Eight years ago, the espionage thriller Fair Game hit theaters.
Directed by Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) and starring Naomi Watts as Valerie Plame and Sean Penn as her husband Joe Wilson, the film dramatized the events leading up to what’s become known as the “Plame affair”—the unmasking of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame by conservative columnist Robert Novak in 2003. It was later revealed that State Department official Richard Armitage, senior adviser Karl Rove, and adviser to the VP Scooter Libby had disclosed Plame’s identity to various members of the press.
Plame and Wilson saw the leak as payback for an episode in the run-up to the Iraq War where, after President George W. Bush falsely alleged that Saddam Hussein “sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa” in order to build a nuclear bomb, Wilson penned an op-ed in The New York Times refuting the claim—since Wilson, a former diplomat, was the actual man the CIA had sent to Niger to investigate the yellowcake tale.
Despite solid reviews, Fair Game didn’t exactly light up the box office upon its release, earning a little over $24 million worldwide, but it’s become newly relevant in light of both President Trump’s never-ending web of deceit and his pardoning of Scooter Libby, the only person to receive any punishment over the Plame affair (for lying to investigators, as it were). So Liman and distributor Summit Entertainment have decided to re-cut and re-release Fair Game, adding some new footage that ties it to the present.
“I’ve seen it several times now, and while I really liked the original, this is better—and it’s more relevant than ever before,” Plame tells me.
The former CIA officer took some time out from planning her upcoming spy conference to discuss the re-release of Fair Game and her many, many issues with President Trump.
Why do you think Fair Game is being re-released now? Obviously there’s Trump’s pardoning of Scooter Libby, which plays a big factor.
I don’t want to speak for Doug, but I have heard him say that that pardon by Trump precipitated him getting back into the editing room and working on Fair Game. So I do think it is more relevant now than ever. We are in a time of such lies and deception. There really is such a thing as “fake news,” as we know, and people really have lost such trust in their government—it’s it its lowest ebb ever. And this has been building over the decades, but the decision to go to war in Iraq in March of 2003 based on the premise that Iraq had nuclear weapons, and it turns out that wasn’t the case at all, that is war built on lies, and there’s nothing more dangerous than a country doing that.
They’ve convened a special counsel to investigate President Trump, James Comey is playing a central role in it (his firing), and with you, Comey was in the Rod Rosenstein role as deputy attorney general. How surreal is this for you? Are you experiencing déjà vu?
Very. And a lot of names are popping up that we’d thought we’d successfully put to rest in the run-up to the war in Iraq. For instance, John Bolton is a big proponent of having the United States withdraw from the INF nuclear treaty with Russia, so a lot of the same cast of characters are resurfacing in this administration. We’re living in strange times, for sure.
Bolton’s been itching to go to war with Iran for a very long time, and I know that some of your work in the CIA consisted of ensuring that Iran did not acquire nuclear weapons, so how worrying is it for you now that we’ve pulled out of the Iran Deal and Bolton is national security adviser? Do you think we’re inching toward military conflict with Iran?
Yes I do. I don’t like the stuff that I have seen. I was a big proponent and advocate to stay in the Iran nuclear deal. It’s the best deal we’re ever going to get—far better than experts predicted would come out of it—and we’ve withdrawn unilaterally from a multilateral deal, so it remains to be seen how that’s going to be squared. Clearly Trump is an impulsive president, and would probably love to see himself as a war president, which in his mind gives him added prestige, and that does nothing but scare me—as it should every American.
Back to the pardoning of Scooter Libby. It of course happened prior to Bolton joining the administration, so why do you think Trump did this?
It’s very simple: the pardon had nothing to do with Scooter Libby, nothing to do with me, and everything to do with sending a very direct signal to a handful of Trump cronies that if they stay with him he will support them and ultimately pardon them should any ill befall them—whether that’s to Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, etc. That’s what I think that was about. He doesn’t care about Scooter Libby, come on. He doesn’t care about anybody.
Saudi Arabia is in the news right now with the killing—and cover-up—of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Since your job at the CIA included ensuring that Iran did not acquire nuclear weapons, the theory goes that we’ve maintained a close relationship with Saudi Arabia because they provide a check on Iran. But 9/11 happens, 15 of the 19 hijackers are from Saudi Arabia, and we still maintain this alliance, which is baffling.
