Authors Joseph Wilson; Valerie Plame Wilson

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Former diplomat and his wife share the details of their journey from scandal in Washington to rebuilding their lives in New Mexico to being portrayed on Hollywood’s big screen.

Joseph Wilson served in many senior government posts, including as U.S. Ambassador to Iraq. For more than 20 years, his wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, worked as a covert CIA operative. In '03, Mr. Wilson was at the center of controversy over evidence used to justify the Iraq war. In '07, the outing of Ms. Wilson's "other life" led to a grand jury investigation. The couple ultimately left the DC power circuit and rebuilt their lives in New Mexico. Both have written memoirs recounting their experiences, which became the basis of the biopic Fair Game.



Tavis: When journalist Robert Novak exposed Valerie Plame’s cover as a CIA operative back in 2003 it set off a series of events that ultimately led to the indictment of then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby.
In 2007, the book about this remarkable story became a number one “New York Times” best seller called “Fair Game.” That book, along with Joe Wilson’s book, “The Politics of Truth,” served then as the basis for the new film starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts. Here now, a preview of the film, “Fair Game.”
Tavis: So that’s the best you two could do, Sean Penn, Naomi Watts? (Laughter)
Valerie Plame Wilson: We should be so lucky.
Tavis: Yeah, you couldn’t do any better than that. So, how surreal does it feel – and surreal’s my word, not yours, I guess – to see this on the big screen?
Plame Wilson: Well, surreal is my word as well. We never thought that this would happen. If none of this had, if my CIA identity had not been betrayed, we would be living and working overseas. I would be working on counterproliferation issues; I’d be making my GS salary. So this is all a very long, strange trip.
Tavis: For you, Ambassador?
Ambassador Joseph Wilson: Oh, absolutely. It’s as weird as it can possibly be. The thing that I keep reminding myself is that there are really only two salient facts. One, I challenged the government on its use of intelligence, and two, two days later the press spokesman of the White House said that indeed, they should never have used that information in the State of the Union address.
Everything else was manufactured by them as part of a character assassination and smear campaign and disinformation campaign. So the fact that there are two books and a movie, it’s all thanks to the war that they tried to wage against Valerie and myself.
Tavis: To your point, Ambassador, about a smear campaign, I believe it was our friend Maureen Dowd who recently in one of her pieces suggested that what’s about to start happening now with the possibility of Republicans taking on more power in Washington – trying to be generous about that – is that the re-sliming – that’s Maureen’s word – the re-sliming of Ambassador Wilson and Valerie Plame Wilson is about to start all over again. When you read that piece or consider that notion, you think what?
Wilson: If I was advising them, it would be just let it go. If you want to go round two, well, we’ll go round two and we’ll all see it in the sequel. Otherwise, just let it go, as they should have let it go the first time around. They took a three-day story and turned it into a six-year nightmare for themselves.
Plame Wilson: This is one of those stories that it started in 2003, but it actually unfolded over several years. I think waxed and waned in the media and there was a lot of chaff thrown in there, people got confused. It’s not a difficult story to follow, what really happened, and I think now the truth has come out. We’ve had the trial of Mr. Scooter Libby and all the other things that have subsequently come out to show that that really was a full-on disinformation campaign.
Tavis: Mr. Ambassador, speaking of Valerie’s point now, you had some strong words, specifically about former Vice President Dick Cheney and Scooter Libby to our friend Wolf Blitzer recently. You have not – I assume you’ve had time to re-think it if you want to change that language. You stand by that, I take it?
Wilson: Well, I was asked about Scooter Libby; my one-word response, I said, “Traitor.” I was asked about Dick Cheney, I said, “Traitor.” I would only amend my comments about Dick Cheney to include “Traitor and coward,” for letting Scooter Libby take the fall rather than stand up and address the American people as to what they did and why they did it.
Tavis: Why did all this happen?
Wilson: Well, I think there were a number of reasons. I think first of all it’s very clear they wanted to change the subject from their 16 words and the justification they used to take this country into war to Wilson and his wife, and they were pretty successful in that for several years.
