I had ordered, and received, Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House,[i] by Valerie Plame Wilson, the exposed CIA operations officer, and The Politics of Truth[ii] by her husband Joseph C Wilson IV, a few months ago, intending to do book reviews of both of them. For a while, I never got around to reading them.
Then, this Father’s Day weekend of 2008, I finally picked up Mrs Wilson’s book. I even got some of it read while sitting in a beach chair on the shore of Mauch Chunk Lake, while my wonderful wife grilled steaks on the barbeque. A nice, quiet setting, not unlike parts of Camp Peary, also known as “The Farm,” to which Mrs Wilson refers in her first chapter, “Joining the CIA.” I’ve been in Camp Peary a couple of times, but no, I don’t claim to be a double-nought spy; I was there doing quality control work for concrete pours!
Reading Mrs Wilson’s first few chapters was interesting, an insight on how the CIA selects its recruits — she said that the CIA received 135,000 résumés in 2006, up from 60,000 in 2001[iii] — and the beginning of their training. Under the pre-publication review agreement all CIA personnel must sign, Mrs Wilson’s manuscript was submitted to the CIA for clearance in advance, and was heavily redacted. Entire pages have been censored, and even the titles for chapters 2 and 3 were redacted: they referred to Mrs Wilson’s first operational assignments.
Chapter 4, entitled “Love and the Island of Misfit Toys” begins the description of Mrs Wilson’s assignment to the new Counterproliferation Division (CPD) within the Directorate of Operations (DO). She stated[iv] that, prior to 1996, there was no single government entity devoted to the growing threat of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferation. Due to the redactions, it is not specified exactly when Mrs Wilson became part of CPD, but it appears to have been a couple of years after CPD was formed. This chapter as well is heavily censored, with the amusing note of her introduction to and marriage with Joe Wilson being part of the redacted sections between pages 62 and the top of page 65.
After praising George Tenet, the then-Director of Central Intelligence, Mrs Wilson went into the evolution of CPD; there’s a good deal of interesting material there.
A book like this is not read in a vacuum; I already knew a good deal about the whole “Plamegate” scandal — which she amusingly describes as the only Washington scandal that didn’t involve sex — before I bought her book, and had written about the episode previously. I had noted in Some Secret that:
What I haven’t seen is any discussion of a very simple fact: Mrs. Wilson got in her car, and drove to the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, in full public view, every day, for several years.
The CIA’s headquarters building isn’t exactly a secret; there is at least one exit off a major highway in the Washington metropolitan area which tells everyone driving past that that is the exit for the CIA headquarters! It is a public road.
While it’s unlikely that the foreign intelligence services of Monte Carlo or Azerbaijan covered this particular aspect, it is pretty difficult to believe that the intelligence services of Russia and China and France and Israel and the United Kingdom and Iran and Japan and a whole bunch of other countries didn’t occasionally plant people somewhere along that highway, and every other public entrance, and take pictures of every car, and every license plate, entering the facility. License plates are easily researched; all of those intelligence services knew exactly who was actually employed there, by looking at the frequency with which people drove there and parked their cars.
And on page 71, Mrs Wilson said:
When I was in Washington rather than on the road, I drove every day to Headquarters, always taking different routes and remaining acutely aware of my surroundings.
I’d guess that that’s true enough — but her destination was always the same, and she entered the same complex every day. Of the major foreign intelligence services, it would be sloppy indeed for them not to have noted which cars left the public highways to enter the CIA Headquarters at Langley, and it’s difficult to picture the Germans and the Israelis as sloppy.
Chapter 5 was unexpected, 13½ pages on the birth of the Wilsons’ twins, and her bout with post-partum depression. It’s a rather incongruous section, but it brought up an interesting point about government-run health care. Both of the Wilsons were valued federal government employees, and both obviously enjoyed the federal health care coverage system, though Mrs Wilson never refers to it as such, but simply as her “insurance provider”[v] . Yet she complains about the lack of coverage, and how her health care insurance required her quick discharge from the hospital. For those who believe that federalizing health care coverage would be just wonderful, the unintended story of a couple using federal health care coverage ought to make them take note.
