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The NS Interview: Valerie Plame Wilson, former CIA officer

“I never anticipated that I’d be betrayed by my own government”

How did you end up working for the CIA?
I come from a family in which public service was something to aspire to. My father was an air officer in the Second World War. My brother was a marine in Vietnam. When I was given this opportunity, I leapt at the chance because I thought it would be a hell of a lot more interesting than what my friends were doing.

You were outed by the Bush administration to discredit your husband, Joe Wilson, who spoke out against the Iraq war. Did you feel betrayed?
Yes. I thought I was doing what the administration wanted - going after WMDs. When you're in the CIA, you anticipate the possibility that you'll be betrayed by a foreign government or a source, but you never anticipate that it would be by your own government.

What was the most difficult aspect?
Initially, I was concerned for the network of assets that I had worked with. They were obviously jeopardised. I was also worried about the safety of my children. I knew my career was over, but it dissolved into a year-long character assassination and that was very painful.

What do you think of those who smeared you?
I don't spend a lot of time thinking about them. They have to live with their own conscience.

What about Dick Cheney?
Dick Cheney has a very dark view of the world and has harmed the values that we cherish in the US. How he assessed the threat and the means to mitigate that threat were unhinged.

And Karl Rove?
All he cares about is the continued power and control of his Republican Party. I don't think he has an ideological thought in his head.

Do you feel angry about what happened?
I am angry when I hear things like Cheney whispering into Bush's ear on the way to Obama's inauguration to ask him to pardon "Scooter" Libby and not to "leave a soldier on the battlefield". What kind of metaphor is that for his petty partisan views, when you have men and women giving the ultimate sacrifice? I have nothing but contempt.

Did the White House manipulate intelligence?
I don't think there is any question about that. As the British say, the dossier was "sexed up". A decision was made by the administration for there to be a regime change in Iraq and they fitted facts around the policy.

The film Fair Game shows substantial political pressure on the CIA. Is that accurate?
I was so glad they included that scene. Cheney and Libby came over to CIA headquarters and dealt directly with analysts. That completely subverts the whole intelligence process.

How can politics be removed from intelligence?
For starters, you could have the director of the CIA's job not dependent on the presidential election cycle.

Do you think the CIA is too bloated?
No question. After 9/11, in typical American fashion, we threw money at the problem. The budget is up between $50bn and $70bn a year. We're clearly not getting the bang for the buck.

Is the situation better under Barack Obama?
Perhaps the political aspect has eased but there are still problems in the intelligence community. Political intervention is just one of many.

Is it likely that terrorist organisations will get hold of nuclear weapons?
It is a question of when, not if, we see a nuclear device exploded in a major city. The danger is an escalating proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Do you think it was right to go to war in Iraq?
It was complete folly. Eight years on, the country is in ruins and the US's moral and political authority has eroded. Those who defend that decision say the world is a better place without Saddam Hussein. While that's true, the world would be better off without a lot of dictators.

Would you still be in the intelligence service if you hadn't been outed?

What was it like to be forced into the public eye after leading a double life?
It was terrible. I was in shock for a couple of years. It was just mortifying.

Is there anything you'd rather forget?
All those experiences inform who we are. It's painful, but I wouldn't want to forget anything.

Is there a plan?
Oh, absolutely. I do lots of public speaking, I work at a scientific research think tank, I'm working on my spy thriller, I'm an advocate for Global Zero and I've got 11-year-old twins.

Do you vote?
Yes, absolutely.

Are we all doomed?
No. In terms of nuclear annihilation, we have an opportunity to turn off the path we're on.

Defining moments

1963 Born in Anchorage, Alaska
1985 Joins the CIA
2003 Her identity as a CIA officer is leaked in the Washington Post
2005 Leaves the CIA
2008 Her appeal against the dismissal of a case against Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, "Scooter" Libby and Richard Armitage for conspiring to reveal her identity is rejected
2010 The film Fair Game is released, based on her memoirs


Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the world?