But the fact remains that now everybody understands we went to war based on intelligence that was manufactured and misused, and 4,000 Americans are dead, 30,000 are wounded. Many of them have come home to be wards of their communities and their families for the rest of their lives.
I was just in Baghdad three weeks ago and there are over a million Iraqis who are internally displaced, there are another million or so that are refugees in neighboring countries. Lord only knows how many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been killed as a consequence of this really ill-advised foreign policy decision.
Tavis: Valerie, how do you look back on these years now and not be bitter, and if you were bitter, how did you get through that phase?
Plame Wilson: I’m not. First it’s a really wasted emotion in most cases, and there were some – watching the movie now, those scenes where the marriage is fraying at the seams and looking at the fates of those Iraqi scientists – very painful to see that.
But we have moved out of Washington and we now make our home in New Mexico. We have rebuilt our personal lives, our professional lives, and looking back, seeing the movie now, and to your question of why, I think it’s very much about the timeless question of power and the abuse of power, and how do you check it.
It obviously happened within the context of the Bush administration, but it could have easily been any other administration, Democratic or Republican. It is about the abuse of power, and what do you do.
Tavis: Since you went there – I wanted to raise it anyway, but you make it easy, since you referenced it a moment ago – one of the things that comes through in the film, and I wasn’t sure what the film was going to be, given the fact that there are basically two books here that we pulled the screenplay from, which we’ll talk about more in a second. But the marriage was on the rocks, fair to say?
Wilson: Well, certainly when I read her book I realized it was on the rocks. (Laughter)
Plame Wilson: He didn’t know how bad it was.
Wilson: Football on TV and beer in the refrigerator, you know.
Plame Wilson: He’s joking about that part. No, it was all these external forces outside of our control were pushing in on the personal relationship, which is an important part of that movie, and I found it really in an instant, everything – my career, my family security and the assets with whom I had worked with for years – they’re all in jeopardy, and at the same time this disinformation campaign is going on.
Joe was being called a liar and a traitor; I’m being accused of nepotism, of being a glorified secretary. The stresses that that places on an individual and of course a marriage were tremendous. It was – there were some dark days.
Tavis: You have kids.
Plame Wilson: We do.
Tavis: How do you navigate through this as adults, much less adults who have kids they have to protect in the process?
Wilson: Well, I think the dinner conversation at our house is probably a lot different from a lot of other houses as a consequence of what we’ve been through. I love it, every year we get an e-mail from one of our kids’ teachers saying that we just did civics today; we talked about the federal government. I spoke for five minutes and your son or your daughter jumped in and carried the conversation for the next 45 minutes, (laughter) telling us what Washington, D.C. is really all about.
Plame Wilson: Our kids were really small when this happened. They’re 10 now, twins, and the worst, when they were little – that’s the wonderful thing about having kids. They really don’t care if you had a bad day. They really just want your love, your affection, your attention and it does help put it into perspective.
Tavis: Back to the film. This is inside Hollywood stuff, which you have now been exposed to, so we’ll get your thoughts on that in a second. So you take these two books. Inside baseball – how do two books become a screenplay?
Wilson: Well, I think there were two very good British screenwriters, John-Henry and Jez Butterworth, and they came actually over to Washington and went to the trial, the Scooter Libby trial every day. Doug Liman, the director, came in and said he thought he had a different angle on it.
They spent a year reporting, basically, going out and finding out all the facts. So a lot of what you see in there doesn’t come from us or come from either of our books. It comes from their independent reporting. I think they crafted a tale that essentially clears up a lot of confusion and tells the story as it is, and it’s the story of our time, basically.
Tavis: When you say it clears up a lot of confusion, unpack that for me. What specifically are we confused about that this movie, as Hollywood can do well when it does its job, causes us to be enlightened by or about?
Wilson: Well, I think first of all, as Valerie said earlier, this whole notion that she was somehow a glorified secretary; secondly, that somehow she was responsible for my going and that this was nepotism are the two big ones.