It’s a head-scratcher, isn’t it? That we still have such fealty to Saudi Arabia? Yes, the majority of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi, and who do we invade? Iraq! It’s nonsensical. And obviously we’ve lost whatever moral high ground we might have claimed in terms of being a beacon of democracy and a strong advocate for human rights around the world. Under the Trump nativism, it’s all about “America first” and everyone else for themselves.
It’s strange that Trump was so protective of Saudi Arabia and throwing out all these bizarre explanations for the disappearance of Khashoggi. “Rogue killers?” It was just so strange, and even in the face of pretty clear indications of a terrible thing having happened he is still not willing to back off. Although I have to say, I find all the American corporate titans who’ve backed out of the event [Saudi Arabia’s Future Investment Initiative] because of this incident with the journalist to be highly hypocritical. It’s not as though we didn’t know that our arms that we’ve sold to Saudi Arabia have not been used in a very vicious war in Yemen, killing lots of civilians for a couple of years. But for me personally, I want to have a better understanding of the Trump Organization’s financial ties to Saudi Arabia. I want to know!
You ran a little campaign to essentially get Trump kicked off Twitter, saying he was inciting violence against journalists. And now we have the Khashoggi killing and Trump praising Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT) for body-slamming a journalist—on top of his constantly branding them the “enemy of the people.”
He’s a bully who will say anything that he thinks will shore up his base. His behavior is so abhorrent and so outside the norm that, politics aside, it just disturbs me that this individual is in a White House that has had some truly great presidents. But as far as inciting violence against journalists, we know that during the campaign and after at his rallies he gets the crowd riled up against journalists, and they have been intimidated.
This is also a president who’s repeatedly undermined the intelligence community. I still sometimes think about that speech he gave at the CIA, where he laid into them in front of the Memorial Wall commemorating those that died in the line of duty.
It makes me sick. It’s never good to have this much daylight between your president and the intelligence community. It is dangerous for our national security. And he’s gone after them using language that is really inflammatory. You see some of the results of that, because in the case of Khashoggi, what he’s saying is clearly at odds with his morning intelligence briefings. It’s such a head-scratcher that he continues to enjoy as much support as he does. We’re in a very dangerous period right now where our friends and allies—and our enemies—don’t know what to expect. Our allies certainly feel that they cannot depend on us. I can only imagine the state of affairs between CIA and our long-standing intelligence partners overseas—countries where we have mutually-compatible targets. The job is hard enough without trying to have to explain your president!
How do you feel about the legacy of the George W. Bush administration? While critics often say Trump is the worst, I don’t think his administration is as bad—yet—as the Bush administration when you consider the Iraq War and what it did to the Middle East, the global financial collapse, etc. And there’s been this strange softening of George W. Bush, with his rebranding as a quirky artist who passes people candy at funerals. It all seems just completely ridiculous to me.
[Laughs] Well, you’re right, but I think it would be unwise to compare the two at this point in time. And to be clear: Trump is a symptom of a democracy and institutions that have deeply eroded over time. But you’re right: I don’t think the United States has ever had a reckoning with the Iraq War. President Obama came in and said, “Let’s move forward, folks!” and because he was so charismatic, and we were so carried away with the idea that we had a black president, we went along with it instead of asking ourselves the hard questions. I think the Iraq War is a terrible mistake for which we’ll be paying generations hence. The fear with Trump is, again, his impulsive behavior—I can’t help it with my background to think of the nuclear threat—and the corruption of his entire administration is so pervasive. But I know exactly what you’re saying about the rebranding of Bush.
You received criticism for tweeting out an article that said that the Jews are driving America’s wars. That’s not something you believe, right?
No. I’ve apologized profusely for that. I’m a first-class example of not reading the entire article. I was simply focused on the part about the Iran nuclear treaty. I’m terribly… I’ve apologized as sincerely as I possibly can for my exchanges on that. Social media can be really tricky.
Right, but there were a few other tweets you’d sent that were highly critical of Israel—one about dancing Israelis on 9/11 with a link from that same fringe website. Given that, I’m curious what your thoughts are on America’s relationship with Israel?
Well, I think it’s simply fair to say that our foreign policy is… we are really sensitive to the Israeli lobby—perhaps more than is in our best national interest. But look, after what happened last year I’m very sensitized to talking about this on the record.
OK, just to tie this up with Fair Game, what are the lessons that you feel we didn’t learn from your whole ordeal?
How important it is to hold your government to account for their words and deeds. We’ve got an election coming up and people have to come out and vote. Fair Game is about two people that know that what the government is saying is not true, and are trying to push back against this enormous, powerful machine. And its message is as powerful today as ever.