WASHINGTON — Joe Wilson says it was mutual love at first sight when he and Valerie Plame spotted each other at a crowded diplomatic reception eight years ago.
Well, yes and no.
For Plame, the stars in her eyes that night were quickly followed by a LexisNexis computer search the next day to make sure the guy with all the fantastic stories about his life as a globe-trotting diplomat was really legit.
It is classic Valerie Plame: The silhouetted woman at the center of the CIA leak investigation is said to be warm and genuine, but also a savvy professional. Tough, too, fellow CIA officers would add.
Joining the agency soon after graduating from Penn State with an advertising degree, Plame excelled in a rigorous training regimen that washed some others out.
“Valerie was not a crier and she wasn’t a wimp,” recalls Larry Johnson, a former CIA analyst who was part of her 1985 training class. “She was 22 and very young coming into the CIA, but she was very mature, very professional.” Other fellow trainees remember her as a head-turning blonde who did well wielding an AK-47.
In testimony to Congress, Johnson described their training at what CIA recruits call The Farm:
“We slogged through the same swamps on patrols, passed clandestine messages to our agents during exercises, survived a simulated terrorist kidnapping and interrogation, kicked pallets from cargo planes, completed parachute jumps and literally helped pick ticks off each other after weeks in the woods at a CIA training facility.”
Fast forward to 2003: Valerie Plame is married to Joe Wilson (the former ambassador’s tales of diplomatic exploits checked out), and they are the parents of 3-year-old twins.
Known by her married name, she lives a relatively quiet life in an upscale Washington neighborhood, helps run a support network for women suffering from postpartum depression and professes to work for a Boston-based energy consulting firm.
In truth, she is a covert operative for the CIA and a specialist in weapons of mass destruction, a fact unknown even to close friends and neighbors.
Chris Wolf, the Wilsons’ next-door neighbor, remembers backing off when she first identified herself as a consultant. “In Washington, that often means you’re unemployed,” he explains.
On July 14, 2003, Wolf was sitting on his deck eating breakfast and reading Robert Novak’s column in The Washington Post, when something jumped out at him. The column, citing two Bush administration officials, identified Wilson’s wife as a CIA “operative on weapons of mass destruction.”
Incredulous, Wolf called over to Wilson, who had ventured out onto his deck at about the same time. “He seemed really stricken,” Wolf recalled, “and signaled for me to keep my voice down.”
Victoria Tillotson, the Wilsons’ next-door neighbor on the other side, was certain that Novak had it wrong.
“I fully believed she was an economic consultant and went to foreign countries,” says Tillotson, whose grandchildren are frequent playmates of the Wilson twins.
This is when Plame’s world turned upside down and the couple began what Wilson refers to as “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.”
“She was stoic in her manner but I could see she was crestfallen,” Wilson wrote in his memoir. “Twenty years of loyal service down the drain, and for what, she asked after she had read it.”
Then, instinct kicked in. She began making a list of things to do to minimize damage to projects she was working on.
In the two years since Plame’s dual identity was revealed, the criminal investigation into who leaked her name has overtaken official Washington and led to the indictment of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, a top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, on charges of obstruction of justice, perjury and false statements.
No one has been charged with a crime for disclosing Plame’s identity, which her husband says was an act of retribution after he spoke out against the administration.
Wilson says he and his wife have no regrets, although he would love to give back his wife her career as a covert operative.
“I just talked to my wife this morning and we would do it again in a New York minute,” he said just days before Libby was indicted. After the indictment was released, he issued a public plea for his family’s privacy, adding, “They did not choose to be brought into the public square and they do not wish to be under the glare of the cameras.”
In all of the hubbub, just about everyone but Plame herself has taken a shot at defining her.
Plame, 42, has been vilified by the right as part of an anti-Bush cabal and lionized by the left as the patriotic victim of a smear. When her identity first was revealed, one Republican congressman demanded, “We need to know if she was a spy or if she was a glorified secretary.” Those were fighting words to Johnson and other former colleagues who trained with Plame and jumped to her defense.
But Johnson says many at the CIA, where she now holds a desk job, treat her as a leper, afraid that association with her could damage their own career. “She’s radioactive,” he said.
‘She’s legitimately angry’
“She’s keeping her sense of humor but she’s legitimately angry,” said Johnson. “It has completely destroyed her ability to ever work as a case officer, which is what she was trained to do.”
Plame’s lawyer, next-door neighbor Wolf, says she has been barred by the CIA from making public comments. The CIA confirms only that she was denied permission to publish an op-ed piece she wrote to set the record straight.
Neighbors and friends, although floored by her dual identity, say Plame remains the same caring friend and conscientious mother she was before her cover was blown.
She drives a hybrid car, helps her little boy and girl adjust to kindergarten, takes care of the Tillotsons’ cat when they are away, and keeps some pumpkins and Indian corn on the front porch of their red brick house.
The twins, says Plame’s mother, Diane, “are her first priorities and she’s tried to maintain as normal an atmosphere as she possibly can.”
Plame has consented to one photo, her blonde hair and good looks glamorously shrouded by a scarf and sunglasses as she posed for Vanity Fair alongside her husband in his Jaguar.
It is has been a long, wild ride for the girl who was born in Alaska and moved around in an Air Force family before settling as a teenager in suburban Philadelphia. After Penn State and joining the CIA, she picked up degrees from the London School of Economics and the College of Europe in Belgium.
“You’d love them as friends,” says Jane Honikman, a Californian who founded a postpartum support network and became friends with the Wilsons after their twins were born and Plame sought help for depression. “They’re just such normal people.”
Honikman remembers sitting on the Wilsons’ deck after dinner one night, enjoying the view of the Washington Monument.
“We were sitting at the seat of all this power, and they were part of that and now they’re not,” she said. “I know that they really are hurt.”
It’s unlikely Plame will remain at the CIA for long.
“She wants to be a mom and also be respected for her work and acknowledged for her hard work, but how much more she can stay there and tolerate the stress, I have no idea,” Honikman said.
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