It's been 10 years since l'affaire Plame, one of the most notorious blown covers in CIA history, whose tangled web of intrigue snaked from the yellowcake forgeries of Niger to the halls of George W. Bush's White House. It's a twisted plot that would lend itself nicely to Valerie Plame's newest gig, penning thrillers filled with undercover agents and assassins, black-market proliferation networks and political machinations. In Blowback, co-authored with veteran potboiler master Sarah Lovett, Plame introduces her heroine Vanessa Pierson, a blonde bombshell hot on the pursuit of a nefarious nuclear-arms dealer. The book races between Vienna and Cyprus, D.C. and Paris; it's got sex, murder, and trashy Russians. In other words, a classic spy tale. Plame spoke with The Daily Beast about the real-life inspirations behind her book and the lingering fallout from being outed by the Neocons.
The Daily Beast: You and Vanessa Pierson, your novel's protagonist, seem to share a lot of the same qualities—you are both blonde, you both have a CIA background, you share the same initials. How much of your own story and psychology is in your heroine?
Valerie Plame: There are a lot of things. I draw on my own experience. I very much wanted to depict a female CIA ops officer that was much more realistic, who has flaws but is smart and loves her job—but what comes with that is a great deal of frustration and challenges and trying to have some sort of normal relationships—hard under the best of circumstances, but especially in an otherwise crazy career. We both come from military families: My dad was Air Force and fought in WWII, but because of the timing, her father is Air Force and he was in Vietnam. Brother in the Marines, same as me. All the places in the book, I’ve been to, lived there or traveled there, worked there. I think that’s part of the appeal of, say, Bond. You’re not watching them for the dialogue—it’s taking you to exotic locales.
Did you have the same rebellious streak that Vanessa has?
I would say, growing up, I was very conscious of authority. And yet the CIA recruits a certain type of person to go into operations. They want someone who has a lot of initiative, and is willing to work right at the edge. But it’s not good to have cowboys. They exist, but it’s not a good idea to have people who go off and try to do ...what their own judgment is telling them. As you saw at the beginning of the book, it was her judgment call that lead her to decide to do that ops meeting. She was so close and it had tragic consequences. In terms of authority, she is really pushing the system as hard as she possibly can. I probably didn’t have that in me—I was much more willing to color within the lines.
At the beginning of the book, as Vanessa is waiting to meet her asset, you write, “Screwed-up Agency commo plans were legendary.” Are there any stories you can tell us, either from your own experience or agency lore, about an epic missed connection?
Everything in the book is as realistic as possible, from asset communications to how you recruit to how you move in and out of countries, to no cellphones in CIA headquarters. So all of that is true and agency communication plans are legendary for being screwed up. Because if I call and say ‘We meet at 2:30,’ that really means we meet at 4:30—well, 4:30 rolls around and [the asset wonders] ‘They said two hours—is it plus two? Minus two?’ And that leads to a fair amount of confusion sometimes. You spend a lot of time reviewing, reviewing, reviewing commo plans. It’s really high stakes and for the most part you’re dealing with people who are very clever. I never served in Moscow, but there was a place during the Cold War where you had chalk marks on flower pots and that meant something and a window halfway up meant something else. Those were very intense operations.
When there’s a news story on—say, the assassination of a nuclear engineer—can you tell if there’s an intelligence element to the events?
Well, you always wonder. And certainly having my personal experience of what happened, with the leak of my name—being on the other side of that news, how much you realize it can be distorted and biased and spun in a certain way—that was a huge learning experience. But in terms of seeing news, many times, I kinda go ‘huh.’ Snowden for instance, when he did his travels from Hong Kong to Moscow, you have to wonder. I don’t know the answers but I certainly have a lot of questions.
The book helps explain the difference between NOCs and inside officers, different covers. Are there types of personality traits that make people better for an undercover assignment?