But there are any number of things that the administration put forth about us over the years that I think is unpacked, actually, during the course of the movie.
Plame Wilson: One of them being that I wasn’t really covert, and my response to that is, hey, don’t take my word for it. Then DCI, head of the CIA, General Michael Hayden, in testimony given to Congress, certified, if you will, that I was covert at the time of the leak.
So it was all part of that, well, she wasn’t covert, it didn’t really matter, let’s just move on, everyone.
Tavis: How much personal danger is one placed in – you, in this case – how much personal danger is Valerie placed in when your undercover status is blown?
Plame Wilson: I think honestly my largest concern, there are a lot of unbalanced people out there, and all of a sudden I’m the CIA poster girl and our home in Washington, the front door was about 20 feet from the street. I went to the agency at a certain point and asked for security on a residence.
Of course, when you’re a parent, that’s your paramount concern, for your children, and there were some very credible and frightening threats, and the agency declined to provide any security and it felt like a betrayal all over again. It was really painful.
Tavis: What’s the stated or unstated reason for denying – they know your cover’s been blown; it’s all in the newspaper. They denied you that protection for what reason?
Plame Wilson: I can only speculate, but the reason given to me was, “Well, we really don’t think that those threats really are that serious,” which was completely countermanded by the actual facts, but it was a mistake on their part.
Wilson: I will say this – the Washington, D.C. metropolitan police were very good, and they were very responsive, as have been the Santa Fe police in the event that they’re – we have set up a system whereby we have really prompt response in the event that something were to happen.
Tavis: How do you live your life under that kind of threat? I was going to say, how do you live your life in fear? I guess if you were afraid you wouldn’t be here today, so I’m not sure you live your life in fear. But how do you advance under that kind of threat, potentially?
Wilson: Well, my view of this has always been that if you’re going to be in this sort of a fight you can either be so invisible, the classic leaker, that nobody, neither your friends nor enemies, know who you are, or you can be so visible that everybody knows who you are, and your foes have to take into consideration what the consequences would be if something were to happen to you.
So I think our biggest ally throughout all of this was when they Justice Department opened its investigation. That provided us with a certain visibility that made it difficult for our political enemies to try and do something against us, lest that investigation blow back on them.
Where you don’t want to be is where David Kelly was, the British scientist who coined the phrase, “They sexed up the dossier,” and then was later found to have committed suicide. All his foes knew who he was, and none of his friends did.
We benefitted – last night we just did the screening of the movie here in Los Angeles – we have benefitted from a legion of supporters who have followed this very carefully and have been friends to us and supporters and voices that have been raised and would be raised if something were to happen to us.
Tavis: These are two very different things, I concede, Valerie, but I’m just curious as to your take on whether or not all leaks are bad leaks, and I think now about the Wikileaks. There’s a lot of stuff in there that obviously people didn’t want out, but there’s a lot of stuff that we’re being exposed to that perhaps we need to know. So are all leaks bad?
Plame Wilson: Regarding Wikileaks, I have profound ambivalent feelings about it. I am a firm believer in a strong intelligence service. There’s a need for classified information.
However, if it crosses a line into where you’re simply classifying information because it’s embarrassing, it’s showing malfeasance or incompetence, then obviously transparency is called for.
Wikileaks, I don’t know anyone who – the founder of that or the people involved in the leadership, but I am not sure that they have thought through the moral implications of what they’ve done. They’ve exposed sources and methods in Afghanistan.
Wilson: If you’re leaking names and identities, you’re doing to those people exactly what Cheney, Libby, Rove and Armitage did to Valerie. If, on the other hand, you’re leaking information that exposes somebody who had basically classified the information to avoid potential embarrassment, then there’s a problem with transparency in governance. Those sorts of things should not be classified in the first place.
Tavis: I want to go back to something you said earlier. I’ve been sitting here and it’s been bugging me for the last 10 minutes. I didn’t know if I wanted to go back and try to dig in some more, and now I’ve decided that I do, because I think there’s something here.
