MINNEAPOLIS — Valerie Plame Wilson was an undercover CIA agent working to curtail nuclear proliferation. In 2003 her career was assassinated. Plame’s secret CIA job was illegally exposed by the Bush administration in an attempt to discredit her husband, Joe Wilson, who had accused the White House of falsifying intelligence to mislead the public and build a case for invading Iraq.
Wilson, a diplomat posted to Africa and Iraq during the first Bush administration, conducted the CIA’s 2002 fact-finding mission to Niger, investigating rumors that Saddam Hussein’s regime sought to buy 500 tons of yellowcake uranium. His report concluded the story was bogus.
When President Bush reiterated the Niger allegations — the now-famous 16 words — in his 2003 State of the Union address, Wilson went public with his findings in the New York Times. His wife’s undercover status was blown in retaliation a week later.
The White House reprisal endangered Plame’s foreign contacts, torpedoed the couple’s careers, impugned their integrity and pushed their marriage to the brink.
Plame’s life as a spy and her betrayal by the White House is now the subject of a Hollywood drama. “Fair Game,” based on the couple’s memoirs, stars Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, and was produced by Minneapolis film financier Bill Pohlad. I spoke with Plame and Wilson by phone from their Santa Fe, N.M., home last month.
Q: What was it like to go from a life of secrecy to unintended celebrity?
VPW: Very difficult. I went from a career where obviously discretion is paramount and literally overnight all that changed. I have found it very difficult to be a public person. One positive thing that has come out of it is I have been able to advocate publicly for things I was doing while at the CIA, which was counterproliferation. (Plame appeared as an onscreen expert in the anti-nuke documentary “Countdown to Zero” released earlier this year.)
Q: Some of your critics charge that you appear to be enjoying your celebrity too much, profiting from book and film deals and hobnobbing in Hollywood.
JW: I wrote an article asserting the administration had possibly skewed the intelligence to justify a war in which now over 4,000 Americans and 100,000 Iraqis have been killed. Two days after my article appeared, the White House press spokesman acknowledged that the 16 words should never have been in the State of the Union address. Everything else has come about as a consequence of defending myself and my wife and my family against their attacks. If they had never attacked me, we wouldn’t be here. If they stop attacking me, they won’t have to worry about the sequel.
VPW: None of this happened so we could write books, I assure you.
Q: The film is a portrait of a marriage under strain. How did it feel to see your marital issues dramatized?
VPW: It’s very painful for us to watch those scenes in the movie, because they’re powerful ones. When we met it really was love at first sight. That line, “They don’t get to take my marriage,” I really said that. My children are the most important things in my life.
Q: Joe, in the film you are portrayed as a man of considerable ego. How did that feel?
JW: What ego? I’ll just put it to you this way. When during the course of your adult life it has come upon you to face down Saddam Hussein and subsequently George W. Bush, then it becomes difficult to take people named Scooter seriously. (Vice presidential chief of staff Scooter Libby, one of the sources of the leak, was convicted of five counts of lying and obstructing justice.) I think my arrogance is leavened with more of a sense of humor than Sean shows.
Q: How truthful is “Fair Game”?
VPW: It’s not a documentary. It’s condensed, and there is some compositing of characters. But I think it does a really good job of portraying what we went through, and the truth of the matter.
Q: There’s a scene where someone accosts Joe in a restaurant as he is having a business meeting and accuses Valerie of being a traitor. Did that actually happen?
JW: I was in a restaurant in Washington, D.C., and I got up and left. This person went over to the people I was having lunch with and said, “If you work with Wilson you’ll never work in this town again.” But that actual confrontation did not happen.
Q: Director Doug Liman’s father, Arthur Liman, was chief counsel for the Senate Iran-Contra hearings in the mid-1980s. Did his deep ties to Washington help him understand the mentality of the city in ways other filmmakers might not?
VPW: We knew who his father was and we had known his work previously. He made it clear he wanted this to be entertainment. He wanted people to see this film, not just some art-house flick. But he was also very dedicated to truth and accuracy, much more than the way the CIA is portrayed in “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” or “The Bourne Identity.”
Q: Did the actors meet with you to study your voice and mannerisms?
JW: I spent a lot of time with Sean both here in Santa Fe and in New York.
VPW: Naomi didn’t come here but we spent a lot of time together and we’ve become quite good friends.
Q: The film portrays a not-so-subtle sexism in the espionage world. Were you treated differently by the agency or the media than a male agent would have been?
VPW: The CIA is clearly a male-dominated organization. It was probably convenient that I was a woman. Because you can easily say, well, she was just a glorified secretary. That somehow I had something to do with getting my husband this so-called boondoggle to Niger. It was convenient to the narrative that the White House and their allies were seeking to draw about what had happened. ‘Oh, this is just a mountain out of a molehill,’ make it all about the Wilsons, anything to divert attention away from what had really happened.
Q: What would you tell someone coming to you for advice about a career in government service?
JW: The 21st century is going to be perhaps more dangerous than the 20th century was. We’re going to need the very best and the brightest in our military services, our intelligence services and our diplomatic services and they are all great, great careers.
VPW: I loved doing what I was doing and was proud to serve my country. Despite what happened to us, there are so many ways to engage. It doesn’t have to be at the federal level, but trying to effect positive social change, there are a lot of ways to do that.
Q: You have left the swampland of D.C. for the desert of Santa Fe. What’s life like now?
VPW: We’re very happy here. This is a beautiful part of the world. We’re rebuilding our personal lives, our professional lives, our kids are happy here. Washington was never our home, anyway.