NOCs are chosen for the most sensitive missions. You have to have a lot of initiative and be able to work on your own without much of a support mechanism. And so I think some people are better at working from home, other people really need an office environment. Many NOCs are quite young because they have not yet been exposed. It’s a lot of pressure on a relatively young, sometimes inexperienced person, but hopefully smart, pays attention and has good judgment to pull off a successive operation.
Your character has a love affair with a handsome fellow officer, David Khoury. How common is undercover love inside the CIA?
I think love affairs are very common ... particularly because it is a strange working environment. So you both understand the stresses and pressures, and you don’t have to explain, you can understand the shorthand. But because of that, the divorce rate is astronomically high, because there are so many opportunities for deceit. The thing with David and Vanessa is that she’s a NOC and he’s an inside officer. They’re not supposed to be seen together. It would compromise both of their covers.
Is it hard to date outside the agency?
Yes. It can be done, but it’s a little bit like actors, in that [another officer] totally gets that universe.
Let’s talk about female rivalries within the CIA, such as Vanessa’s rivalry with the character Zoe. How competitive are women in the Agency? Or do female officers look out for each other?
Sarah and I didn’t want to write cat fights into the book, and yet there are tensions. Of course it exists. Ambition is ambition, it doesn’t carry a gender tag with it. It’s getting better, but it’s still very much a man’s world. Everyone’s fighting for a little bigger piece of the pie.
To your mind, what is the most dangerous scenario in terms of nuclear proliferation—a nuclear Iran? A nuclear North Korea? What’s your nightmare scenario?
My money is on Pakistan—they are a state that is imploding, deeply infiltrated by al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, their command and control structure of their nuclear program is not all it could be. And they’re sitting on how many millions of people next door to how many billions of people in India. That’s why I am very closely associated and do a lot of work with Global Zero, because I really think you have to drain the swamp. Pakistan is only one of many scenarios, but it’s up there. A nuclear Iran would be untenable in the Middle East. North Korea is a cult masquerading as a state, they are nuclear-armed. They are all scary scenarios.
The book plays around with intricate cat-and-mouse surveillance detection routes used by both agents and assassins. What should you do if you think you're being followed by a threatening person?
Seeing someone over time and distance is dead giveaway. And it has to be significant time and distance to provide that. In a big city like Manhattan, the coincidence that you’d run into someone twice in a few hours, it would not be coincidence, right? Another thing to do is linger, looking in a shop window, to see if someone walks by or they linger as well, just a block behind you. In countries where their intelligence service might not be very good but they have lots of people, it’s extremely hard because they can pass you off. So you don’t see the same person. And it can be extremely difficult in a really congested urban environment.
What was your favorite location in the novel?
I love them all. I know all those cities. I’ve visited Cyprus many times. So that felt really comfortable. I tried to pick places where I’ve been and they all mean something.
What appealed to you about your old job?
I come from a family where public service was considered something noble. My father fought in WWII and was an Air Force officer, my brother was wounded in Vietnam. My mother was a public school teacher. So we weren’t, you know, flag-waving patriots, but it was something that had a sense of meaning to it. I could never work for corporate America. It just never was appealing. And when I developed my expertise in nuclear proliferation, it felt extremely satisfying. I miss my career.
One of the people who has a profound effect on your heroine is her father. He treats his daughter with the same toughness and high expectations as his son. What did your own father think about your work in the CIA? Did he encourage you?
I lost my dad a few years ago, but I was really lucky in that my parents never gave me any indication that my gender in any way should determine what I could or could not do. They were traditional in many ways. My dad was born in 1920 and my mother in 1929. But my father, the best thing he ever said to me—I was maybe 10 or 11—and he said, ‘You are smart enough to do anything you want to do. It’s just what do you want to do?’ What a wonderful thing for a father to say to his daughter. ‘Figure it out. Over to you—but you can do it.’ I think of my dad every day.
Your book suggests that it would be a devastating thing to many people—not just the officer but all of their assets—if an agent’s cover is blown. What went through your mind when you first heard that your identity had been revealed by the Washington Post?
I just felt like I had been sucker punched. I knew that my assets were in jeopardy. I knew my career was over. I worried about the safety of my three-year old twins.