The real meat of this story begins with chapter 6, “Mother and Part-Time Spy,” in which Mrs Wilson begins to describe the efforts at obtaining intelligence on Iraqi WMD programs. On page 92, she writes:
Our other focus was energizing various friendly liaisin services to join forces against the [redacted] target. Liaison — Agency shorthand for a foreign intelligence service– was on the uptick. Traditionally, the CIA looked upon liaison relationships as a necessary evil, especially under the Cold War rubric. . . . Unilateral operations were still greatly preferred and trusted, but the rise of the counterterrorism and counterproliferation divisions changed this long-held equation profoundly.
This, to me, was a very important paragraph, because it tells us that the CIA was not a lone wolf in the sourcing of intelligence data. Why? Because in the next few pages, this woman, who worked on counterproliferation, and who felt personally wronged by the Bush Administration due to the disclosure of her identity, said that while there may have been a few differences on the interpretation of specific information, neither her group nor she had any doubts that Iraq under Saddam Hussein currently had, and was working to build more, WMD, saying, on page 95:
The US intelligence community was not the only actor that found Iraq’s provocations alarming.
I had known all along that Mrs Wilson’s book said that the opinion of the CIA was that Iraq had concealed WMD; I’ve read other reviews of Fair Game. But this was still good to see: someone with a grudge against President Bush and Vice President Cheney saying what we all really knew, that the Administration was not deliberately lying to the American people and to the world about Iraqi WMD. The President is not a producer of intelligence, but a consumer of it; he could only know what the intelligence agencies told him.
Long before the Iraq war became such a highly politicized, divisive issue in the United States, those of us who followed proliferation issues for a living saw that Iraq was dangerous and erratic. Many of the CIA liaison partners around the world were picking up evidence that Iraq was seeking to procure items that could be used in their suspected WMD programs.[vi]
Chapter 7, “Trip to Niger,” begins the section where things fall apart. Mrs Wilson noted that there were many finished intelligence reports that “were not the top-notch, crisp products they should have been”[vii], and tells us about some of the difficulties in getting things nailed down more tightly. Then, Vice President Cheney’s office called, concerning reports about “yellowcake” uranium purchases from Niger. Mrs Wilson said that it was not she, but “a midlevel reports officer” who “enthusiastically suggested” getting her husband involved[viii]. The rest of that chapter is a well-thought-out and plausible case stating that Mrs Wilson was not somehow responsible for selecting Mr Wilson for that fateful trip to Africa.
Except, of course, that it rings true only if you haven’t read anything else. However, I have read other things, such as the transcript of a taped telephone call between Bob Woodward of The Washington Post and Richard Armitage, then the Deputy Secretary of State:
Woodward: Well it was Joe Wilson who was sent by the agency, isn’t it?
Armitage: His wife works for the agency.
Woodward: Why doesn’t that come out? Why does that have to be a big secret?
Armitage: Everybody knows it.
Woodward: Everyone knows?
Armitage: Yeah. And they know ’cause Joe Wilson’s been calling everybody. He’s pissed off ’cause he was designated as a low level guy went out to look at it. So he’s all pissed off.
Woodward: But why would they send him?
Armitage: Because his wife’s an analyst at the agency.
Woodward: It’s still weird.
Armitage: He — he’s perfect. She — she, this is what she does. She’s a WMD analyst out there.
Woodward: Oh, she is.
Woodward: Oh, I see. I didn’t think…
Armitage: “I know who’ll look at it.” Yeah, see?
Woodward: Oh. She’s the chief WMD…?
Armitage: No. She’s not the…
Woodward: But high enough up that she could say, “oh, yeah, hubby will go.”
Armitage: Yeah. She knows [garbled].
Woodward: Was she out there with him, when he was…?
Armitage: No, not to my knowledge. I don’t know if she was out there. But his wife’s in the agency as a WMD analyst. How about that?
Of course, Mr Armitage was not in the room when it was decided to ask Ambassador Wilson to make the trip to Niger. But Mrs Wilson undermines her own credibility on page 168, where she writes, concerning an interview with staffers from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence:
In my desire to be as accurate and truthful as possible, I answered, stupidly, “I don’t believe that I recommended my husband, but I can’t recall who suggested him for the trip.” This was true. Given the incredible pace and scope of my work during the prewar period and the subsequent passage of time, I simply did not recall the sequence of events leading up to the trip.
Plausible? Certainly. Except that, on page 21, she told us how in her training at “The Farm” she worked on her memory retention skills.