When you added to your notion of Dick Cheney being a traitor and said he’s a traitor and a coward, it raises this question for me of why it is in Washington that the folk at the top end of the hierarchy never seem to take the fall. It’s everybody else around.
Richard Nixon, rare example, of course, but everybody else around seems to take the fall. So when you end up being harmed by people that high up the food chain and somebody a little lower on the food chain ends up paying the price for the guys higher up the food chain, you think what about that?
Wilson: Well, we filed a civil suit against Cheney, Rove, Libby and Armitage and a number of John Does specifically for that reason. We wanted to accomplish three things. We wanted one, to hold those people to account for their actions; two, we wanted the American people to understand all the facts; and three, we wanted it to be clearly established as a precedent that public officials could not use positions of public trust to engage in private political vendettas.
That lawsuit went all the way up to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court declined to hear it. Therefore, the precedent is now firmly established that in fact you can sit in a position of public trust and use that position from which to launch private political vendettas. I think that’s a shame. On the other hand, I would love to be the director of the Internal Revenue Service. (Laughter)
Plame Wilson: Get a hold of some names there, hm?
Tavis: Yeah, I hear you. So to your point now, Ambassador, is it your sense, then, that that precedent notwithstanding, that the kind of stuff that happened to the two of you, you think that we’ve learned our lesson about this now (laughter) or are you concerned the exact opposite is going to happen, and we’re going to see more Valerie Plames and Joe Wilsons?
Plame Wilson: I hope not.
Wilson: I honestly think this is a timeless lesson and it repeats itself time and time again. The Founding Fathers grappled with the whole question of power and the abuse of power; hence the Constitution with the separation of powers to hold everybody in check, and the First Amendment really giving the citizens not just the right but the responsibility to petition their government for the redress of a grievance or to hold their government to account.
So I think it’s something that repeats itself. We just happen to have been in this particular fight to hold back the abuse of power, or at least to correct the abuse of power that took place.
Plame Wilson: I hope what happened to me is an anomaly, that it never happens again. I do know that my former colleagues at the CIA, everyone is very concerned about how the creeping politicization of the intelligence apparatus, where you want to believe as citizens that the intelligence that lands on the president’s desk is free of partisan taint, free of bias, it’s just the facts.
Yet we saw that really wasn’t the case in what happened with Iraq, and it’s really the whole intelligence community, I think, is struggling under the burden not only of the political yoke but just how bureaucratic and ineffective it is right now.
Tavis: You suggested, Valerie, earlier in this conversation that had this not happened to you, you’d still be doing the work you were doing, specifically on nuclear proliferation – easy for me to say. (Laughter) I’m thinking now that in just a matter of days the G20 will have their meeting, what, November 10th and 11th, something like that?
Plame Wilson: Mm-hmm.
Tavis: I don’t know what’s on the agenda, but give me your top line on the world-wide issue of nuclear proliferation.
Plame Wilson: I think we have a moment in time right now – we have President Obama, who signed a new START treaty with President Medvedev in April, the Senate needs to ratify this, that we can actually move toward ultimately the total elimination of nuclear weapons.
I think what happened, the Cold War ended, everyone sort of had a big sigh of relief and swept it under the rug and moved on. The international community has been absent in continuing to work toward the reduction of nuclear arsenals.
What has changed profoundly from under that paradigm of mutually assured destruction – an acronym I’ve always enjoyed – under the time of the Cold War, you have now the emergent threat of terrorism.
So you have this nexus of terrorism and all the nuclear material that is available and proliferating throughout the world. That is why it is absolutely critical that – and I believe, I have evolved in my thinking. When I was working at the CIA I was working on these issues, but I look now and I think a lot of what I did really was simply delaying the inevitable.
What I’m working on now and very much an advocate for is ultimately eliminating all nuclear weapons.
Tavis: You think the inevitable is what?
Plame Wilson: That if we don’t, that we will see a nuclear device exploded in a city anywhere in the world.
Tavis: So does Iran scare you?
