In the autumn of 2003 she was a household name: Valerie Plame, outed CIA agent, in care of Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby, who was subsequently convicted of obstruction of justice.
Now living in New Mexico with husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson, and her two kids, she has kept up her work tracking black-market nuclear materials. Naomi Watts (pictured below with Plame at Cannes) will play her in the upcoming “Fair Game,” and Plame herself is featured in Lucy Walker's new documentary “Countdown to Zero,” which opens this weekend in L.A.
Nuclear safety is such a vital issue. Why hasn’t anyone in Washington made it their signature?
During the Cold War, the paradigm that worked was Mutually Assured Destruction. It kept us safe for decades; it was a strong deterrent. So with the close of the Cold War, people just sort of breathed a collective sigh of relief and moved on.
But what has happened, the world, no surprise, has continued, and it’s evolved, and we’re at the point now where the threat is from the proliferation. And ironically, the nations that are nuclear nations — that have the weapons — are in a much weaker position because of the possibility that terrorists could get them and detonate them.
And, as the film points out, it’s not just terrorists. We are under threat of nuclear detonation whether it’s from accidental use, madness or miscalculation.
Isn’t it hard for the U.S., the only nation that has ever deployed these weapons, to tell Iran it has no right to nuclear materials for peaceful purposes?
Absolutely. But that’s a conversation that’s going to go nowhere. The concept of going to zero is not a double standard. It’s for everyone. No one is suggesting that this is going to be unilateral or it’s going to be easy, but what the organization Global Zero has put together is a very well-orchestrated, delineated, step-by-step program to get to zero for everyone.
Do you view Pakistan as a threat to the stability of the region?
I think experts who follow this carefully find Pakistan to be one of the more worrisome points because it’s a tough neighborhood. Its a very volatile country that, at any given moment, appears to be on the verge of anarchy. We cannot be confident that their command and control structure has the integrity that we need for a nuclear arsenal.
Depending on the day, the tensions with India escalate. There are all kinds of things to worry about, but Pakistan is certainly in the top tier.
Were you instrumental in bringing down A.Q. Khan?
Well, the group where I worked, Counter Proliferation Division, they were the ones responsible for bringing down the A.Q. Khan network in December 2003, stopping Libya cold.
What Hollywood tends to do is show CIA operatives in very much the lone wolf way. It’s not – it’s really a team effort. It’s the targeting people, the technical people, it’s the analysts, people like myself, operations officers who are trying to coordinate all that worldwide and hopefully do creative and secure operations. I was very proud to be part of that division.
He was like a one-stop, nuclear materials wholesaler.
He was 1800 CALL-AQKHAN. He was very entrepreneurial, and there’s still bits and pieces, because his network was really vast, that are existent out there.
Can you talk about what happened with the Bush administration?
Well, we have yet to find any WMDs in Iraq, and the Bush administration’s primary rationale for going to war in Iraq was an imminent nuclear threat. How many times did we hear it form senior White House officials that we don’t want to see the smoking gun in the shape of a mushroom cloud?
When my husband wrote his Op-Ed piece in July 2003, after the war had opened, in the New York Times, entitled, “What I Did Not Find in Africa,” he went right at the heart of that argument and it made them very angry, angry enough to betray my covert identity and all the fall out from that.
It really was a perfect storm with people in the right place with strong feelings about how to expand American might globally and it came – we had, of course, the attack on 9/11 that precipitated all of this, and we have found ourselves in a way that I think history will show to be just a terrible foreign policy mistake that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives.
Do you believe justice was done?
The special prosecutor in Scooter Libby’s case trial, Patrick Fitzgerald, spoke about a cloud over the office of the vice president because there was obstruction of justice. Clearly, he could not get all the evidence that he needed to feel secure that he would get convictions. I think history will judge that period of time for what it was. I hope it is an anomaly. I hope something like this never happens again.
For us personally, we have rebuilt our lives, we moved out of Washington, D.C, and I get to work on something like “Countdown to Zero,” that takes the expertise that I had gathered from my time and applied to something that is really worthwhile.
Is it true that Washington is just Hollywood for ugly people?
I like the phrase that I’ve heard, and from what I’ve seen, that Hollywood, in fact, is high school with money.