Over time, I got better at retaining the flood of information, but it was a relief when [redacted] I could sit in hotel rooms with a real recruited asset and openly take notes . . . .
Perhaps she really did forget, or perhaps she was simply lying. I do not know, but my guess is that it was the latter.
There is a concept called “plausible deniability,” which means that someone structures an action taken in a fashion that he can deny having done so, and his denial is, if not provable, at least plausible, and the denial is difficult to disprove. In chapter 11, “The Year from Hell,” Mrs Wilson continues with statements which she asserts to be truthful, and which are at least plausible, but are unprovable. Her major effort concerns just who actually recommended sending Joseph Wilson to Niger. She has said that the suggestion was made by one of her colleagues, “the Reports Officer,” but that she can’t prove it:
So when my colleague, the Reports Officer, came to my office a day after the SSCI (Senate Select Committee on Intelligence) report came out, he confirmed what I had felt to be true — that I had not suggested Joe at all — but was afraid to voice without knowing for sure. . . . I wanted to urge my colleague to come forward again with the truth, but I couldn’t tell him what to do — to do so could be witness tampering.[ix]
She continued, writing that the Reports Officer’s wife didn’t want him to come forward, because “they would do to us what they did to the Wilsons,” and that he was “told unequivocally” by his supervisor that to come forward was not possible.[x] Certainly plausible, certainly not disprovable, with an internal claim that it can’t be proven; all neatly wrapped up, and we just have to believe her.
Or not. She might be telling the truth, but I don’t believe her.
Mrs Wilson spent much of chapter 11 complaining about the SSCI report, stating that it simply wasn’t all true. Yet she relates the things that would lead a reasonable observer to conclude that yes, she had recommended her husband for the trip: her testimony that she didn’t recall who made the suggestion, along with her documented e-mail in which she noted the reasons why her husband would be a good candidate for the job, which she claimed was an e-mail a supervisor instructed her to send. She claimed that Senators Pat Roberts (R-KS), Christopher Bond (R-MO) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) created a political document, yet she can offer no proof as to why we should believe her claim that the SSCI report was false. In one telling point, she claims[xi] that the SSCI’s “Additional Views” section, which stated:
The Committee found that, for most analysts, the former ambassador’s report lent more credibility, not less, to the reported Niger-Iraq uranium deal,
was unbelievable, but, as she had previously noted, Mr Wilson’s report was entirely verbal. He was debriefed, in their own home, and the debriefers took notes, but Ambassador Wilson filed no written report. Mrs Wilson was not in the room during the debriefing, save to act as hostess.
Plausible deniability again.
The “Additional Views” section of the SSCI report was a political smear if ever there was one and liberally put forth distortions and outright lies. Yet it continues to be cited today by Joe’s critics as proof of his lack of credibility. Months later, Joe asked a senior Democratic senator on the committee how they could have issued such a warped report. His response was simple and direct: there was simply too much “incoming” and “far more serious substantial disputes” on the table. Major battles had erupted between Democrats and Republicans over every single issue and the Democrats couldn’t fight them all. They had let it go without comment. In other words, with more pressing political fights to take on, they made a calculated decision to sacrifice Wilson.[xii]
Yet even after that statement, Mrs Wilson undermined her own point, when she noted that Senator Evan Bayh, a Democrat, said, in an interview with Salon, “we (the Democrats) were agnostic on Wilson.”[xiii]
So it wasn’t just the evil, partisan Republicans; the Wilsons hadn’t convinced the Democrats, either.
For many of our friends on the left, Joe and Valerie Wilson are true heroes, the ones who dared speak truth to power. Yet, not all of the people you’d expect to support the Wilsons against us evil right-wingers (perhaps we should abbreviate it VRWC, as in Hillary Clinton’s complained about Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy). Senator Bayh’s remark indicated that the Democrats weren’t all that comfortable with the Wilson’s version.
What sealed it for me was an editorial in The Washington Post. The editors looked at the revelation that Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage had disclosed Mrs Wilson’s CIA status to Bob Woodward (see the transcript above), and noted that this happened about a month before Mr Wilson’s famous New York Times article, “What I didn’t find in Africa.” The editors of the Post, not exactly friends of the Bush Administration, put two and two together; it wasn’t that someone was trying to punish Joseph Wilson for his article by exposing his wife’s CIA connection, because her CIA connection was being bandied about before Mr Wilson’s article was written.
