Final Analysis: Valerie Plame

The century's most famous spy on a life of espionage.

By Jay Dixit, published on January 1, 2009 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Valerie Plame is arguably the most famous spy of the century. For years she worked as a CIA spymaster in Europe, recruiting "assets"—local agents willing to provide information about their home countries. She later returned to Langley, where she covertly led the CIA's investigation into Saddam Hussein's purported WMDs. In 2003, when her husband, Joe Wilson, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, publicly questioned President Bush's claim that Iraq had sought fissionable material in Africa, the administration retaliated by illegally leaking Plame's identity as a spy to Washington Post columnist Robert Novak—ending her 20-year career as an undercover agent.

What first drew you to the CIA?

My father's an Air Force officer. My brother's a wounded Vietnam Marine Corps veteran. I enjoy Bond movies. It seemed glamorous and an opportunity to serve my country.

What is the CIA looking for in operations officers?

People with clean backgrounds, not much drug use. Yet they expect you to break the laws of other countries. We like that our paycheck is on time and our family has health insurance—yet we're willing to do dangerous and crazy stuff.

Did you ever use your quick thinking skills in the field?

What do you do if you're in a car having a secret meeting and your asset has a heart attack? A drive-by of the E.R.? You're not doing him any favors if you show up at the E.R. and he's not supposed to have any contact with Americans.

And I shouldn't ask you if that actually happened to you?

You don't have a "need to know."

What sorts of things did you have to keep secret from your husband?

It's on a need-to-know principle, and he completely understood. The nuts and bolts of my operations were completely off-limits. It didn't feel strange. It's not like most people come home and grill their spouses on what they were doing at the office.

Were people ever suspicious?

Never.

What does Hollywood get wrong?

It portrays CIA operatives as lone wolves. But there's a full team behind you. Analysts figure out the questions, technical teams wire up the room, surveillance teams make sure you're not walking into a trap. It's not Jason Bourne. I wish the CIA had the omniscient power portrayed in movies, where it's, "Let's see the suspect!" and the face flashes on the screen. You have bits and pieces, fragments, and an overwhelming amount of background noise, and you have to sort it out.

When your cover was blown, were you worried your agents could be executed?

Yes.

How did your gender play into it?

It provided an opening for critics to say, "She's just a glorified secretary, a desk jockey." Like a woman couldn't possibly be a respected operations officer.

What went through your mind when you saw your name in the paper?

My network of assets. That my career that I loved was over. The safety of my three-and-a-half-year-old twins, who were in the next room sleeping. What the administration did was pure and simple treason.