Eoin Butler: writer, journalist and Mayoman of the Year

Tripping Along The Ledge


Published: Irish Times, March 12 2011

“What was the highest grossing movie of last year? Jackass 3. Well, we weren’t trying to make Jackass 3…”

valerie plame
Ex-CIA agent, now the subject of a film starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn.

Spies often tells us that the James Bond image is a myth, that intelligence gathering is a dull, unglamorous business. Your career doesn’t really bear out that theory though, does it?
Well, I always loved what I was doing. It was exciting to work undercover in foreign countries, using disguises and hi-tech gadgets. But I never spent much time at the craps table, let’s put it that way. I never owned too many sequined work dresses!

You joined the CIA straight out of college. What did your friends and family think you did for a living?
My cover varied, depending on what the circumstances called for. I usually posed as a businesswoman or a commercial traveller. I was lucky. When my identity was betrayed, my friends understood my reasons for deceiving them. The only thing they said – to my face at least – was, well, that explains a lot… How does one cope in a job that’s based entirely on deception? Some of us would crack if we were asked to organise a surprise birthday…
There’s an extensive vetting process. Officers will have had hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of training before they go out into the field. When I was posing as a Canadian business woman, I was a Canadian businesswoman. I was even able to recall obscure facts about Canadian ice hockey because that was what the cover required.

Can you explain briefly how your cover was eventually blown?
In 2002, the CIA asked my husband Ambassador Joe Wilson to investigate reports that Saddam Hussein had purchased 500 tonnes of yellow cake uranium from Africa. My husband went to Niger and reported back that the claims were entirely bogus. A year later, in the run up to war, President Bush repeated this claim that Saddam had sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa in his State of the Union address.

When your husband blew the whistle, the Bush Whitehouse retaliated by exposing your role in the CIA.
Yes, there was a sustained character assassination campaign against both of us. Joe was accused of being a traitor and a fantasist. I was accused of being little more than a glorified secretary in the CIA. The central premise for going to war – which was that Saddam posed an imminent nuclear threat – had been undermined and boy was the Bush administration pissed off!

Do you think, if it had been an option in 2003, that your husband might have leaked the information in his possession through Wikileaks and saved you both a lot of hassle?
That’s an interesting question, but I don’t think so. Joe had done nothing wrong. He went to the New York Times because he thought it was his responsibility as a citizen in a democracy.

Dick Cheney’s chief-of-staff Scooter Libby was eventually convicted for his role in the affair but his sentence was commuted. Are you bitter about that?
I try not to be bitter, because it’s a wasted emotion. But I am still angry. We now know that literally in the car ride on the way to Obama’s inauguration, Cheney was still urging Bush to pardon Libby outright, saying that they shouldn’t leave “a soldier on the battlefield.” That makes me sick.

The film Fair Game has been well received by the critics but it wasn’t a huge hit at the box office in America. Is there a sense that people are fed up with the controversies of Bush years now?
What was the top grossing movie of last year? Jackass 3. Well, we weren’t trying to make Jackass 3, put it that way. I think it’s a grown-up film. It’s extremely well made. It features two great actors at the top of their game and I think it’ll stand the test of time.

Last year, Iran’s nuclear facilities were hit by a devastating worm virus widely suspected to be the work of US or Israeli intelligence. Do you still follow these events in the press?
Of course! I read everything I can about it. I’m out of the business now and I no longer have clearance. But that’s exactly the sort of thing you’d hope your side is up to. Because that is really extremely effective, it’s cost efficient and, of course, it non-lethal.

The last eight years of your life have been taken up with the campaign for justice, writing memoirs and now promoting the film. What’s next?
Oh, we’ve already moved on in our lives. Joe and I have moved to Santa Fe. I’m writing a spy thriller and I do public speaking. I’m also an advocate for Global Zero which works towards the elimination of all nuclear weapons – so that’s a continuation of my counter-proliferation work by other means. We’re raising eleven years twins and we’re very involved in our local community. So life is good. As for the political rough and tumble – I’m very glad that’s behind us!