Last night in a packed Salomon 101, Valerie Plame Wilson told her life story: how she grew up interested in public service, endured the CIA's grueling “boot camp” and had her identity as a covert operative revealed by White House officials as retaliation for her husband's criticism of the Bush administration's case for the Iraq war.
This last point spawned a sprawling, complicated and continuing controversy involving the resignation of an administration official and the jailing of a New York Times reporter. The situation thrust Wilson into the public spotlight, where she has since remained. On Tuesday evening, she gave an insider's view of a story that until now has been told by grand jury investigation, media outlets and spin doctors, but not Wilson herself.
In July 2003, Joseph Wilson, Valerie's husband and a former ambassador, wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times arguing that the Bush administration's claim that Iraq had sought Nigerian uranium was false. A week later, columnist Robert Novak, in a piece about Joseph Wilson's article, identified Valerie Plame Wilson as a CIA agent.
The subsequent criminal trial, investigating whether Wilson was illegally outed, ended in the conviction of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, on four counts of perjury and obstruction of justice. The Wilsons have since filed a civil suit against Cheney, Libby, former presidential adviser Karl Rove, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and several White House officials, seeking monetary damages.
Wilson spoke at Brown as part of a tour promoting her book, “Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House.” Released this October, large sections of the book were redacted after the CIA's required review process. Wilson's publisher decided to leave black bars over the redacted words rather than remove them, she said.
After remaining quiet during the months of investigation and others speaking about and for her, she was finally telling her side of the story, she said.
But Wilson began her speech with the story of how she became a CIA agent. At the “Farm,” a training camp for the agency's operatives, she wore fatigues, trained with a “variety” of automatic weapons and underwent constant evaluation, she said, comparing the camp to the television show “Survivor.” But, she said, she enjoyed the experience.
“I thought this was kind of fun,” she told the audience, to laughs. “I thought it was a camp for adults.” She later recalled recently being reminded that she had been the best marksman in her class with the AK-47 – a fact that her husband said has changed his view of their relationship, she said.
Wilson also discussed sexism at the agency.
“The CIA was certainly born out of the old boys' network,” she said. “It took a long time to break that.” She recalled that on her first day overseas, posted in southern Europe, her boss asked her to “twirl around” for him when they met, though she added that he was a great boss.
Wilson was later assigned to the Counter-Proliferation Division, where she gathered intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. As part of an Iraq task force, she investigated its weapons programs. Though the intelligence the United States used to justify invading Iraq has since come under question, it was “prudent, at a minimum, to investigate and to look into this and to see exactly what (Saddam Hussein) was up to.”
“I think it's intellectually dishonest to say, as is so popular now,” that the intelligence community “always knew” Iraq had no weapons, Wilson said.
But the story for which Wilson has become famous began in February 2002, when her husband was sent to Niger to investigate rumors of a sale of uranium to Iraq. He found no evidence of such a sale, she said.
Later, in President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address, months before the invasion and then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's speech to the United Nations, the African uranium was brought to the American public as evidence.
Watching Powell's address from CIA headquarters, Wilson said she experienced “cognitive dissonance” – what Powell said didn't match what she knew. She felt sick, she said, and when the United States and others invaded Iraq that March, she felt “the CIA had failed miserably” by not having enough time to ensure confidence in its intelligence.
Her husband's piece was intended to make public his disagreement with Powell's comments before the United Nations and Bush's words in the State of the Union.
“We were prepared for the backlash,” Wilson said. But Wilson was not prepared for what happened one week later, when Novak named her as a CIA operative in his syndicated column.
“Well, the S.O.B. did it,” she recalled her husband saying, showing her the newspaper the morning of Novak's column. Overnight, Wilson said, she went from a very private person to a very public figure. Eventually, the criminal investigation revealed that several administration officials, including Libby, Rove and Armitage, told reporters that Wilson worked for the CIA.
The White House had hoped to discredit her husband by accusing her of nepotism, saying she used her position in the agency to get her husband the assignment to Niger, she said. She told the audience her role in his assignment was much smaller.
Wilson eventually resigned from the CIA in January 2006, a “bitter moment,” she said.
After recounting her professional history, Wilson spoke more about her ongoing civil case against White House officials and her family's recent move.
Attendees, as evidenced by the turnout, seemed excited to hear Wilson speak.The speech was a “neat insider's perspective,” said Sudhir Paladugu '09, who got a book signed by Wilson, as did many others who waited in line in Sayles Hall after the speech. Wilson told The Herald she now plans on “catching my breath, spending time with my family, and thinking about what I should do next.” She mentioned teaching as a possibility. She and her family have recently moved to Santa Fe, N.M.
“We don't want to be defined by this,” she said.
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