“…the final assault was the climax of our paramilitary training. Each of us carried 80-pound backpacks, filled with essential survival gear: tents, freeze-dried food, tablets to purify drinking water, and 5.56 mm ammunition for our M-16s. The late fall weather was bitter and slimy water sloshed in our combat boots. A blister on my heel radiated little jabs of stinging pain…’ (From the opening paragraph of Fair Game, Valerie Plame Wilson’s memoir.)
The death of Robert Novak, the columnist who outed Valerie Plame, sent me back to the blonde spook’s 2007 memoir in which overcoming problems akin to foot-blisters during fake CIA war games are elevated in the author’s mind to the level of courageous acts.
Random House was reputed to have offered Ms. Plame $2.5 million for this large pile of blanked-out pages, self-pity and personal trivia. But the deal fell through for unpublished reasons. Simon and Schuster quickly picked up the leavings and published it for a presumably lesser, undisclosed but still hefty advance.
Ms. Plame was exposed by Novak in 2003 soon after Plame’s husband, Joe Wilson, wrote a New York Times Op-Ed entitled “What I didn’t find in Iraq.” The CIA had sent Wilson to Niger to see if Saddam Hussein was really trying to procure yellow-cake uranium as an obvious and previously known Italian forgery had implied. Hussein wasn’t doing it; he already had plenty of yellow-cake uranium with which he was doing nothing.
But that hadn’t stopped George W. Bush from inserting the bogus claim in his 2003 State of the Union address while trying to convince the country — and a very gullible, bum’s-rushable Congress — to invade Iraq.
Since there wasn’t much of an anti-war movement (and still isn’t), tame liberals seized on Wilson’s Op-Ed as mainstream proof that the case for war was bogus. Anyone with a functioning brain already knew that, of course. Exposed Bogusity, even the reams of it uncovered since 2003, has never stopped a determined administration from going to war and it certainly wasn’t going to this time.
Nevertheless, Joe Wilson at least deserves a little credit for publicly declaring the yellow-cake story to be false. However, according to her own book, the same cannot be said about the very ordinary Ms. Plame. “But she’s such a hot babe!” exclaimed a liberal friend who has very little knowledge of the case and bought the liberal party line that Ms. Plame was simply a victim of a vindictive administration who would even go so far as to endanger national security by outing a CIA agent — even a hot one — to get back at a minor critic. Agent Plame’s book paints a different story. Ms. Plame says that her outage inflicted serious (but unspecified) damage on national security because she was a NOC agent, a No-Official-Cover CIA agent (i.e., she wasn’t commonly known to be a government employee), who was working on counterproliferation of nuclear and other dangerous activities around the world.
There are several things wrong with this argument. While Ms. Plame was probably more than “a glorified secretary” as Republican Congressman Robert Wexler once called her, she wasn’t much of a spy. As Time Magazine reported shortly after Novak’s security breech, “Mostly Plame posed as a business analyst or a student, according to her former boss Fred Rustmann. Plame was never a so-called deep-cover NOC, he said, meaning the agency did not create a complex cover story about her education, background, job, personal life and even hobbies and habits that would stand up to intense scrutiny by foreign governments. ‘[NOCs] are on corporate rolls, and if anybody calls the corporation, the secretary says, Yeah, he works for us,’ says Rustmann. ‘The degree of backstopping to a NOC’s cover is a very good indication of how deep that cover really is.’ …
Rustmann describes Plame as an ‘exceptional officer’ but says her ability to remain under cover was jeopardized by her marriage in 1998 to the higher-profile American diplomat [Joe Wilson]. Plame all but came in from the cold [the prior week], making her first public appearance, at a Washington lunch in honor of her husband [a Nation Magazine fund-raiser], who was receiving an award for whistle blowing. The blown spy’s one not-so-secret request? No photographs, please.” But “exceptional officer” Plame soon “reluctantly” had herself photographed (albeit partially disguised) in a glitzy Vanity Fair cover story.