I wrote about that over a year ago, and concluded:
So, why have the editors of The Washington Post taken a different editorial tack than the other liberal papers? It’s simple: it’s because they know Joe Wilson, they know the social circle in which he and his wife moved, in a way that the other papers did not. Someone clued them in, at least through Bob Woodward, and possibly others. When the evidence that Mr Wilson had problems with the truth came in, the editors of the Post looked at it more carefully than those of other papers, because they knew enough about Mr Wilson to be neither surprised nor disappointed.
This explains a great deal to me. I knew that Mr Wilson was a liar, because I had read the published evidence. But I had also wondered why Mr Wilson, a man with a security clearance, with a wife who was supposed to be a NOC (non-official cover) agent, a man who still had a bright future with the State Department if he chose to pursue it, would publish an article in The New York Times.
Fair Game begins to get less interesting when we get to the next chapter, “Stay and Fight.” At this point, the saga of Mrs Wilson’s exposure is known, and the book takes on the blame game mode. Both of the Wilsons are enormously angry, and it apparently took a toll on their marriage, with Mr Wilson blaming his wife on some occasions because his private consulting business was drying up; his clients were leaving because they were uncomfortable with his growing notoriety, which was not the service for which they had contracted. Mrs Wilson gets far more political with this chapter, telling us how the Wilsons, especially Mr Wilson, were very much politically and emotionally invested in the John Kerry campaign. When she awoke on the morning after the election, her husband was not in bed; she finally found him, out on the deck, checking on real estate in New Zealand,[xiv] apparently infected with the same “emigrate to Canada” silliness that so many of our friends on the left demonstrated when the election didn’t turn out the way they wanted. The Wilsons wound up like so many of the deeply disappointed; they stayed in the United States.
The rest of the book contains nothing that you wouldn’t know if you had been reading anything on the subject in the past few years. The Wilsons blamed the disclosure of Mrs Wilson’s employment squarely on the Bush Administration, with Vice President Dick Cheney and presidential advisor Karl Rove as their most prominent villains. Mrs Wilson referred to the high hopes of our friends on the left that Mr Rove would be indicted,[xv] though she did not mention by name the “reporter,” Jason Leopold, whose original story on truthout.org turned out to be completely wrong.
It was hard to process that someone who had appeared before a grand jury five times, and had admitted that he had spoken to Robert Novak and Matt Cooper in the week before my name was published, would face no consequences for his actions.[xvi]
Mrs Wilson continued that her husband was bitterly disappointed, “in direct refutation of his belief that justice is usually served,” calmly stating that justice was not served in the non-indictment of Mr Rove. That some people did not see Mr Rove’s actions to be criminal does not seem to have been a thought that crossed the Wilsons’ minds.
Mrs Wilson finally got around to commenting about the Washington Post editorial I referenced above. She spends four pages[xvii] attempting to tell us why the Post’s editors were so very wrong, condemning Fred Hiatt of the Post, and David Broder for his article, “One leak and a flood of silliness,”[xviii] but never, ever telling us why we should believe that this was a dastardly plot by the Bush Administration to punish her husband, when it’s clear from the Woodward-Armitage tape that her CIA connection was the subject of gossip at least a month before publication of Mr Wilson’s infamous article.
She did try to explain it away, however:
What even the most seasoned journalists couldn’t seem to comprehend, much less report, was that the Armitage revelation did not preclude the real possibility that there was a parallel effort within the White House to slander Joe and therefore discredit his article and findings about Niger.[xix]
I tried to read and review this book fairly and objectively, but my mind was not a tabula rasa when I began; I had read a good deal, and written previously, on the subject, well before Mrs Wilson’s book was published. No decent reviewer can be expected to know nothing about his subject before starting a non-fiction book. I knew that Valerie Wilson would be a special pleader and that yes, she had an axe to grind. But in Washington politics, everybody has an axe to grind. And while I found her book to be plausible, I never found, even once, anything that made me pause and think, “You know, maybe I was wrong all along.”
To accept Mrs Wilson’s version of the story as the truth, I would have to believe that a lot of other people are liars or fools. That the political operators of the Bush Administration could be lying through their scummy teeth just to get even with Joe Wilson is a possibility that I can accept; politics is a hardball sport in our nation’s capital. But I’d also have to believe that a lot of Washington journalists, many of whom are not exactly political friends or allies with the Bush Administration, are also liars or fools.
