"Countdown to Zero": Valerie Plame Wilson's new anti-nuke crusade

The outed CIA agent explains why she left private life behind for the new must-see doc, "Countdown to Zero"

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published July 23, 2010 1:02AM (EDT)

Former CIA employee Valerie Plame Wilson appears at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington March 16, 2007. The hearing is on whether White House officials followed appropriate procedures for safeguarding the identity of Wilson.      REUTERS/Larry Downing     (UNITED STATES) (© Larry Downing / Reuters)
Former CIA employee Valerie Plame Wilson appears at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington March 16, 2007. The hearing is on whether White House officials followed appropriate procedures for safeguarding the identity of Wilson. REUTERS/Larry Downing (UNITED STATES) (© Larry Downing / Reuters)

"Countdown to Zero" is a terrifying and highly effective documentary built on the social-activism model pioneered by "An Inconvenient Truth" — which isn't surprising, since many of the same production partners are involved. That means it provides roughly two-thirds gloom and doom to about one-third hope. In this case, that involves balancing the dangers of uncontrolled nuclear proliferation against the consensus view, of hard-headed practical types all over the world, that it's both possible and necessary to get rid of nuclear weapons altogether.

This kind of movie also demands a star presence, someone who combines charisma and authority. While the director of "An Inconvenient Truth" was Davis Guggenheim, it will forever be identified with a certain pudgy, professorial fellow who most likely won the presidential election in 2000 but somehow never took office. The uncontested star of "Countdown to Zero" is former CIA undercover operative Valerie Plame Wilson, who, coincidentally or not, also had an adversarial relationship with the man who wound up in the White House instead of Al Gore.

In case you were hiding under a rock during the Bush presidency, Wilson — more widely known by her professional name, Valerie Plame — was outed as a CIA covert agent by conservative columnist Bob Novak in 2003. (The information was revealed to Novak, perhaps inadvertently, by Richard Armitage, then the deputy secretary of state.) She was collateral damage; Novak's real target was her husband, former diplomat Joseph Wilson, who had written both a confidential CIA report and a New York Times Op-Ed undermining the Bush administration's case for war with Iraq.

Wilson's role in "Countdown to Zero," which is written and directed by skillful English documentarian Lucy Walker, is both real and symbolic. Of course her presence here recalls the Bush-era scandal that ended her espionage career, but Wilson's job before that was not political. She was one of the leading undercover agents trying to keep nukes out of the hands of terrorists, and in the movie she warns that those efforts are not likely to be indefinitely successful, and that the only sure course of action is to eliminate such weapons altogether.

She's joined in this by world leaders as diverse as Jimmy Carter, Tony Blair, Mikhail Gorbachev, former Secretary of State George Shultz and former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Banning nukes worldwide is no longer some left-wing peacenik position. With North Korea already in possession of the bomb, Iran next in line, and other even more sinister actors working behind the scenes, the danger is present-tense and very real. The challenge is persuading the public to care about an issue that has seemed largely dead since the end of the Cold War.

All I can tell you is that you should absolutely see this movie. I know: It sounds like a combination of spinach and scare tactics, just what you want on Saturday night. But it will get your attention, and you will never again assume that what Wilson calls the "truly existential threat" of nuclear weapons has become remote or purely theoretical.

As Wilson's former CIA colleague Rolf Mowatt-Larssen explains in the film, there are three ways to acquire a nuclear weapon: You can steal it, you can buy it, or you can build it. "Countdown to Zero" illustrates how various potentially scary people around the world are pursuing all those options. Here's what I wrote about the film after my first viewing at Cannes:

[Walker] makes a cogent and hair-raising case that, although the U.S. and Russia have reduced their strategic nuclear arsenals, the possibility of at least an isolated nuclear disaster is greater than ever. Nuclear terrorism, nuclear war in the Middle East or South Asia, or grotesque accident — all are unfortunately plausible.

Various terrorist groups, including al-Qaida and the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, have made good-faith efforts to acquire highly enriched uranium or plutonium — and once you've got that, building a bomb is mostly a question of money and technology, not immensely complicated know-how. No one knows exactly how much nuclear material is missing from the former Soviet Union, but it's somewhere between a little and a whole lot. If there's one thing the experts in the film agree on, it's the fact that as long as there are any nuclear weapons in the world, there will be a lot of them, and that our realistic choice is to live in a world with no nuclear-armed states or a world with at least 20 or 30 of them, some highly unstable and unpredictable. (There's one of those right now: It begins with "P" and ends with "stan.")