Plame Wilson: Yes, but I would say actually a state like Pakistan, which is anarchy sort of bubbling every day, it’s in a constant fracas with India and its command and control structure over its nuclear arsenal is a little questionable. So that is – people who think about these things, I think that’s really the country that probably keeps them up at night.
Tavis: Let me shift gears, I want to go back to the movie here right quick. So there’s this running narrative, this running storyline for decades and decades about the love relationship, the similarities between Washington and Hollywood, so what can you tell me – I’ll go to you first, Ambassador Wilson – what’s your take now having experienced both Washington and Hollywood? Tell me about that relationship.
Wilson: Well, what I can say about it is I’m glad to live in Santa Fe, (laughter) which is roughly halfway between the two of them. We’re blessed to have a lot of friends in both places. I grew up in Southern California and so I feel right at home here, and I feel right at home in Washington.
At the same time, it’s very clear that each one wants to control a narrative, each in his own way – both the city of Washington and both the city of Hollywood. The nice thing about the movie is it tells a story in a way that other media cannot or will not do.
So for example, I think one of the themes of the movie is that the press simply did not do their job. They got distracted by the White House deliberately. They were distracted from the 16 words and the justification of going to war to, as it says in the movie, who is this person’s wife? Hollywood sort of clarifies that.
Tavis: Hollywood, Washington, Valerie?
Plame Wilson: Crazy, both places. (Laughter) I have lived many, many places in my life, and I have to say Santa Fe is the first place that feels like home, really. We have a friend of ours who’s in the film business, and when he saw “Fair Game” he said, “It is this great cross between ‘High Noon’ meets ‘All the President’s Men.'”
There is that straight line of the political context in which both of those movies were made and the message it’s trying to send, which is abuse of power.
Tavis: Did I read somewhere that you’re working on a – is it a spy novel?
Plame Wilson: I am, of course – surprise.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, surprise. (Laughter) So what can you tell me about this secret novel?
Plame Wilson: I would say in general Hollywood tends to portray, and popular culture tends to portray female operations officers highly sexualized, lots of physicality, and I wanted it to be a thriller and exciting, but also more realistic, where it’s your smarts.
Tavis: The brain, yeah, yeah.
Plame Wilson: Yeah, that’s actually your best weapon. So I’m working on that. We’re raising our twins. I’m doing advocacy for nuclear nonproliferation and working at the Santa Fe Institute.
Tavis: And you, Ambassador?
Wilson: I am chairman of a power construction company named Symbion, S-Y-M-B-I-O-N, that does work in conflict zones. We’ve done a number of projects in Iraq. We actually re-powered all of Anbar province. We drew transmission lines during the height of the violence there.
We’ve just moved back into Africa, where a lot of us who are in the company have lived and worked for many years, and we’re doing a lot of work now in Tanzania.
Tavis: Here’s the quick exit question. For most people in this town, the deciding factor about whether or not the project was worth it is how much box office it makes. So what’s the measuring stick for you about the project?
Wilson: I think for me, obviously, I would love to have every American see it. But I would love for every American to take away from it a sense that if Joe Wilson can do that, anybody can do it, and get out there and start acting like citizens and start holding your government to account.
I suspect the residents of Bell, California, had they been a little bit more willing to hold their city administrators to account, you might not have the scandal that we’ve just seen play through and play out.
Tavis: Last word for you?
Plame Wilson: I have no control over people’s taste, and as we know, there’s no accounting for taste when they go see a movie. What I do know, this one is really good and we’re so proud to be associated with it.
Tavis: It’s a good one. Everybody’s talking about it. It’s called “Fair Game,” their lives on the big screen. (Laughter) Ambassador Wilson, good to have you here.
Wilson: Good to see you again, Tavis, thanks very much.
Tavis: Valerie, it’s good to see you as well.
Plame Wilson: Thank you so much.
Tavis: Congratulations to both of you.
Wilson: Thank you.
Plame Wilson: Thanks.
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Last modified: April 10, 2014 at 1:48 pm