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Now it’s Plame’s turn to dish

Times Staff Writer

ONE of the novel aspects of the modern era is the way in which the popular response to certain names comes to identify a complex of densely associated, often contradictory beliefs, rather than the real people to whom they belong.

The Frenchman Alfred Dreyfuss was perhaps the first of these. In our own country, there are, among others, Sacco and Vanzetti, Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs. It’s interesting that, different as they all are, the thing that links them all is the question of betrayal. Thus we come to this moment’s nominative markers -- Joseph C. Wilson IV and his wife, Valerie Plame Wilson.

Wilson is the former ambassador, who -- in the run-up to the Iraq war -- undertook a secret mission for the CIA to determine whether Saddam Hussein had attempted to purchase a form of raw uranium from the West African nation of Niger. The CIA was looking for information so it could respond to urgent inquiries on the matter from Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, which was desperate for any shred of evidence that the Iraqi dictator was building weapons of mass destruction. Wilson found no evidence of such sales. When President Bush nonetheless cited Hussein’s activities in Niger as one of the justifications for invading Iraq, the former diplomat wrote an op-ed essay for the New York Times that contradicted the president. Bush loyalists as well as Cheney and his people responded with fury and, as part of a particularly vicious campaign to discredit Wilson, revealed to various members of the Washington press corps that the diplomat’s wife was a CIA agent who worked on nuclear nonproliferation issues.

Wilson already has published his memoirs. Now, Plame has written “Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House,” her account of how a 20-year career as a covert operative in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations came crashing to an end in the aftermath of the White House’s retaliation against her husband.

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Readers in search of sensational revelations or new information on the substance of the Plame affair -- which ultimately resulted in the indictment of former vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby and his conviction for perjury -- will be disappointed. In “Fair Game,” Plame accuses the Bush administration of “arrogance and intolerance” and alleges that the orchestrated attack on her husband was a “dress rehearsal” for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign to discredit Sen. John Kerry’s war record during the 2004 presidential campaign.

“It was classic Karl Rove: go after your enemy’s strong point,” Plame contends, charging that the president’s chief political advisor engineered both smears. “In Joe’s case [his strength] was that he told the truth; in Kerry’s case, it was his exemplary military service.” (Rove did provide Plame with her book title, when he told a journalist that her husband’s activities had made her “fair game.”)

Plame also has harsh things to say about the reporters who were on the receiving end of the White House leaks and, later, resisted identifying their sources before a federal grand jury. She still is unable to understand why “well-meaning but self-righteous talking heads” criticized Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald for subpoenaing and jailing reporters. “It was the Pentagon Papers or Watergate turned on its head,” she argues. “These reporters were allowing themselves to be exploited by the administration and were obstructing the investigation. It didn’t make much ethical sense to me.” (Actually, the notion that the 1st Amendment is a kind of inconvenience is one of a number of attitudes Plame apparently shares with the Bush administration. Her pique over a Washington Post editorial unfavorable to her husband leads Plame to compare the paper to Pravda.)

If there’s little new in these pages, those fascinated by Wilson and Plame’s role in these events will find convincing answers to some of the more controversial questions surrounding the couple: Did she have a role in sending him to Niger? (No.) Was she really a covert operative at all? (Certainly.) Was her identity already known? (Less clear.) There’s also a good bit of unconsciously revelatory context about the former diplomat and his much younger intelligence agent wife and about their attitudes toward their work and the loyalties that work imposed.

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If much of that is hard to tease from this book, it’s hardly Plame’s fault. As a former CIA employee, the author had to submit her manuscript to the agency’s censors for review. They insisted on savage and -- to this reader’s eye, at least -- punitive redactions that seem designed to prevent publication. Plame and her publisher, Simon & Schuster, which reportedly paid a seven-figure advance for the book, took the CIA to federal court and lost. Rather than go meekly into the censors’ night, Simon & Schuster elected to publish Plame’s manuscript as she wrote it, with the censored passages and words blacked out. The effect is particularly Kafkaesque when she records her dealings with the censors, much of which is stricken. To replace at least some of the redacted material, the book contains an 80-page “afterward” by Washington-based journalist Laura Rozen in which facts about Plame’s life and career are gleaned from interviews and public record.

It always has seemed paradoxical that an insider from the security-obsessed Bush White House ended up in court for revealing the name of a U.S. spy. The situation becomes even more confounding, when Plame’s own account of her life reveals her as a patriotic true believer in the CIA and its mission.

Plame is the daughter of an Air Force colonel and was inspired to pursue government service by the example of her brother, a severely wounded Marine veteran of the Vietnam War. Her mother suggested that Valerie join the CIA at age 22, fresh out of Penn State. By her own account, Plame loved the agency and its culture, believed in its mission. She relished her training in covert operations and rose to one of the handful from the operational directorate selected to serve as Nonofficial Cover Officers -- NOCs, as they’re called. Most covert CIA operatives work under diplomatic cover so, if they’re discovered, they enjoy immunity and can escape home. NOCs have civilian covers and run much greater risks.

The agency must have believed in Plame’s abilities, because it went to great lengths and expense to set up her cover as an international oil executive, paying for language schools and master’s degrees from the London School of Economics and the European University in Brussels. She appears to have been recalled to Langley and the nonproliferation operation because it was feared that her identity was among those that had been revealed to the Soviets by the mole Aldrich Ames.

Still, it’s interesting to read that Plame continues to believe that Hussein’s mastery at deception was enough for the CIA to hold a good-faith belief that he was developing weapons of mass destruction. Confronted by press reports that her CIA colleagues are engaged in running secret prisons where torture occurs, Plame sniffs that the agents’ “lazy tradecraft” led to their exposure. She also reveals that her marriage to Wilson came within one angry confrontation of breaking apart over his resentment that she was allowing her loyalty to the CIA to prevent her from speaking out in his defense. This spy was one tough cookie; no “Smiley-esque” self-doubts here.

It doesn’t fit the pattern, but it’s hard not to think that, under other circumstances, Plame and Scooter might have gotten along just swell. Instead . . . well, that’s politics for you.

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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