Reading between the large blacked-out sections of text in Plame’s book (the CIA wouldn’t let her publish her service history which was already mostly public, and Agent Plame obediently went along with the CIA’s bogus cover up, another stupid sidelight of this case which we will refrain from discussing here) we find that Agent Plame had two jobs during most of her CIA career: chatting up dignitaries in Greece and Paris to ID spy-sources for the first part of her career; and basic international purchasing research for most of the rest. She was trying to help figure out who bought what in the world of A.Q. Kahn and other independent nuke proliferators. Although Agent Plame claims to have accomplished a lot both professional and personally, she never claims to having done much, if anything, to ratchet back nuclear proliferation. Only that she worked on it.
Supposedly Agent Plame was a NOC, but, as her former boss noted, she didn’t have a fake name or identity. Those are “deep cover NOCs.” If the CIA had simply given her a fake name and if she hadn’t authorized glossy celebrity photos of herself, chances are that nothing much would have come of Novak’s breech of security. So much for the CIA’s vaunted damage control. In addition, there are a number of indications in her book that Agent Plame wasn’t as “exceptional” as her boss or her admiring fans want us to think.
Take this key section of her memoir: In the lead up to a Senate hearing on the case, a young Senate Republican staffer asked Plame, “Why did you suggest your husband for the trip to Niger?” The meanie-face Republican questioner “had been particularly pointed in his earlier queries. His increasing hostility concerned me, but I had no idea then of how the Republicans were seeking to shape my testimony. In my desire to be as accurate and truthful as possible, I answered, stupidly [sic], ‘I don’t believe that I recommended my husband, but I can’t recall who suggested him for the trip.’ This was true. Given the incredible pace and scope of my work during that pre-war period and the subsequent passage of time, I simply did not recall the sequence of events leading to the trip. I had completely forgotten that it was a Junior Reports Officer who had first suggested to me that CPD [Counter Proliferation Division] consider talking to Joe about the alleged transaction. I had forgotten that Penny received the call from the vice president’s office that had set Joe’s trip in motion. I had also forgotten that we went to our Branch Supervisor and it was he — not me — who requested that I ask Joe to come into Headquarters to discussion ‘options.’ No lawyer had prepared me for my [Senate staffer] interview; I did not review the events with [husband] Joe [Wilson] or any of my colleagues prior to my appearance because I did not think it was proper to ‘compare memories’.”
Agent Plame forgot. A lot. A veteran, classified NOC agent described by her boss as “exceptional” simply “forgot” who had suggested her husband — her husband! — for an important investigative assignment.
One is left to wonder what else Agent Plame forgot? Maybe her blister was still bothering her.
Liberals were outraged that Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez “forgot” so much about his attempts to fire US attorneys for political reasons. But here’s Plame herself saying she “forgot” one of the most important factoids of her case during what she herself describes as an important interview — she even went to great lengths to make sure her hair was in order! Poor beleaguered veteran NOC CIA Agent Valerie Plame remembered her painful blister back in the 80s during recruit training. But, when the chips were down, she “forgot” the most critical part of her own story under “hostility” from a young Republican staffer.
Poor Ms. Plame. Now she’s no longer saving the world from the [non-existent] threats from Iraq.
With just a small dab of skepticism we can think of a number of questions about this key paragraph, including:
Was veteran Agent Plame intimidated by a young Republican? Why didn’t she prepare for the interview? She’s an experienced CIA agent! Why would she need a lawyer to prepare? Did she really forget? Or, like Attorney General Gonzalez, was there another reason she didn’t “recall” the answer?
There are numerous other hints that Agent Plame was not exactly on the fast track to replace George Tenet. (Which on hindsight might not be so hard.) In fact, she’d have been hard pressed to make it out of ordinary boot camp.
• When entering the CIA Ms. Plame says she “did not expect to find any sort of discrimination because of my gender.” Then she was shocked when it happened. The CIA? Sexist? Omigod!
• She calls her CIA recruit class “a bunch of whiny suburbanites.”
• “My proudest moment came when I managed to score very high on a handgun test, despite having to balance on crutches after spraining an ankle during a morning run.”
• “If you faltered [during recruit field training] in any way you were kicked or subjected to brutal verbal abuse.”
• In the summer of 2003 “there was just confusion at CIA Headquarters as we tried to figure out what the hell had happened to the vaunted Iraqi WMD program. Why aren’t we finding anything? What is going on out there? How could we have been so wrong?”
