‘The ground feels unsteady’: Exposed CIA spy on why Iraq was ‘one of the worst foreign policy decisions in history’ and its consequences
CommonSpace spoke to Valerie Plame, the ex CIA spy who’s story was turned into a film, about the “trumped up” intelligence in the US and UK which led to the Iraq war, and why mistrust in government now runs deep in western society
OVER 10 years after the invasion of Iraq, Valerie Plame travels the world with her spy thriller story, but the unlikely peace activist, formerly a senior spy tasked with nuclear counter-proliferation missions, never expected to attract sell-out crowds.
Sitting down to lunch at the Beyond Borders festival before the interview begins, it is clear that Plame is more comfortable as part of a room than at its centre. Masterfully turning questions from journalists and film crew around and asking them herself, most notably finding out the hometown of those quizzing her before revealing where she lives now in New Mexico, it’s clearly her spy training hasn’t left her.
Plame’s life and career has been the plot of a major Hollywood blockbuster, and she has written her own account in a spy novel, but the unlikely protagonist of the “Plame affair” could not have dreamed of becoming a household name when she signed up to the Central Intelligence Agency [CIA] in the 1980’s.
Valerie Plame was a covert agent specialising in the counter proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, in her own words she “chased down the bad guys” who threatened the security of the West.
“When I was with the CIA, I was recruiting foreign spies to provide good, critical intelligence to senior policymakers. My expertise was counter-proliferation, essentially that means making sure bad guys did not get nuclear weapons,” she says.
Speaking to CommonSpace two years after the UK’s official inquiry into the Iraq war concluded that the invasion was founded on inaccurate intelligence, the woman behind the US intelligence gathering mission reaffirmed her belief that the Blair and Bush governments misused intelligence to support “one of the worst foreign policy decisions in history”.
“I would say that the whole time period, here we are 15 years on from the invasion of Iraq, and it is a decision that I think will go down in history as probably one of the worst foreign policy decisions in the US and perhaps in the UK, although it has a much longer history [in Iraq] than the US.
“Nevertheless, the UK at that time under Tony Blair was famously closely allied with US choices on this. What I saw, somewhat contemporaneously, and even more so today, of course, knowing what we know, is that the US administration was set to go to war with Iraq. The intelligence was famously wrapped around the policy, rather than intelligence driving policy.”
Plame’s identity as a covert CIA spy was leaked to the press in July 2003 by then Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff Lewis “Scooter” Libby in retaliation for a column authored by her husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson, himself a distinguished diplomat, which disputed the central premise behind the US and UK Government’s argument for the Iraq war.
Wilson, formerly second in command at the US embassy in Iraq, was sent to Niger, in Western Africa, in February 2002 to investigate UK intelligence passed to the US Government concerning the sale of enriched uranium to Saddam Hussein, a critical component part of a nuclear weapon of mass destruction.
Despite Wilson finding no evidence of such a sale, the faulty intelligence was quoted by the then American president George Bush when he announced action in Iraq, leading Wilson to conclude in a New York Times column that: “Some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat”.
The retired ambassador was no friend of Saddam Hussein and had been a trusted advisor to Republican presidents and military commanders, serving as deputy chief of mission in Iraq he responded to threats by the then Iraqi dictator to “kill all foreigners” by appearing at a press conference with a homemade hangman’s noose around his neck and said: “If the choice is to allow American citizens to be taken hostage or to be executed, I will bring my own fucking rope”.
Only a handful of people outside of the CIA knew of Plame’s real identity, and her “cover” as a venture capitalist extended to even her children and closest friends. After a prolonged investigation, Scooter Libby was later found guilty of exposing the CIA spy, but using his executive powers Bush ensured that Libby would not serve his sentence, and after coming into office President Donald Trump officially pardoned Libby.
Central to Tony Blair’s case for war, set out in the infamous “dodgy dossier” which made the public case, was that Saddam Hussein could deploy weapons of mass destruction [WMDs] within 45 minutes of an order to use them.
Asked by CommonSpace if her experience in Iraq had ever indicated if this claim could be true, Plame laughed.
“No. No significant WMDs, in particular nuclear, were found of any sort [in Iraq],” She says. “Government at the very highest levels knew that. We had recruited the Iraqi foreign minister and he was a source providing intelligence and others.
“Again, an extremely complicated question, but why the US and the highest levels of government chose to ignore the understanding of that and still proceeded is the subject of many books and lots of ink.”
She explains that in the US, a coordinated marketing campaign for war in Iraq was tasked with convincing the public of the need for war: “How you market a war, and the thing that gets people to sit up and take notice is, ‘hey, psst, they got a nuclear weapon.’ That gets people to pay attention.”
Despite her exposure and initial reservations, Plame was able to launch a fightback against the political campaign which attempted to smear her, which included a leading politician telling the media she was simply a “secretary” with the CIA.
“I never wanted to be a public person, if none of that had happened I would be overseas now chasing nuclear weapons around the world. It took me some years to come to terms with it. I found it horrifying that my name and picture were in the newspaper and on TV,” she says.
Plame agreed that there was a public mistrust both in government and the intelligence services following the failures of the Iraq war: “Whether it is in the US or the UK, the politicisation of intelligence is always a possibility and always a threat.
“It happens and you try to pull back and re-establish a semblance of trust with the general public. That is very difficult because of the nature of the intelligence business. If it continues to happen you become a banana republic.
“in part, we are where we are today, and the general trend of populism we are seeing throughout the world and particularly in Western Europe can be traced back to 9/11 and the aftermath. Going to war on essentially trumped up charges, democratic institutions being eroded and a deep mistrust of those institutions.
“It has created a world where we are today where you sort of have people with pitchforks out on the street, exacerbated of course by the financial crash of 2008. The ground feels unsteady.”
Hesitant to comment on the details of the plans, Plame was uneasy at proposals from the new UK Government home secretary Sajid Javid, who would for the first time share secret intelligence relating to terror subjects outwith the tightly controlled grip of the security services.
“I haven’t read much on this, but it doesn’t sound like the way to go. We would have to read and understand more to look at this properly.”
The interview came in the same week that Donald Trump used powers to remove security clearance from political opponents who have access to secret or classified information, a McCarthyite tactic, according to Plame, used by Trump to remove the security clearance of people who say things he disagrees with.
“This is a dangerous precedent, and I keep waiting, and I may wait in vain, for someone in the Republican leadership to step forward and say, ‘that’s enough, Mr President,”‘ she says.
On the next global crisis, Plame says she would always revert back to her expertise on nuclear weapons: “What I know best is the nuclear threat, and right now we have nine declared nuclear countries. We’ve had some sabre rattling between North Korea and the United States, turns out that not everything was sorted out at the North Korea and Trump summit.
“That continues to be of grave concern, as does Pakistan, which is to my mind a country always ready to implode but which has nuclear weapons. And one can’t forget the Iran nuclear deal, which the US unilaterally withdrew from.
“There are lots of problems in the world, but I always come back to the nuclear threat and how it should be discussed by clear thinking people.”
Picture courtesy of Paul Morse