Rules of Engagement
Fair Game (My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House) by Valerie Plame Wilson (Simon and Schuster 2007)
It’s hard not to feel sorry for Valerie Plame—and I’m not saying I don’t. Plame’s life was rocked by illegal revelations from the US vice president’s office that she was a Nonofficial Covert Officer for the CIA. (The real target was Plame’s husband, former-ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who openly opposed the US invasion of Iraq after one of his reports had been used to bolster its credibility.) Not only did this curtail, and then end Plame’s career, but it also shot a ramrod through her marriage and family life till she eventually left the CIA and Washington DC.
Plame’s book is an interesting document. Numerous passages have been blacked out by CIA censors on the grounds they contained ‘classified information’—information Plame was forbidden from revealing under the terms of her non-disclosure agreement. As a record of how these things work it’s intriguing. As a book, it’s marred by the excisions and comes across as a petulant cry: “Look what they’ve done to me now!” A lengthy afterword by journalist Laura Rozen neatly fills in the story’s gaps. So much for non-disclosure.
My qualms with Plame’s story centre around her role as a CIA operative. As she states early on, she too had qualms about joining an organization that once tried to assassinate Fidel Castro with an exploding cigar—as though that were the worst thing the CIA has attempted or accomplished. Plame is clearly intelligent (and, incidentally, attractive.) So why would she join such a morally murky institution and, once backstabbed by it, why complain? Doesn’t it come with the territory?
It’s hard to know how much of this book to take at face value and how much to see as pleading her case—Plame spends a lot of time bemoaning in great detail her treatment by both the CIA and the US government. Who told her life was fair? And how could she continue to think that after working for the CIA for more than twenty years? Sheesh. It beggars the imagination.
Plame also has the nerve to complain how little she got paid by the CIA, claiming that she and others of the middle-class are the ‘backbone’ of the nation. Excuse me, but isn’t it the working poor who are the backbone of any nation? Or are they just its underbelly?
None of which excuses the CIA and, more importantly, the presidential office, both of which received relatively small comeuppance from the courts in the course of Plame’s fight to restore her name and seek justice. (The blame for the leak was eventually foisted onto the vice president’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby, whose jail sentence was quickly commuted by the president.)
Plame has a lot to say about freedom of speech and the ‘ideals’ her country was founded on. You’d be forgiven for seeing this as further examples of her own misplaced idealism. In truth, the American Revolution began as a financial squabble with King George III rather than some idealistic urge on the part of the people to be free to speak their minds. Many who did, both during and after the revolution—specifically those who believed in remaining true to their king—were killed for their beliefs. In that sense, at least, Plame got off lightly.
The book has a clear if simple prose style, with occasional flashes of humour and a very compelling storyline—not unlike many good thrillers. The patriotic tub-thumping is hard to take, especially if you don’t buy into it. Still, it’s hard to put aside once you’ve started it, despite outward similarities with a tale called The Boy Who Cried Wolf. He didn’t know when to stop either.
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