Book Review: Fair Game, by Valerie Plame Wilson

The inside story, slightly censored, of Agency officer Valerie Plame’s betrayal by the White House during the Iraq invastion

The CIA’s Un-Fair Game

On July 21, 2003, Valerie Plame Wilson got home from her office, in what she described as the “vast windowless vault” of the CIA in Washington, to find her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, in the den.

“He clicked off the phone just as I came into the room, and he had a look on his face that I had never seen before,” she remembered. He had been on the phone with Chris Matthews, host of the TV news talk show Hardball who, in turn, had spoken with presidential advisor Karl Rove, the legendary spin doctor of the Bush administration. Without batting an eyelash, Rove had blurted out that “Wilson’s wife is fair game.” And with that the Wilson’s knew it was only a matter of time before their lives would start to unravel.

Just a fortnight earlier, on July 6, and four months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Wilson had published an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times called “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” outlining his study trip to the African state of Niger in search of any records of the sale of yellowcake to the Iraqis and finding exhaustive evidence and confirmation that no such sale had ever, or even logistically could have taken place.

You have to admit, former agent Plame Wilson’s memoir Fair Game, is an odd book. Subtitled My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House, you break open the cover with the thrill of anticipation that here – at last! – you will get the inside story of what really happened in the unmasking of the fabricated causes for the War in Iraq. And as a bonus, an inside peek at the real life of a former agent, who manages a respected career, a strong marriage and two presumably happy children.

However, it’s hard to lose yourself in a book, however compelling the subject, in which whenever you get to the good part, you find someone has come along with a fat felt marker and blacked out the next sentence, or maybe a couple of paragraphs, or in some places, two or three pages.

For example, Plame settles into a small wooden chair at an outdoor café in a crowded, bustling part of the XXXXX, and busies herself with a guide book of XXXXXXX, orders a cold coffee and tries out her halting XXXXXX… When the Agency proclaimed her proficient enough, she was sent to her first posting at XXXXXXXXXXXX, and felt “like a racehorse at the gate…”

And then the next two pages are blacked out.

Very frustrating – particularly because we know from dozens of other sources that she was in Athens, and worked hard to master passable Greek and spent her first tour in that area.

Some excisions seem particularly silly: In a chapter entitled “Love and the Island of Misfit Toys”, in which we can only suppose she must have met her future husband, much of the text is blacked out, and Joseph Wilson, bridegroom to be, appears by name only once, and then referred to as “Joe” – how they got to this evolved state of intimacy, the reader is left to imagine.

So why all the mystery? We all know the CIA is cool….  You find yourself continually wondering, what can these people be so afraid of?  According to publisher Simon and Schuster, much of the information blacked out in the book – relating to Plame’s dates and places of services – was already widely available from other sources, and thus could be used by journalist Laura Rozen in her absorbing “Afterward” that thankfully fills in a lot from those missing sections in the main narrative.

Plame and Simon and Schuster in fact filed suit against the CIA, claiming that the cuts “went beyond any reasonable requirements of national security and impaired important First Amendment rights.” Still, this was the Bush era (the book was published in 2007) and America was still in the business of generating fear. A Federal District Court decided that while Valerie Plame’s dates of service may be in the public domain, they cannot be reported by her.

In the end, whatever the CIA thinks it’s doing, it mostly ends up looking pretty silly, venal even, and the disappointing reality that an organization can expect so much of its employees and then cut them loose with such little fore- or after-thought, is deeply alienating.

Even so, with all the exaggerated censorship there are some fascinating sections on boot camp CIA-style, on the psychology of evaluation and winning prospective agents in the field and on the experience of “coming in from the cold” in plain sight, reemerging from the CIA’s rarified world of political agnosticism into the jungle of partisan politics that most people inside the Beltway inhabit. We watch as Plame and her family received threatening phone calls, how a colleague got wind of evidence that they were being stalked, and their lives might be in danger. After a month of surveillance the CIA withdrew its protection.

“To say that the CIA response “disappointed” me doesn’t begin to touch the betrayal I felt,” Plame wrote. And the reader watches, page after page, chapter after chapter, with what can only be dismay as the Agency’s proud promise to protect its “family” turns out to be hollow.


Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House
by Valerie Plame Wilson

Simon & Schuster, London 2007

For a review of the film Fair Game, see here

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