That I cannot believe. Bob Woodward made his fame and fortune thanks to Watergate, where, with Carl Bernstein, he was the leading investigative journalist in bringing down President Nixon. If ever there was a case for Mr Woodward’s talents, this was it – unless there really was no “there” there. David Broder isn’t exactly the best friend that the Bush Administration or Republicans have ever had in Washington. And the editors of The Washington Post simply know their stuff; they are among the top print journalists in the country, and the machinations of the federal government are their special province. Idiots and fools simply don’t last at the Post.
Further, in all of this, I looked, and looked hard, for some explanation as to why Ambassador Wilson didn’t publish his article before the invasion. He had spoken about the impending war several times prior to the invasion, and was opposed to it. Yet, when the issue of the authorization was before the Congress – and the Senate was controlled by the Democrats at the time – he never took his evidence concerning Niger to the Democrats, never did anything that could have actually stopped the invasion. When he said he was appalled by the infamous “sixteen words” in President Bush’s State of the Union address, he still did nothing, even though there were still several weeks between that speech and the invasion. Instead, he waited until after the invasion, three months in, when he could be pretty sure that discoveries on the ground wouldn’t destroy his argument. His article, printed when it was, could not change the course of the invasion; at that point, all it could do was to harm President Bush politically. Given his political leanings – for Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 – the notion that was floated (that he wanted to be John Kerry’s secretary of state) makes a lot more sense than anything else.
Valerie Wilson had been required to sign a confidentiality agreement before she was finally hired; anything she attempted to publish would have to be cleared by the CIA in advance. Mrs Wilson and the Publication Review Board did not see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, and there are some heavily redacted sections in the book, including Mrs Wilson’s length of service and original postings as a Case Officer. Mrs Wilson lost her appeals of PRB decisions.
To get around that, Laura Rozen, who has written for several publications including The Washington Post and the far-left opinion journal Mother Jones, wrote a lengthy afterword. In it, Miss Rosen discloses, using public sources pulled together, a significant amount of the redacted material.. For example, the PRB deleted all references to Mrs Wilson’s time of service with the CIA; Miss Rozen tells us that Valerie Plame was hired in 1985. The PRB redacted all references to Miss Plame’s first overseas posting; Miss Rozen tells us that she was stationed in Athens, with an official cover as a junior political officer at the American embassy.
In some ways, the Afterword is more informative than Mrs Wilson’s original, but Miss Rozen, a journalist who writes for some left-wing sources, dutifully follows Mrs Wilson’s political tack. It makes interesting reading, but doesn’t particularly buttress Mrs Wilson’s version of events any more than Mrs Wilson’s own part of the book.
In conclusion, the book is well-written and readable, though the heavy redactions in some parts make reading of those sections difficult. But while Mrs Wilson has engaged in what I have labeled plausible deniability in some sections, the effect of plausible deniability after plausible deniability after plausible deniability begins to wear on the informed reader; it becomes too much, too much to believe that the Wilsons were such complete victims, that every hand was turned against them. Mrs Wilson even wrote, “As the old saying goes, ‘Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t out to get you.’”[xx] Some people probably were, but there were plenty of other honest information brokers out there, trying to do their best in reporting an emotional and difficult story. Faced with the preponderance of all of that evidence, my conclusion was the same: Mrs Wilson’s book is not entirely truthful.
[i] – Valerie Plame Wilson: Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayel by the White House (New York: Simon ^ Schuster, © 2007) 411 pages
[iii] - Fair Game, p. 164
[iv] - Fair Game, p. 61
[v] - Fair Game, p. 83
[vi] - Fair Game, p. 98-99
[vii] - Fair Game, p. 106
[viii] - Fair Game, p. 109
[ix] - Fair Game, p. 193
[x] - Fair Game, p. 193
[xi] - Fair Game, p. 185
[xii] - Fair Game, p. 189
[xiii] - Fair Game, p. 190
[xiv] - Fair Game, p. 209. On p. 210, Mrs Wilson reveals that both of them had been strong supporters of Al Gore.
[xv] - Fair Game, p. 250
[xvi] - Fair Game, p. 250
[xvii] - Fair Game, p. 257-260
[xviii] - The Washington Post, September 7, 2006, p. A27
[xix] - Fair Game, p. 260
[xx] - Fair Game, p. 252