“I have long been disappointed in the portrayals in the popular culture of female CIA operatives. They are always such cartoon characters, aren’t they? They are hyper-sexualized, hyper-physical, always good with guns . . . ” So says former spy Valerie Plame Wilson. She is sitting in a quiet corner of a hotel resort in Santa Fe, an artistic enclave in the New Mexico desert, far removed from the political circus of Washington that ended her career as a covert CIA operative.
Her life’s work in nuclear non-proliferation—chasing and protecting nuclear weaponry, the details and duration of which remain classified—was cut short in 2003 when Bush administration officials leaked her identity to the press after her husband, former diplomat Joe Wilson, accused the White House of lying about a key piece of intelligence it used to make the case for invading Iraq.
The Wilsons moved to New Mexico and penned memoirs that were turned into a movie, Fair Game, starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn. If her career wasn’t already the stuff of fiction, it now will be. Plame is at work on a novel about a female spy due out next year from Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin. She is working with co-author Sarah Lovett, a mystery writer. “I thought there was room for a character who is a little more realistic,” says Plame.
The biggest misperception about female spies? “The biggest one is you sleep with your assets,” laughs Plame, who says that even on a training course with State Department employees (one of her covers was as a diplomat), she faced questions about bedding the enemy. “The ‘honey trap’ has been used by other intelligence services, but has never been used to my knowledge by U.S. intelligence,” she says.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of romance and deception. “I’d like to show the glamorous, breathtaking stuff you can do in the CIA, and the mundane, bureaucratic world with little old ladies in tennis sneakers walking around miles of corridor ferrying files.” Which brings her to another Hollywood myth: “There was no style there. Every time I see CIA movies with people who look like they know how to dress, I say, no, really.” (On this Saturday morning she is in a navy pantsuit and glossy red high heels—a rarity in her new life, she says, where dressing up means putting on her “good boots.”)
The character she is creating is named Vanessa Pearson, an agent in her early 30s, the daughter of a Vietnam veteran, who also chases nuclear secrets under cover. “She is very smart, but not superhuman,” says Plame. “She makes mistakes.” Vanessa also happens to be carrying on a secret relationship with a fellow CIA officer of Lebanese extraction who has relatives in Hezbollah and speaks Arabic. “He is under intense counter-intelligence scrutiny by the agency for his family connections,” says Plame.
Vanessa is based in Cyprus, which Plame describes as the “Wild West” and “catnip” for spies. In one scene, Vanessa’s mission is to make contact with a Russian banker who is poised to give her secret information. But first they are to meet at the opening of a new bar, in a move calculated to provide an alibi for how they came to know each other, in case they are seen together later. “So she walks into a bar—and I did this many times in real life—and it’s like walking into the bar scene in Star Wars. There are all these bizarro creatures—Russian mafia, gun runners, shady offshore banking people, your odd terrorist,” recalls Plame in a tone not entirely free of nostalgia.
As Vanessa threads her way through the crowd, she tries to figure out who the people are—and who she is to them. “You’re always thinking, s–t, how do they know me? Under which alias? Who am I?” says Plame. “People turn up in all kinds of places where you didn’t meet them.” Plame says she never had qualms about lying. “I was protecting people. It’s better when I can’t tell my girlfriend—sharing a secret is a burden.” Deception was less a moral struggle than a logistical one, she says. “Imagine living undercover and friends say, ‘Let’s meet downtown for lunch’ because you told them you work in downtown Washington. And you have to say, ‘Actually, I can’t.’ ” (She was based at CIA headquarters, located just outside the U.S. capital.)
Like the real Valerie, the fictional Vanessa has to navigate various identities while maintaining friendships and a love life. “On the personal side it’s about how not to lose your soul,” says Plame, who told her now-husband she was an energy trader when they first met.
The CIA disguise experts are “phenomenal,” says Plame, and their masks are “complicated,” but much of her work relied on more subtle subterfuge. “I changed my hair colour, my clothes and my gait. Like your mother told you, posture is really important. A lot of it is how you carry yourself. There is a huge difference between walking into a room and owning it and being one of the greyer people.” A female spy has some advantages, says Plame. “In a lot of places in the world, women are invisible anyway. They are like wallpaper. So unless you are exuding sexuality, no one pays any mind,” she says.
Another Hollywood myth, Plame adds, is the lone, heroic operative. “It’s not the whole Jason Bourne, lone-wolf job. It’s a huge team operation,” she says. Before meeting with an asset, she would have been briefed by an analyst and would have both a security team and technical equipment—like a wire or other recorder—in place.
Still, a woman operative faces another challenge, as Plame puts it: “managing expectations”—of the opposite sex. “I learned, as Vanessa is learning, that if you are pursuing a target, it’s best to ask them to lunch. There are fewer overtones to lunch.”
Other challenges come from being a mother, says Plame, who had twins, a boy and a girl, in 2000, and counted herself lucky to have parents nearby to help. “When I looked up above me and saw senior women in rank, they were either divorced, or had done long separated tours from their husbands, and they did not have children of their own. I didn’t see any role models for how I could navigate it,” she recalls. Like any other working mother, she adds, “I was constantly stressed out about not giving 100 per cent, to your job, your work, your marriage.”
She also worked with Canadians, she says. “We had a lot of targets that went to Canada because of their open and progressive immigration policies. So we worked with Canadians because they are very good allies.” (She adds as an aside: “One of my favourite authors is Robertson Davies. I’ve read everything he ever wrote.”)
In addition to being entertaining, Plame hopes the book will also make readers aware of the danger of the black market for nuclear weapons. And she is toying with shining a light on the CIA’s growing reliance on private contractors to do intelligence functions. “Who is paying their salary, who are they going to be loyal to?” she frowns.
Yet she urges young women to consider the agency. The CIA remains a male-dominated world populated with occasional “dinosaurs,” says Plame, but she notes that when seven CIA officers and contractors were killed on Dec. 30, 2009, at a base in Khost, Afghanistan, two of them were women. “What else do you need to see that women are taking as many risks, and not necessarily in a sequined gown?”