Secret Agents

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silhouette of a person through a dewy window

Guest post by Scott Nadelson

Five or six years ago, when I was living alone after a difficult break-up, I had a lot of time on my hands and filled it in part by following the news religiously, reading a dozen websites and blogs every morning before sitting down to write, picking up the local paper whenever I stopped for groceries. It wasn’t a good period for news, especially not for someone with my political bent. Abu Grahib. NSA spying. The re-election of George W. Bush. Hurricane Katrina. It wasn’t a good period in my life, either, and these news stories not only exasperated me but brought me to the brink of despair. I couldn’t help taking them personally. At the same time that my life had fallen apart, so had the country, the entire world. I felt that my own troubles were symptoms of a global misalignment, and therefore out of my control; as long as the news stayed bad, I didn’t have much chance of getting my life together. With the planet in chaos, how could I possibly find a permanent job or make lasting relationships or pay off my debts or clean my filthy apartment?
One story, however, gave me hope that the world–and my life–might one day return to some semblance of normalcy, and I latched onto it as a potential turning point. Finally, wrongs would be righted. Justice would be served. The arrogant people who’d brought us into war and authorized torture and spying would be brought to their knees. I couldn’t read enough about the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame and the subsequent grand jury investigation, which was carried out mostly in secret, and as such, was for months the subject of wild speculation.
Any day now, Patrick Fitzgerald, the federal prosecutor, was expected to announce indictments, and depending on the news source, the predictions about how far Fitzgerald’s dragnet would reach was wide-ranging, from minor staffers to masterminds like Ari Fleischer, Karl Rove, and Dick Cheney.

On TV I’d watch their smug, self-satisfied faces and try to detect signs of fear, some hint that they knew their fate was sealed. Driving to work, I’d listen to a report on the radio about possible links between Rove and the leaks, and I’d shout some variation of, “You’re going down, motherfucker! You’re toast! Sayonara, asshole!” and drum my fists on the steering wheel.

That fall I was commuting three days a week to a temporary teaching job, an hour each way, and I spent a lot of time talking back to my radio. Every time a commentator used the word “Plamegate,” for example, I said, “Gate is not a suffix meaning political scandal, goddamnit.” It was one thing, during the Clinton years, to refer to Whitewatergate. That had the logic of pun, a clever, if misleading, attempt to associate Clinton’s scandal with a bigger, more destructive one. But to stick “-gate” onto the end of someone’s name was just idiotic. “Be original, for fuck sake,” I’d tell the commentator, and it wouldn’t occur to me to wonder how anyone could do something for the sake of fuck.
Every day, speeding down I-5 from Portland to Salem, where I’d spend another fifteen minutes cruising the parking lot until someone pulled out–the college sold more parking permits than it had spaces–I’d wait almost breathlessly for Fitzgerald’s announcement. The longer it was delayed, the more crucial it seemed to me. I was more than ready for justice by then, for order, for permanent jobs and lasting relationships. I could sense the end of this period of muddle, or wanted to, and by the time I pulled into a parking spot, I was in desperation for the radio host to interrupt a story with breaking news about the grand jury’s decision. I’d idle for five, ten minutes, waiting, and then have to sprint to class.
It makes sense to me now why this story gripped my attention so completely at the time. There were clear villains and heroes–at least for me–and if nothing else, I longed for clarity. It was easy to despise Rove and Cheney and Fleischer and columnist Robert Novak, who’d first printed the leak, those sneering bald men who professed loyalty to a phony Texas oilman and valued belligerence, secrecy, and tax cuts for the rich. Next to them, anyone would have seemed honorable. Patrick Fitzgerald, for example, was a tough New Yorker, now based in Chicago, and he spoke about the law and criminal activity in clipped, no-nonsense terms. Republicans tried to attack him, but he’d been appointed by Republicans, and he never publicly admitted any party affiliation. He’d investigated a Republican governor and a Democratic mayor. Earlier in his career he’d locked up mafiosos and terrorists. People compared him to Eliot Ness.
Even more appealing was former ambassador Joseph Wilson, Valerie Plame’s husband, who was the real target of Novak’s column and of the leak itself. Not only had Wilson exposed false claims about Iraq’s pursuit of nuclear material, he’d spoken out publicly against a pre-emptive invasion, staking his reputation on his convictions. He also had a full head of wavy hair, spoke with thoughtful, studied eloquence, and shared a bed with a foxy secret agent fourteen years his junior.
And it was this agent, Valerie Plame herself, who garnered my highest admiration. A CIA operative made a strange hero for me, who normally associated the CIA with those very things that I found most exasperating, that nudged me toward despair: secrecy, torture, abuse of power. But in this case, Plame had stood up to lies and abuses. In sending her husband to Africa to investigate fabricated justifications for war, she’d risked not only her career but her life for what was right and honorable. I was in awe of the double life she’d been leading all these years, a former sorority girl with shining hair and a bright smile who wielded her power quietly, behind the scenes. She’d infiltrated government and professional circles around the world, gathering information about nuclear proliferation, and no one was the wiser.
This, above all else, was what made me identify with Plame, and why the case mattered to me so much. I wanted to think of myself as someone who was more than his appearance suggested, who could put on a front when it was called for. My students, for example, didn’t have to know that I was heartbroken and lonely and hardly making enough money teaching them to cover my rent. At the front of the class I could, I hoped, be competent and engaging, without revealing the truth of my muddled life.
At the same time, I had the sense that I was keeping my real identity hidden from the rest of the world–I wasn’t really the lonely, heartbroken thirty-one-year-old badly in need of a shave, who drank too much and moped around his neighborhood in rumpled clothes, but rather an intelligent, thoughtful person capable of deep feeling, who showed himself most genuinely in his work, who reserved his best side for those few people he felt he could trust. Whether it was true or not, this was something I had to believe. An identity was a person’s most precious possession, as far as I was concerned, and exposing it to the world against one’s will was an unforgivable violation. If someone outed me the way Rove, Cheney, and their cohorts had outed Plame, I thought, I would have spent the rest of my life trying to make them pay for the crime.
When Fitzgerald finally announced his indictment, I was instantly deflated. Who cared about Scooter Libby? Sure, he worked for Cheney, but he was small-time, especially for the prosecutor who’d taken down John Gambino and Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman. Cheney himself was left untouched, as was Rove and Fleisher and Bush. There was no justice served, no restoring of order. I was left on my own to get my life together, which I did, slowly, over the next few years. The gap between the life I was actually living and the one I projected to the world began to shrink, until finally there wasn’t much space between them.
During that time I’d see Plame on various news outlets, talking about how the leak had ruined her life. She published a book, Fair Game, and went on a speaking tour of colleges around the country, and I was always struck by how strange it must have been for her, hidden for so long, now out in plain sight. What was most surprising, though, was how naturally she took to the spotlight, how comfortable she seemed in her new life, how perfectly happy, in fact, she seemed without her secret identity.
Last month, the movie based on her book premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, and Plame appeared on the red carpet beside Naomi Watts, who plays her in the film. They were both glamorous in strapless dresses, their blonde hair glittering in front of flashing cameras. Plame clearly delighted in all the attention. She no longer had to pretend to be someone other than she was. She could be herself, in front of the whole world. Her outing was complete. When I looked at the photo I wondered if she still regretted the leak, if she still believed it had ruined her life.
This is Scott’s tenth post for Get Behind the Plough.

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