• Agent Plame’s first day on the job in Athens, Greece: “I ordered a cold coffee in my halting [bleep (Greek)] — espresso and milk were shaken together in a drink with a frothy top [bleep bleep bleep bleep (maybe something to do with adding Ouzo to your coffee?)] and settled in, ostensibly to study the map. I lit a cigarette, another gesture to fit in with the crowd because most [bleep (Greeks)] smoke like chimneys, and tried to look relaxed. I was actually extremely keyed up and waiting for my target.” (Tough assignment there, albeit blister-free.)
• Agent Plame didn’t bother clearing her (partially disguised) Vanity Fair photo with her CIA boss in advance. Her boss chewed her out in a way she said she’d never been chewed out before (apparently, even worse than the “brutal verbal abuse” she suffered in CIA recruit training). Agent Plame subsequently agreed that her boss was right to chew her out.
• Ms. Plame also seems to suffer from a little sexism herself, saying that during her training, “Without a doubt the best officer I have ever seen work a room was my Deputy [bleep] Chief, Jim. Jim was tall, dark and handsome and a legendary recruiter.” (Who was Jim The Hunk recruiting? The world wants to know!)
• Ms. Plame seems to (implausibly) deny that she’s starry-eyed and naive, but she apparently got the vapors when meeting such name-dropped celebrities as Warren Beatty, Norman Lear, Tim Robbins and Marlo Thomas after she herself had achieved her 15-minutes of fame celebrity.
• One of the things Agent Plame says makes her a good Agent: “As a Pi Beta Phi sorority sister at Penn State, I had lived through the frenzied ‘rush’ weeks and once I’d been accepted in the sorority, I attended many a crowded party where fitting in and exchanging easy banter with others was key to social success.” (This apparently prepared her well for chatting up foreign dignitaries, but not at handling young Republican twits.)
• Most of Agent Plame’s description of the case in the last half of her book reads like a poorly written recap of public aspects of her case from very conventional sources since the story broke. In fact, she says she admitted to a co-worker, “I don’t know anything more than what everyone else gets on CNN.”
• After Novak’s column Ms. Plame remained a CIA operative, albeit not too secret and at an office job in Langley, still drawing her nifty NOC pay. But, admits Agent Plame, “My heart wasn’t in the job as it should have been.”
• It’s possible that Agent Plame got overcome by a bad case of cliché-ism, but at one point she also confesses, “Maybe I’m just a slow learner, but it [counterproliferation] is a complicated and ever-changing field.” (Um, excuse me, Agent Plame, isn’t that your job?)
• Agent Plame’s readers are frequently teased with unexplained passing references to such things as “technical spy gadgets that didn’t work as promised.” (Maybe Agent Plame is a slow learner and couldn’t figure them out. Maybe the CIA’s procurement staff didn’t do much quality control. Maybe the design was flawed and somebody died. Who knows? One thing we do know, the CIA didn’t bleep it.)
• “The idea that my government, which I had served loyally for years, might be exaggerating a case for war was impossible to comprehend.” (A veteran CIA Agent actually said that.)
• And this pathetic whine from Agent Plame (among several other similar remarks), as if she was the only woman in the entire world who has to raise kids while working at a job: “My only trepidation about my husband’s trip to Niger was my fear of being left to wrestle two squirmy toddlers into bed each evening.” We could go on at extreme length with these examples, but what would be the point?
Amazon ranks Agent Plame’s memoir down in the sales dungeon, at an abysmal #552,196, well below, say, Roger Duvoisin’s children’s book “Petunias” at #87,782.
In some ways that’s too bad because the quicky “Afterword” that Simon and Schuster commissioned Laura Rozen to stick on the end of Plame’s book to fill in some of the public record holes is pretty good. Ms. Rozen has found some new information about the case and its background that has not appeared in conventionally published sources, including the likely real reason Bush never pardoned Scooter Libby, just commuted his jail sentence.
If the whiny, groupie-ish, forgetful and highly credulous Agent Plame is an example of an “exceptional” CIA officer assigned to counterproliferation, then we’re all going to have a lot more to worry about than blisters on our feet.
(Note: The title of this book review was inspired by Dwight MacDonald’s unforgettable movie review of Ben-Hur, one of the most overhyped, over-produced and stupid films in American movie history.)