As the long-awaited film of her life is released, the CIA agent outed for failing to uncover weapons of mass destruction bites back.
By Chrissy Iley
9:32AM GMT 15 Feb 2011
Valerie Plame Wilson, one of the world’s most famous spies and certainly the most glamorous, has a curious charisma. It’s a mix of warm charm and pared-back cool.
A Grace Kelly blonde with hair swept to the side, a cream blouse, dainty gold jewellery, natural lip gloss and nude glossy nails, she lightens up the hotel room soaked in California sun. You sense she hates being the centre of attention, which is understandable once you know her story.
In her time as a CIA agent she operated undercover in dangerous territory. At her core she’s conventional, conservative, a patriot. But her entire life had to stay hidden.
That was, of course, until her identity was leaked to the Washington Post columnist Robert Novak in 2003. It was leaked by Karl Rove, president George W Bush’s mastermind, and Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, in an attempt to discredit Plame Wilson and her husband Joe. She had been involved in finding intelligence that showed Iraq had no active nuclear weapons programme, contrary to the belief and desires of many of the US government.
When the Wilsons campaigned that it was treason to expose an agent Bush retorted that she was “fair game”. Thus Fair Game is the title of the film that was inspired by her story. Naomi Watts plays Plame Wilson with an extraordinary resemblance, and Sean Penn plays Joe Wilson.
It’s a gripping film, not only because it’s very realistic in its approach to what a spy really does, but in its portrayal of the upheaval in Plame Wilson’s life after she was exposed. She was publicly attacked and the decking of their house in a Washington suburb was unscrewed, endangering the lives of her two-year-old twins who played outside.
Lifelong friends were shocked to discover that their friend Valerie, with a bland job in finance and Banana Republic taste in clothes, was in fact someone else. They felt betrayed, became distant. She received death threats and Joe’s consulting business dried up.
Joe wanted to fight. Fight for his reputation and his wife’s. But Plame Wilson had signed a secrecy clause when she joined the CIA, leaving her in the extraordinary position of being bound by duty to an organisation that had betrayed her.
The couple’s diametrically opposite approaches caused chaos and fracture within the marriage, and they nearly lost each other. Perhaps the most painful part of the film is watching their marriage fall apart. Was it exaggerated, or were there really such problems? “No, it was not exaggerated,” Plame Wilson sighs.
Joe, with his grey hair and round glasses, is older and more nondescript than Valerie. But he is also more outspoken and confrontational. As a US ambassador to Niger he had had to be. The CIA had sent him to investigate rumours of a sale of enriched uranium to Iraq, a necessary component for making a nuclear bomb. He returned and wrote an article for The New York Times headlined “What I Didn’t Find In Niger”.
His conclusions got in the way of decisions that had already been made. Bush and Blair had predetermined to start a war on grounds that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. To suggest that there were not was a very big deal.
“I was working for the CIA and prohibited from speaking publicly,” Plame Wilson says. “During that whole time Joe had to carry the water for both of us. After I resigned I could eventually speak for myself, but when it first happened I was in complete shock and it took a long time for me to overcome it.
“Joe understood immediately what was going on and moved his response level up to the highest possible, and I was just frozen. The entire movie is a very accurate portrayal of what we went through. The importance of speaking the truth and holding your government to account.”
She exudes an impressive amount of confidence. She seems emotionally compact, self-sufficient, a woman that never complains. A man’s dream, perhaps, which is partly why she’s got so much attention. That and the idea that she’s a female James Bond, using her beauty as a weapon of mass seduction.
In her book she says that in early training she was asked what she would do if she was conducting a debriefing alone with a foreign agent in a hotel room when there was a knock on the door and a shout: “Police”. She said she would strip off her blouse and leap into bed with her accomplice to provide an alibi.
So how important were her looks when she was working at the CIA? “Hollywood does tend to portray CIA officers as totally the honey trap. Looks matter as they do in any profession. But the most important thing for me when I was working was blending into my environment,” she says.
“If I had a target, [I would] find out what was their motivation and how do you pull them in? How do you make them interested in you? All to potentially provide the US with information that was useful and would go to senior policy-makers.”
