Liberal foreign-policy icons Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson—the real-life heroes of the film Fair Game, in which Naomi Watts and Sean Penn dramatize the couple’s ordeal at the hands of vindictive Bush administration officials—are predictably down on George W. Bush and his use of fake intelligence to wage war on Iraq.
But they’re also pretty rough on President Obama.
“I’m very disappointed that the Obama Justice Department has not investigated the previous administration” for possible war crimes and other misdeeds, Wilson told me Thursday, as he and his celebrated wife got on the phone from their home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to promote the movie, based on her bestselling memoir, that opens November 5. “The Obama campaign promised to close Guantanamo Bay and didn’t—there are all sorts of things to be looked at. The idea that you can continue to keep human beings in detention offshore is an insult to us as a civil society and everything we stand for. I think the same thing can be said about the clandestine renditions. We need to shine a light on all of that and let it lead us where it may.”
Plame told me she agrees with her husband’s critique of the Obama administration, especially of the Obama Justice Department’s support of the Bushies’ successful attempt, partly on national-security grounds, to throw out their lawsuit against former Vice President Dick Cheney, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, political guru Karl Rove and former vice presidential chief of staff Scooter Libby for leaking Plame’s secret identity as a CIA employee.
“I think it’s fair to say that in general, the [judicial] bench always shows deference to the government’s claims of national security at each and every turn,” Plame told me.
“But in my own case,” she added, “I think it is incumbent upon the bench at least to thoroughly investigate those claims and not just say ‘Oh, national security—oh, OK!’”
This, in a case in which government officials arguably breached national security themselves in order to get back at a political adversary.
“How ironic!” Plame said.
“The Obama campaign promised to close Guantanamo Bay and didn’t—there are all sorts of things to be looked at.”
Wilson added: “One of the things we found in our lawsuit is that various judges gave far too much deference to assertions of national security. And I think it’s about time that judges really stood up for the Constitution and not for the government’s all-too-frequent use of national security to mask either its embarrassment or its malfeasance.”
In July 2003, after Wilson, a retired U.S. diplomat with deep experience in Africa, wrote a New York Times op-ed contradicting one of President Bush’s key rationales for bombing Baghdad—that Saddam Hussein had tried to purchase lightly processed “yellowcake” uranium in Niger in order to make an atomic weapon of mass destruction—Plame was famously outed as an undercover operative by conservative columnist Robert Novak. The leak effectively ended her career and potentially endangered her clandestine sources. Fair Game—whose title comes from Rove’s reported assertion (in a phone call to MSNBC host Chris Matthews) that Plame was just that after her husband entered the political fray—focuses on these events and their aftermath.
“It’s hard for me to see that it’s Sean Penn’s portrayal of me, because I see myself from the other side,” Wilson said of his response to the film. “But in watching Naomi play Valerie, I was really struck by how well she captures both Valerie’s outer beauty and inner strength of character.”
Plame, for her part, said Penn “captures Joe’s, I would like to say, intensity. What the movie doesn’t show, because of the story, is that Joe has a great sense of humor, too—he’s very funny. For obvious reasons, that doesn’t always come across.”
I asked Wilson—who memorably declared that Rove should have been “frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs” for his role in leaking Plame’s name to Novak—what he makes of Rove’s current prominence as a pundit and strategist, a near-constant presence on Fox News and the godfather of the American Crossroads political money machine.
“Well, obviously, I’m appalled by it,” he told me. “I think that what he has effectively been able to do is take his fear-and-smear strategy and torturous approach to American politics and incorporate it. I don’t think that bodes well for the American body politic or the fairness of the way we conduct our discussions in the public square.”
Plame and Wilson remain dubious of Condoleezza Rice, who as Bush’s national security adviser played a major role in selling the military adventure in Iraq.
“I don’t have a very high opinion of her as national security adviser,” Wilson told me, “particularly as it related to her advising the president and putting together the State of the Union address. Obviously the 16 words [the since-discredited claim that Saddam tried to buy uranium] were bogus. And while she claimed at one time that nobody in her circle knew that, shortly thereafter, her deputy offered his resignation because there were, in fact, three memos from the CIA saying ‘Don’t use this assertion. We don’t believe it.’ ”
Plame said she has read reviews of Rice’s recent memoir of life before Bush 43’s White House, “and they all seem to be somewhat puzzled,” Plame said, offering an interpretation with which Rice would doubtless disagree. “She really is a unique creature. She grew up in a heavily segregated town [Birmingham, Alabama], and yet she was precocious and had parents who cared deeply about her and all that’s lovely. She has navigated her life and shut down things that seem to be unpleasant to her… It’s curious. No one really knows what she actually thinks about these things... I find her a curious character.”
Meanwhile, Wilson said he’s at once critical and laudatory of WikiLeaks’ unauthorized releases of classified Pentagon documents—critical of a months-old document dump concerning Afghanistan, that apparently revealed secret sources and methods, but laudatory of the most recent WikiLeaks unauthorized release pertaining to civilian deaths and alleged misconduct in Iraq.
“To the extent to which the earlier WikiLeaks release actually did contain names and sources and methods, or clues to the identities of assets, the leaking of that information is precisely what Cheney, Libby, Rove and Armitage did when they leaked Valerie’s name,” he said. “That really does compromise national security, interests, and concerns. But when it comes to classifying documents simply to mask or hide war crimes, malfeasances, misfeasances, or even just plain embarrassment, then it is an outrage.
“We are certainly strong enough as a country to be able to understand ourselves warts and all, and the sorts of abuses which are contrary both to international law and American law. They need to see the light of day and be investigated.”
Plame, the cloak-and-dagger CIA veteran, took a slightly different position.
“I have very ambivalent feelings about it,” she said. “I follow what Joe says exactly, but I daresay they haven’t thought through the moral implications of this. In this day and age of such open and instantly available information, everyone is still pondering what are the moral and ethical responsibilities of that.”
For the moment, Plame and Wilson are focused on raising their 10-year-old twins, a boy and a girl who “think it’s normal that parents go on TV and write books,” Plame said. “We’ve also sought to make sure they’re insulated and focus on what we should be doing as parents—school and soccer and piano. But now, at 10, they’re able to put the pieces together and understand what we went through, and I kind of hope that when they’re teenagers we’ll be able to say, ‘You think we’re uncool now, but let me tell you what we were and what we did.’ ”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.