And once upon a time
When treason was a crime
Before the Imperial President
Established bold precedent
Undercover operators flourished
And rarely were punished
Unless they were doubles
And thus earned their troubles
I normally enjoy biographies because they tend to illustrate how people live and solve or fail to solve their problems in life. Fair Game, by Valerie Plame Wilson is an unusual departure from that sort of biography. It is historic in outlook, but the problem solving remains unfinished.
The book is heavily redacted. In a few cases, entire pages are blacked out leaving the reader to guess what the topic was. What is not left to the reader to imagine is essentially the ordinary description of how Ms. Plame prepared herself for her career as a spy for these United States. It could just as easily been the description of hundreds of people I know preparing for a career in the military with training that spanned similar areas from map reading to jumping out of airplanes. It included descriptions of how Ms. Plame felt about all this preparation, and her descriptions are skilled and revealing of her strengths, but the description falls short of conveying an understanding of the CIA from the view of an undercover operative with increasing responsibility as her twenty years or so of service played out. A career in the Espionage is not the same as a career in Botany or Accounting, but with the critical elements redacted, it might just as well have been a career in Forest Service.
Thankfully, Ms. Plame was able to include descriptions from others within the covers. They were not redacted and they serve to fill in the blanks albeit without the direct identification of Valerie Plame Wilson. Sources including Valerie’s mom are helpful in getting some of the personal history supported and the description of other undercover agents who were not so politically handled by the agency and the US Government offers corroboration of the mechanics of espionage that, I assume, were redacted. As sometimes happens, the government was highly sensitive to criticism of how it handled the politicization of Ms. Plame and it appears to have classified activities that were embarrassing to the government and the GW Bush administration rather than because these facts would have uncovered sources and techniques or that they were threatening the security interests of the United States. If you recall the disgusting photos of Abu Ghraib were classified as SECRET, but nothing in those photos created an actual or potential threat to our security. They were especially painful for an administration that claimed to have high moral standards and authority. Similarly with Ms. Plame, the extremes to which the Vice President and his staff went to discredit her service and even cause her outing from deep cover demonstrate that embarrassment can be as powerful as the worst security situation. Politicians abhor embarrassment and, when they can control the classification process, are sorely tempted to use the process to shield themselves from embarrassment. Valerie Plame Wilson calls this self-protection by Cheney and associates a betrayal and that word is strongly personal. It may be that and more, but the effectiveness of the classification system worked well politically because it has been defended in the courts and Valerie Plame was unable to continue her career as an undercover agent.
As a relatively minor example of over-classification, Valerie Plame’s retirement annuity computations were classified because they “might have provided time-frames” of her activity. Despite the humor that offers, the initial position of the CIA was to allow publishing and yet it re-classified the information after being published by the CIA and sent to Ms. Plame. It was also included in the Congressional Record. The actual outing by powerful politicians destroyed an intelligence network dedicated to discovering weapons of mass destruction. In most circumstances, that would be regarded as treason, and for good reason. The lives of undercover agents and their contacts in several nations would be put at risk immediately with a high probability of anybody that had worked with Ms. Plame being discovered and “neutralized.” On the technical side, perhaps the classification authority of the Vice President through the President permitted the outing since he might have declared the information as unclassified despite the obvious threat to our national interests.
It is a matter of record that Vice President Cheney felt that Ambassador Wilson had undercut his position that Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction prior to the invasion directed by President Bush. The claim that Iraq had sought yellowcake uranium was quickly disproved (within hours) as a forgery of a document purportedly of Italian origin, but Cheney may have felt that he needed that fiction to support the war and was upset by the loss of the fig leaf and his own vocal support of a forgery. The book provides clear support to destroy the myth that Valerie Plame recommended or sent her husband to Niger. In addition to Ms. Plame’s testimony, the CIA manager who coordinated the visit by Wilson explains how the decision was made in the absence of Plame. It is also ludicrous to believe that an undercover agent could have the power to send anybody anywhere not in her direct chain of command.
The Afterword (Laura Rozen) of Fair Game contains all the information that the reader needs to arrive at the conclusion that our nation lost a dedicated operative and her network through the actions of a proud, political and venal vice president. The Libby trial is covered, as are some of the numerous public gaffes of the CIA and the unusual personal interest of the Vice President in the entire intelligence process and his frequent trips to the CIA. There is an irony in that the CIA allowed others to write what it forbid Valerie Plame to write, but that is only part of the mystery of how we came to a position of extreme partisanship on what could have been explained as a minor misstatement by Cheney. Instead, members of Congress stood up and defended the indefensible and even generated myths like the “assignment” of Joe Wilson by his wife or that Ms. Plame was not an undercover agent. If you have doubts, then the book will satisfy your mind with documented and corroborated reports by people in the know. If you already have your mind made up, expand it with a few facts and a refreshing outlook.
Fair Game, Valerie Wilson, Simon & Schuster, 2007 with Afterword by Laura Rozen
11 July 2010