Toward the end of Fair Game, Valerie Plame Wilson recounts how, in the midst of the furor over Washington journalists Matt Cooper of Time and Judith Miller refusing to cooperate with Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s investigation into the White House-orchestrated leak of Wilson’s identity to the press, she and her husband ran into Cooper and his wife, former Clinton White House adviser Mandy Grunwald, on the streets of Georgetown. As Valerie Wilson—known forevermore as “Plame” in D.C. circles thanks to the Bob Novak column leaking her identity—walked ahead, Cooper buttonholed her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson IV, and made a pitch: “After opening pleasantries, Cooper paused for a moment, obviously struggling to say something. Finally he asked, ‘Could you do something for me?’ He wanted Joe to write the judge on the leak case and request clemency for Matt in the hopes it would help keep him out of jail.”
Once they were seated at the restaurant they’d been walking toward, the couple and their dinner companions “marveled over this strange request. … A request from Joe for leniency on Joe’s behalf would carry little or no weight with the presiding judge. More pointedly, it was obviously in our interest to have the reporters testify. … We wanted to know what sources in the administration had leaked my name to the media.”
Wilson doesn’t linger any further on this desperate little set piece, but it speaks volumes about how business is done among the lords of Washington consensus. The native dialect of journalists at the court society of the Bush administration such as Cooper is the argot of the deal. It was, after all, one such deal—the granting of anonymity to his own White House Source, the Plame-bashing Karl Rove—that had landed Cooper in this legal plight in the first place. One can almost hear the wheels spinning in his flailing effort to charm Wilson’s husband: Surely there’s a deal somewhere I can cut to get myself out of this mess. (It’s also quite revealing of the protocols of this deal-making set that Cooper would approach Wilson, who had only provided the inadvertent cause in the case involving his wife’s outing—a New York Times Op-Ed denouncing the Bush White House’s fraudulent claim that Saddam Hussein had sought to purchase weapons-grade uranium from the African nation of Niger—rather than his wife, the person actually wronged in the legal proceeding. Should the jail-averse Cooper seek to win the couple’s mercy in any meaningful sense of the term, she would have been the proper target for his appeal, and his apologies.) But of course, once a gavel and a contempt citation come into play, the deal-making stops. Matt Cooper was, quite literally, spinning out of control.
Cooper ultimately was spared a jail sentence at the 11th hour, when Rove coughed up an anonymity waiver.
The entire effort to smear the Wilsons grew out of similar petty, self-interested overtures. Bush apparatchiks from the office of the vice president on down used their own access to the D.C. press corps to mount the whispering campaign against the Wilsons, which was itself predicated on the uninformed assumption that exposing the former ambassador’s wife would show Joe Wilson up as an anemic D.C. girly man.
As most Americans now know—and as Plame makes painstakingly clear across the detailed course of her “why-is-this-happening” narrative—the Plame outing, like the war that midwifed it, wound up showcasing the low-minded, truth-averse culture of imperial Washington. A career covert operations officer who went on to head the Counterproliferations Division’s search for WMD’s in Iraq, Plame would have actually supplied useful counsel to the war-making councils of the White House, had they chosen to listen; while convinced that Hussein posed an ongoing threat to regional security and U.S. interests, Plame and her division could never confirm that he had fulfilled—or really, even successfully revived—his long-standing ambitions to obtain WMD capabilities. No matter—by the reasoning of the assorted bullies and toadies making the case for invasion, the invasion would do the effective work that human intelligence and U.N. weapons inspections teams couldn’t. The unofficial Bush slogan on verifying WMD caches may as well have been “Bomb it, and they will come.”
From her perch as a professional, Plame consistently marvels at the shabby lies fueling both the war and the campaign to out her—registering, for example, genuine wonder at the first Bush White House’s premier press flak, Ari Fleischer’s trial testimony showing up his total ignorance of C.I.A. protocols and the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which he and other senior Bush officials had carelessly violated. When Fleischer announced before the court, “[Never] in my wildest dreams would I have thought the information was classified,” Plame’s reaction is admirably sharp and to the point: “If he was so surprised that his actions might have adverse national security implications, then he’s not smart enough to work at the White House. That goes for all the officials who thought that using my name as catnip was just playing the Washington game as usual.”
That would be a suitable last word to the whole sordid business—but of course that wouldn’t be in character for the D.C. deal-makers. As is the routine with all books by former intelligence officials, Plame submitted the manuscript for Fair Game to the C.I.A.’s Publications Review Board for prepublication vetting. Expecting to field—and accommodate—some agency request to suppress compromising information here and there, Plame was shocked to find that the PRB reviewers had blocked out long stretches of the book outlining the rather unexceptional events of her career prior to the period covered by her involuntary outing by the White House. After a threat to halt publication altogether, and a lawsuit from her publisher, Simon and Schuster (currently under appeal), the book was published with the redactions intact, so that the initial chapters—covering the career material the C.I.A. deemed verboten—sport page-long stretches of nothing but black bars, and the reader never hears Plame’s account of such key narrative matters as her first meetings with her husband—absurdly, he pops up initially in the biographical narrative as the father of the couple’s twins. Initially, the reader feels like the book may be a big Nabokov-style jest. But in a clever end run around the C.I.A.’s strictures, Plame’s publisher hired national security journalist Laura Rozen to compose an “afterword” that fills in the many narrative blanks with information that was already, after all, in the public record. Despite the disjointed character of the text, it serves to underline an important point: Power in Bush-era Washington is all about who gets to tell what kind of redacted story.