DANVERS – The woman who went from covert CIA agent to media star, Valerie Plame Wilson, swept into Bay Path College's Woman's Development Conference at the Sheraton Ferncroft yesterday, telling her story to an enthusiastic and supportive crowd.
In less than an hour, she took a room crowded mostly with professional women step by step through her CIA career and its crashing finish as she became enmeshed in the bitter debate regarding the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq.
Asked about her loyalty to the government, she declared to applause, “I make a careful distinction between my government and this administration.”
She drew gasps when she told the story of meeting her first CIA boss. “He took his cigar out of his mouth just long enough to say, 'Twirl around.'” She confessed temporary astonishment. Then he said, “You'll do.”
“I don't think he got the memo on how to treat female employees,” she said.
The CIA was built on “the old boy network,” she said. Nevertheless, that first boss turned out to be a good one.
Over time, Plame Wilson developed an expertise in the proliferation of nuclear weapons. As a covert agent abroad, she worked to find “sources” on the issue. Her department unmasked A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani scientist responsible for helping build his nation's nuclear weapons and then selling the technology to countries such as North Korea and Libya.
Meanwhile, she met former ambassador Joe Wilson at a Washington reception. “It was love at first sight.” Ironically, they approached one another thinking they had spotted someone they knew. “We didn't. But we wanted to.” A dutiful agent, she had him checked on LexisNexis before proceeding further.
In the run-up to the war in Iraq, her knowledge of proliferation gave her a realistic assessment of the dangers.
“It would be revisionist and wrong to say we knew all along there was no WMD (weapons of mass destruction),” she said.
Saddam Hussein had used them on his own people.
Yet, she rejected many of the rationales for the war. She heard discussion of a source code-named “Curveball.” “I knew of him and his reporting had been completely discredited.”
Following the invasion, Joe Wilson, now her husband, wrote an article citing his own CIA-sponsored trip to Africa that he said refuted the Bush administration's pre-war claim that Saddam had sought to buy uranium in Africa.
Plame Wilson's name soon appeared in print, with claims that she had sent him.
“I felt like I was punched in the gut,” she said. It was not only a blow to her career, it could risk the lives of her sources. Moreover, if she was considered a covert agent, such a revelation is a crime.
In answer to questions, Plame Wilson was asked who outed her. She named State Department official Richard Armitage, whose quote was carried by columnist Robert Novak. Ironically, both were opponents of the war. She cautioned, “That doesn't preclude a parallel conspiracy at the White House.”
In the months that followed, she saw what she believes was a vendetta waged against her husband.
“It was a precursor to the swift boating of John Kerry,” she said. “I was falling down the rabbit hole.” Wilson was called “a liar” and “a traitor.”
At one point, she watched the president give a speech as he departed for Camp David, then heard Marine One on its usual flight path over her house. “Very low,” she said, smiling.
Last March, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, an aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, was convicted of perjury related to his conversations about Plame Wilson's status as a CIA agent. That obstruction of justice prevented investigators from getting to the truth in her case, Plame Wilson said. The fate of her sources remains classified by the CIA and her status as a covert agent has never been resolved in court.
The audience applauded loudly when she promised further legal action.
“A civil suit is our means of getting to the truth now,” she said.
In her talk, Plame Wilson offered an explanation for the charges that she sent her husband to Africa, recalling a request for information on Niger and a third person at the CIA who asked, “What about (sending) Joe?”
Plame Wilson and her colleague brought the idea to superiors, who instructed her to write an e-mail summarizing the case for enlisting her husband. The e-mail has since been released by the administration and is the basis of the accusations that she sent him, Plame Wilson said, “when I did no such thing.”
“I've had it up to here with politics,” Plame Wilson said when asked who she was voting for in the presidential elections.
She said she supported John Kerry in the last presidential election, and her husband is now supporting Hillary Clinton, who “reached out to us.” She lamented the end of her CIA career but celebrated a new life in Santa Fe, N.M., where the 44-year-old is raising her 7-year-old twins.
“We don't want to be defined by this,” she said. “Living well is the best revenge.”
She is promoting a book, “Fair Game,” which includes huge sections literally blacked out by the CIA. Employees of the spy agency sign an agreement allowing them to clear all writings. Plame Wilson, however, believes that political pressure contributed to the censorship of sections of her book.
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