133: Spies, Lies, and Leaks with Valerie Plame
Buck: Welcome back to the show everyone! Today my guest on Wealth Formula podcast is Valerie Plame. Now she may sound familiar, the name may sound familiar. She’s a former covert CIA operations officer who spent her career protecting America’s national security by preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Following the 9/11 attacks of 2001 and during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq Valerie was involved in CIA programs intended to upgrade US intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs. Her life and career was upended when her secret identity was intentionally exposed by the members of the Bush/Cheney administration. She has since then done a number of other things though. She’s written several best-selling books and speaks internationally on issues such as cyber security national security, nuclear proliferation, women and intelligence, and the NSA revelations. Valerie, thanks for being on Wealth Formula Podcast today!
Valerie: Thank you for having me.
Buck: So I got to start out basic because you know you’re you’re the first spy that we’ve ever had on this show. I have to start asking, how does one, I mean we’re gonna get into more interesting topics for you but, I’m just curious and I’m sure a lot of people were wondering how do you become a spy in the first place? How do you become a covert, like how do you just, and obviously you were probably not thinking I want to be a spy when I grow up or something like that.
Valerie: I had no idea that that was actually a career option. But I will say I come from a family of public service. My dad was a career air force officer and he served in the South Pacific in World War two, my brother was a Marine he was wounded in Vietnam, my mother was a public school teacher. So the notion of public service was something that I was exposed to and when I was given this opportunity to join the CIA, I jumped at it. It seemed like it was really interesting and I thought it was great that the government was going to pay me to live and work abroad and that’s how that started.
Buck: Yeah it sounds sounds interesting. Can you describe your work around the time of 9/11 as the US was gearing up for the Iraq invasion?
Valerie: I developed an expertise in nuclear counterproliferation. Essentially what that means is making sure that bad guys do not get a nuclear weapon. And bad guys could be a rogue nation state, terrorists, black marketeers. So in the in the period after 9/11 in the run-up to the war with Iraq, I was the head of operations trying to figure out what the heck was going on in Iraq. We had very little intelligence because one our embassy had closed after the first Gulf War in 1991 and you probably recall that in 1998 Saddam Hussein kicked out the UN weapons inspectors. So when the Bush administration as we know pivoted from trying to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan and it became clear that their focus was more and more on Iraq, the question was well what do we know? And so I was working with my former colleagues and trying to figure out who were the scientists, what was the state of their R&D, how were they paying for this, you know, what was going on?
Buck: Was that done in conjunction with the Bush administration or was there sort of the CIA in this case doing what they thought that needed to be done or was it not, was it a coordinated effort at this point with the Bush/Cheney administration or how does that work?
Valerie: Well I think the heart of your question is why did we go to war with Iraq, is that…
Buck: No I guess because to me what happened ultimately here was there was the the Bush/Cheney administration came out and said there was these weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and as it turned out that was not the case, but in the meantime you guys were actually out there trying to find weapons of mass destruction, right?
Valerie: So here’s what happens, the directive comes from the president and clearly really in the weeks following 9/11, already the very top advisors from defense secretary John Rumsfeld to Dick Cheney to other senior officials in the Bush White House had pivoted to Iraq. Now that’s a whole other conversation of why that happened and it was a neoconservative view of how to redraw the map of the Middle East and Iraq had always been a central part of that so they really began to ask questions and the CIA’s job is to try to answer those questions as best they can using well-sourced intelligence.
Buck: Yeah so your story ultimately became international news when your your identity as a covert agent was leaked. Can you talk a little bit about the events that led up to that?
