The Plame Game

Valerie Plame Wilson’s Fair Game is out, complete with lots of blacked-out spots thanks to CIA concerns about the publication of classified information. Thus, in describing how she tended to her twins while holding down her job as an undercover operative, she has passages like this:

It felt a little like feeding a baby bird. Switching between breast and syringe feedings when they took only a few ounces each time and capturing each detail in a notebook soon took its toll. I was exhausted. XXXXXX XXX XXXXX XXXXXX XXXXXXX XXXXXX. Every baby book out there recommends that the mother sleep when the baby sleeps.

She sketches quite a bit of nature, too, but Turgenev she is not.

It was the best time: early evening, the furnace blast from the summer day over, the jasmine just opening to perfume the air, and sunset still streaking the sky pink and orange.

She is candid about many things, including the “relevant life experience” that made her suitable for work as a CIA operative recruiting agents and would-be terrorists:

As a Pi Beta Phi sorority sister at Penn State, I had lived through the frenzied “rush” weeks, and once I’d been accepted by the sorority, I attended many a crowded party where fitting in and exchanging easy banter with others was key to social success. Now, I smiled to myself, envisioning the room as nothing more than another fraternity/sorority party, I dove in, trying to find my target.

This kind of thing, and there is a great deal of it in the book, does not exactly make her come across as a Mata Hari.

She discusses at length the famously controversial sixteen words in President Bush’s State of the Union Address: “the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” which prompted her husband, Joseph Wilson, to write an op-ed denouncing the Bush administration for cooking intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction while building the case for war. But she is either being evasive about how these sixteen words ended up in the President’s speech, or her explanation has been removed by the CIA censors. It does not matter; responsibility for the blunder has already been unequivocally accepted by George Tenet, the CIA’s then-director.

To her credit, Plame is honest in sketching the broader picture of how the U.S. came to believe that Iraq was vigorously pursuing WMD’s. Although she does point to what she regards as pressure from the White House on the agency to adjust its intelligence to fit policy—principally by means of visits to CIA headquarters by Dick Cheney and Scooter Libby to engage in direct talks with analysts—she sticks with the evidence that is by now solidly established, namely, that Langley itself must shoulder the lion’s share of the blame:

The crime and the colossal failure of the intelligence community—and the CIA in particular—was that . . .deep disagreements [about Iraqi WMD programs] were relegated to footnotes in tiny type at the bottom of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). The NIE was hastily ordered by Congress in October 2002 (just prior to the vote to authorize use of force against Iraq) and pulled together by the CIA in an unprecedented few weeks. Even more damning is the intellectual sloppiness of a document known as the “President’s Summary,” which distills the NIE down to one page. . . The CIA failed to demonstrate convincingly to the administration that there was a serious and sustained debate over this issue [the aluminum tubes thought erroneously to be for nuclear purposes].

I haven’t yet finished reading this heavily padded (even as it is heavily redacted) book, but so far, given how much it reveals about the peculiar and dysfunctional culture of the CIA, it is more engaging than I expected.