So did she ever seduce anyone? “No, I am sorry to disabuse you of the whole notion of James Bond, but the US government has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in my training, and that did not include me being horizontal.”
The posters for the film show the calm, cool, blonde gaze of Naomi Watts. It’s exactly the same gaze I see from Plame Wilson. “Naomi’s children thought they had two mothers when they came on set,” she says. “Naomi did her research. She wanted to know what was going on in my marriage. She asked me a lot of questions about the dynamics of the relationship.”
Sean Penn came to spend time with Joe. “We were together about 18 hours a day,” he says. “We did Joe Wilson days, which were decidedly sober, and Sean Penn nights. He knows everything about me from the brand of boxer shorts I wear to the prescription in my lenses.”
Can Plame Wilson remember the moment where she saw herself exposed in the newspaper? “How it was depicted in the movie it really happened. I’m in the bedroom early one morning reading the paper and instantaneously I realised that my career was over, my family was in jeopardy, contacts in danger and all as a consequence of my work. I felt punched in the gut.”
Did she ever hear that the people who had been working for her and helping her with intelligence in Iraq were safe or not? “The CIA did conduct a damage assessment, which I have not seen. In some cases I know what happened, and in some I don’t.” And in the cases you know about, did they have a happy ending or sad? “Mixed.”
She is sometimes incredibly circumspect with her words but at other times she is not. She likes to connect but then she pulls back. “It’s very hard for me to see some of those scenes in the movie where the marriage is failing.” She pauses and there’s a little sniff.
“But Joe and I have never lost sight of the fact that despite what happened to us, while difficult to us personally, it’s really nothing compared to the families of the servicemen and women who were sent to Iraq on intelligence that had clearly been manipulated.”
Does she think that Tony Blair’s government knew exactly what the CIA knew? “Yes, of course, the US and UK intelligence work very close. They share quite a bit of information. There was a report that said the facts would be fitted around the policy.” But does she know that Blair knew everything that Bush knew? “It would be speculation on my part.”
Joe knew what her job was, but he didn’t know the details. Wasn’t it hard to have a husband she couldn’t tell her secrets to? “I was fortunate in that my husband, having served as an ambassador for many years, and also as a diplomat, understood that world to a certain extent. It wasn’t a completely different universe. He understood there were certain things I couldn’t tell him and that was never an issue.”
They met at the Turkish embassy in Washington DC in 1997. “It really was love at first sight. It was a coup de foudre. It was like, oh there you are. And he felt the same way. It was a good thing because he really had a lot to go through. Our marriage is stronger than ever and we survived and we both know more about the other than we ever thought we might. After the leak and the character assassination we endured, there was tremendous pressure from outside on the marriage in ways that we couldn’t control and I couldn’t even speak about.”
You wonder about her capacity for endurance and her stubbornness to give up something she knew she was good at. In the film there is a scene where she describes an early training facility called The Farm. Everyone was interrogated, subjected to simulated torture. Everyone gave up except her. It proved to her that she was exceptional.
What was the worst torture, what happened at The Farm or what happened after the leak? “Oh, the latter. What happened at The Farm was hard training but there was a purpose for it, and it was the betrayal afterwards, it was so painful.”
She comes from a military background, a Republican one at that. Would she vote Republican now? “Not the way the Republicans are set up now. Joe and I were both raised in Republican families, but the party is much different now. We believe in a strong defence, but the party has changed from those days. It’s hardly recognisable.”
If she had her time over again would she go into the CIA? “Absolutely, I loved the CIA,” she says. “I was never bitter and I don’t see myself as a victim in any way. I abhor what happened and I hope it was an anomaly. Bitterness is a wasted emotion, but I was angry, and there’s a difference. They tried to diminish me and Joe, and the whole point of their character assassination was to divert attention from the real issues.”
Angry, not bitter. Betrayed, but uncomplaining. Many conflicts churning on the inside. Watts portrays her with all this complexity and the veneer that goes with it. “I am not calm at all,” Plame Wilson says. “On the inside I’m shaking. I’m just trying to exhibit some semblance of grace under pressure.
“Hair and make-up always helps. I did always try to be well-groomed, professional at all times. Take your job seriously – but not yourself.”