Valerie: So I guess I should start in February 2002, I’ll be very brief about it now, just run through it because it’s been a while, but I was working at CIA headquarters and one of my one of my colleagues a junior officer came to me and she was quite concerned because the office of the vice president had called her to ask her about these reports of 500 tons of yellowcake uranium being being transported bought from Niger to Iraq. Now if that was true that would be really important because it would in fact indicate that Saddam Hussein was reconstituting his country’s nuclear program. So first of all when she was telling me this I have to say I was quite sort of taken aback that the office of the vice president was calling a junior officer in the CIA headquarters, that’s typically not how it’s done, but we were talking about it and someone came by and heard it and said well why don’t we ask your husband Joe Wilson to go investigate these reports. Now the reason he suggested Joe Wilson was because he he had deep experience at both ends of this he had served as a foreign service officer, diplomat at Niger and he had served as in party Bashar’s affair at the US Embassy in Baghdad during the First Gulf War. So Joe knew all the characters he knew the landscape and the CIA always wants to try to answer any questions that the White House might have. So Joe was dispatched, not by me, but by my superiors, to go to Niger and check out these reports. And when he came back he reported that there’s no way this happened. This is totally bogus, this is you know and here’s why one two three. But that was done and filed and and sent away. And then last forward to January 2003 and Bush talks in his State of the Union address about, through the British we have learned that Saddam Hussein has sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. So it wasn’t clear that that was Niger, but Joe very discreetly began to investigate well what did the president mean? How did that get into the State of the Union address? I know there’s no way that those reports were accurate. so he was told and at this point he had resigned from, retired from the State Department, he was consultant, but he was talking to his former colleagues in the State Department talking to staffers on the Hill and he was told oh yeah it was Niger, but if you want to do anything about it you’re gonna have to do it yourself. So of course we went to war in March 2003 and these stories start bubbling up. One of course we’re not finding any WMD and stories start bubbling up without naming him, but that talk about hmm maybe you know not all the intelligence was as presented. And after much consideration in July of 2003 he decided to write an op-ed for the New York Times entitled what I did not find in Africa. And in it he just went after the central rationale that the Bush administration gave for our war which was an imminent nuclear threat and Joe wrote that he felt that the intelligence had been cherry-picked. So that landed with quite a splash because there was a particular moment in time I would say the Bush White House was feeling rather vulnerable because they’ve sold the war to the American people on grounds that are proving not to be so and then this op-ed comes out by a you know its establishment kind of guy yeah. And a week later there was a column by a conservative writer, columnist Robert Novak that outed me as working for the CIA, that I had had something to do with sending Joe on this “boondoggle”. So that’s how then everything just sort of blew up from that.
Buck: So that presumably that was tit-for-tat kind of…
Valerie: It was retaliation, oh no question.
Buck: Yeah. And so now when you look at what happened, because obviously that was big news I remember that of course never thought I would be talking to you about it. But 15 years later how do you view that? What happened to you? Your we’ve had time to think about this, how do you put this into context and you know what are your conclusions that you come away from?
Valerie: Well look for me personally I was really sad to lose my career. I loved what I did, I was proud to serve my country, I thought what I was doing every once in a while was actually relevant, and so that ended rather abruptly. But on a much broader scale, I think Americans have yet to reckon with the Iraq war fifteen years on. I think it was a mistake that we will regret for generations to come. Obama came in and famously he wanted to look forward not be hot you know not backward. And as a consequence to this day we still have not had a reckoning.
Buck: Yeah. So now you know fast forward all these years, we live in some pretty unique times where there’s this overt conflict between the president and national security agencies as a whole. Was this sort of always there at a lower level and that we just didn’t see this clearly or is this a completely new thing?
Valerie: Look, where we are today in our national politics when the president that we have is completely unprecedented without question. But I would agree with those who say that in fact Donald Trump is a symptom not the cause of where we find ourselves. I think what happened was those that see themselves as progressive or more on the left side of the spectrum patted themselves on the back with the election of Obama and the whole route doing great that we’ve elected a man of color, yeah you know the end the racism in America and everything else. Well as it turns out the institutions we have relied so heavily upon for the Democratic Society have been really been deeply eroded and now we have a president who besides frankly his ignorance of national security and other issues because of course he’s never run for office before, but I think it’s fair to say that he knows very little about it, but he unfortunately he, even before he was sworn in even as campaigning he really made enemies of those in the intelligence service and throughout and not just everything throughout the intelligence community because of some of his comments and how he phrased things and I believed he likened the CIA to Nazis, you know never never ever again, that’s always never a winning hand. So like I think most Americans, no matter who you vote for, you hope the day after the election you want your country to do well, you want that President to do well because we’re all in this boat together. But unfortunately that hasn’t proven to be the case, although by many counts this is your thing the economy is doing well, I dare say that it’s rather uneven and the other things that glue us together as a democracy as a society, of course what we’re seeing is deep division, which is dispersing.
Buck: Yeah you know there’s one thing I wanted to ask you about with your perspective is one of the things we hear a lot about these days in part from the Trump administration and people because this conflict between the president and national security agencies is this talk of a “deep state” and something that this deep state has its own agenda that’s independent of elected government. Is that fake news or is there something that’s really to that? I mean is there that deep-rooted a career bureaucracy group that kind of hey this is what we believe in this is what we’re going to do regardless of the government.
Valerie: Well I hope you’re not going down the rabbit hole of cueing on because that’s a whole other bowl of wax.
