

CAVANAUGH: Now, the government's case against private Manning was that he put security personnel at risk. And covert operations at risk. I don't think they were able to prove much of that. But do you fear that may eventually happen with all these people having security clearances?

PLAME: Well, certainly the possibility exists. I think we are now for lack of a better term in a post-911 world, the military industrial, now intelligence complex, is so vast, no one person can get their arms around it. Millions upon millions of square feet of office space have just mushroomed up around Washington DC, and I was in Washington last week, and as I marvel every time when I do go a couple times a year, the amount of money that is in that town, it is a boomtown. And it comes a lot of it, billions of dollars are coming from everything that comes under the Homeland Security rubric and the contractors just sitting around, waiting to catch those dollars.

CAVANAUGH: The American public seems to take a dim view of spying when it comes to having their phone records looked at our internet searches compiled. Do you defend those practices? Or do they help national security?

PLAME: I take a little issue. I think Americans when they first heard of these NSA revelations from Snowden, from earlier this year, and as they continue to unfold, practical every week more is to come, I had the sense initially many Americans sort of shrugged and said who cares! I'm not a terrorist! Who cares that the government has all that information on me? I am deeply concerned. I'm not surprised. Of but now that we know much more about the breath and the depth and the metadata that the NSA is collecting now not just on foreigners but on Americans as well, I'm deeply concerned. It goes to the heart of the 4th amendment. The issue is not Edward Snowden. He's just a side show. It really is what is the appropriate balance between security and privacy in a democracy? How much are we willing to give up to be kept safe? And after all, is there any guarantee of safety?

CAVANAUGH: I have to ask you this question. Whenever a book by a famous person has a coauthor, lots of people think the coauthor actually wrote the book. So how closely did you work with Sarah Lovett?

PLAME: We have a great working relationship. She lives in New Mexico, as do I. Our publisher acted as matchmaker. Sarah is a thriller writer. So she really gets the craft of writing, pacing, how it make it move. And I brought to it all the characters that I've met along the way, plot. So we just found what worked for us. And it -- we're really happy -- I'm happy to say there's been some great reviews. So far so good.

CAVANAUGH: You mention that you live now in New Mexico. What's your life like now?

PLAME: Vastly different than the lives we had in Washington DC. We moved in 2007. Our twins are now 13. And I'm deeply involved in a lot of things in my community. We've rebuilt our personal lives and our professional lives, and when I'm not doing various things, I'm involved with global zero, are nuclear nonproliferation, or public school reform. I'm driving my twins around to 1,00001 activities.

CAVANAUGH: What is your husband doing now?

PLAME: He's spent over 20 years living and working as a diplomat in Africa. So he now has some business interests this, and he too takes his turn drive the 13 year-olds around.


CAVANAUGH: Do you miss the CIA?

PLAME: I do. I miss my career. I found a great sense of satisfaction, particularly on working at this nexus of terrorism and nuclear proliferation. But it didn't work out the way I hoped. I thought I would retire as a senior intelligence officer and be proud of that. But it didn't work out that way. So time to start another chapter.

CAVANAUGH: It sounds as if you don't like what you're hearing these days when it comes to security, what the United States is doing in terms of national security and how that is all playing out. Do current events disturb you?

PLAME: Like every American, first of all my hair is on fire that the government is not working. They are not governing. But that's another issue. In terms of national security, I am disturbed by these trend lines that we see both in the NSA and the desire to collect it all. At the same time, I am heartened by this overture that we are seeing with Iran. I believe they are going to meet next week in Geneva at very high levels, secretary Kerry and his counterparts. And for the first time since the Iran revolution, it appears that there is going to be some really high-level talks. Of the maybe this is a window of opportunity. The president of Iran, you know is you have a different bird when he's tweeting happy Rosh Hashanah to my Jewish friends. Great! Okay! Well, we have something a little different here. So I believe that Iran would like to rejoin the community of nations. They recognize that the sanctions are biting. And maybe they recognize that nuclear weapons and this pursuit will not actually keep them safer.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let my listeners know that Valerie Plame will be signing copies of her new novel at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore in Kearny Mesa at 7:00 tonight. Thank you so much for dropping by. I really appreciate it.

PLAME: Thank you for having me!