Buck: I’m not going down that, but more than anything, if anything it addresses that because I think that cueing on thing just takes it to another level. And I think the reason for bringing this up is more just because it’s like this rallying cry of the Trump administration sort of right now you know that there’s this deep state is after me kind of thing and I’m just kind of wondering what is a deep state? Is there a deep state?
Valerie: Yeah you know he plays that card well and that whole term deep state actually comes from Turkish politics, and look where they are now. Of course there are really good people throughout the government that they’re trying to do their job, they love their country, they might be at odds with whomever is in the top job and that’s always the case of you know because we go through we go on both sides Democratic and Republican presidents. The trick is of course how to navigate those waters. How do you continue to make sure that good policy is done, what happens, what do you do if it’s at odds with presidential policy and so forth. And there always, always have been bureaucrats officials if you will who ever resigned on principle because they simply could not support whatever you know was being they felt rammed down their throats. This has been taken to a-whole-nother level of course there was in so-called anonymous op-ed in the New York Times of last week that fan those flames that and what this looked at, what that serve to do was to make Trump even more paranoid and yeah they’re out to get me and you can point to that and go see, see? I don’t, I would find it very hard to believe that it’s anything very well-organized, first of all I’ve worked for the government for many years you know it’s really hard to keep a secret much less organized on that sort of scale.
Buck: Right you know you look at it certainly even within the agencies and I think you mentioned something about this in your in your book where it used to be the case that people kind of kept their politics to themselves but increasingly even within the security agencies these days that it’s not quite the case and how is that impacting the work that needs to be done?
Valerie: I absolutely believe it has changed and I would actually pinpoint the election of 2000, Bush v Gore and all of that as a turning point. It felt like after that and where it used to be you know you do not employ company or at the dinner table you did not talk about sex politics or religion. And all of a sudden I feel that after that moment and then 9/11 broke us open even more so, initially we were united but quickly fractures appeared because of the Bush administration’s policies. So everyone is much more highly politicized and we are and we find ourselves in a highly polarized country. So how does that affect the work that has to be done? Intelligence professionals are just that professionals they they really try hard just to do their job. They deliver the facts but they’re swimming in this water like all the other fish and you have to be affected by that. So when you have a president at the very top who is denigrating the work you were doing whether it’s the FBI whether it’s a CIA I mean apparently Trump’s comments today against Attorney General Jeff Sessions were yet another round of a punching bag. I don’t understand how that is supposed to be motivating or leadership I don’t understand that.
Buck: So is there anything I mean short of sort of you know a reset presumably within the next administration whatever that is, there’s anything we can do about the rancor now or is this…
Valerie: Look. You know democracy messy as it is is the best thing we’ve got. So what does that rely upon? It relies upon educated voters and how important it just absolutely makes me want to scream or cry or both when I speak particularly young people going oh you know I don’t know where to vote, my vote doesn’t matter. Get with it! I believe maybe this has changed but one of the most vastly underrepresented voting groups are young women aged 18 to 45 and no matter where you are on women’s reproductive rights, you really should understand how your vote or your a lack of a vote could very deeply and personally affect your life. That’s just one example. So besides educate yourself, take in different points of view, and get to work, you know? We are all responsible for keeping our democracy safe and healthy and I don’t think it’s either right now.
Buck: So you tell your story in your memoir and it’s called Fair Game which we will definitely link to in the show notes for people who are interested, very interesting read. But you’ve also done quite a bit of other writing and speaking. Where can we learn more about you know what you’re up to and and you know the work you’re doing?
Valerie: Well I do have a website, ValeriePlameWilson.com which is a landing spot for the different things that I care about. One thing I’m working on right now which is really fun, I’m putting together what I’m calling a spy conference if you will. It’ll be here in Santa Fe New Mexico, where I live. And I’ve invited about half a dozen of my former colleagues, former ops officers and these guys are legendary. And they’re going to come for a weekend, we’re going to talk about things like cybersecurity, Russian interference, nuclear proliferation in where we are today and I it’s not just going to be war stories because you know that’s not useful. I want these amazing and these are really decorated officers to talk about their area of expertise, their issue but then connect the dots to today and why it’s relevant. So if any of your listeners might be interested in that they should go to SpySeminars.com.
Buck: SpySeminars.com and we’ll also put that show link to that. So this has been really fun Valerie, thanks so much for being a Wealth Formula podcast and really sort of shedding light on you know this inside world that you know very few of us know anything about.
Valerie: Thank you so much for having me.
Buck: We’ll be right back.