As one-time CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson explained [at a press conference], the doctrine of "mutually assured destruction" or MAD, which kept the peace during the Cold War, is no longer viable. "We're no longer in a bipolar world," she said. "We may hear pushback from those who say MAD worked well enough. The world has changed now. It's totally different. I have become convinced that if we don't do something about nuclear weapons, it's just a question of when, not if, something terrible happens."

I recently met Wilson in her New York hotel room to talk further about "Countdown to Zero," her perspective on the nuclear threat, and even "Fair Game," the forthcoming dramatic film about the Bush White House scandal in which she is played by Naomi Watts and her husband is played by Sean Penn. It won't surprise you to learn that she's extremely impressive in person — polished, professional and lovely, in a wholesome, all-American style, but also funny and sincere.

I can believe Wilson was a tremendous undercover agent, because she gracefully dodged questions an ex-CIA agent is not supposed to answer directly, such as one about Israel's unacknowledged nuclear program, while disarmingly stumbling a couple of times over the word "anonymity." (Armchair analysts: Go to town on that one!) I'm not saying she was trying to misdirect me in any deliberate fashion, only observing that she spent her professional life in a realm where the boundary between truth and fiction, honesty and dissembling, is carefully policed. She is both a frank and friendly person and someone who's only going to let you see so far.

So I understand that since your unwanted 15 minutes of fame expired, you've been leading a very private life.

I have indeed. My family and I moved to Santa Fe, N.M., far, far away from Washington D.C., and we have rebuilt our lives. We're very happy there. It's a wonderful community.

You and your husband have children, right?

We have 10-year-old twins, and my husband has another set of twins from an earlier marriage. Both boy-girl twins. So we're done!

Two sets of boy-girl twins! I have boy-girl twins, who are 6 now, but I'd say one set is plenty.

Well, you're just entering the fun stage. And it's really fun. Much more so than the whole baby stage, which I don't even remember.

It's very hard to remember! So what was it about "Countdown to Zero" and the Global Zero project that convinced you to put yourself back in the public eye?

I mean, it's because I care about it passionately. I got a call about 18 months ago from Lawrence Bender, the producer, who was working with Participant Media. They had teamed up previously to make "An Inconvenient Truth," and I thought, well, they're serious, you know? I was just so grateful to have the opportunity to apply my expertise from having worked as a covert CIA operations officer on this nexus of terrorism and nuclear weapons, and apply it toward something I care about without all that partisan background noise, which I've lived through, you know? Done that.

They interviewed me for the film, and it just sort of took on a life of its own. We premiered at Sundance, we went to Cannes, we were just at the festival in Aspen, and it's been a tremendous experience. As you've seen in the film, I think they have 11 world leaders and everyone's got their niche. They're all talking about how much they care about this and why it's so important.

I imagine there are things about your CIA career you still can't talk about [Wilson nods]. But why don't you elucidate what you were working on.

What I was working on was essentially making sure the bad guys did not get the nuclear bomb. What that means is running creative operations that are secure and worldwide, looking at their procurement network. What is their chain of acquisition? How are they getting the widgets that they need? Because, frankly, putting together a nuclear program is cost-intensive and extremely difficult, thank goodness. So they leave telltale tracks. How do you infiltrate them — figure out where the stuff is going and where it's coming from? I worked both on nation-states as well as the sub-state, terrorist level.

We get the impression from the film that there have been some pretty close calls, in terms of those groups, terrorist groups, getting ahold of nuclear technology or at least some of its components. Is that accurate?

It is. In fact, one of my former CIA colleagues who appears in the film, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, who is now at Harvard, said to me after he saw it, "You know, you have just scratched the surface." When you get into that, when you're an operations officer, you understand firsthand how assiduously they are going after this technology and the capability. We know they have the will. As one of the experts in the film explains [regarding a particular case], here's this two-bit car thief in a former Soviet republic who is selling highly enriched uranium. Imagine if he had money, or an ideology, or a brain, what he could do with that! Unfortunately, that is the harsh truth.

I assume there are ongoing intelligence efforts that the film can't explore or explain, aimed at stopping or intercepting the transfer of nuclear technology. Obviously you're not in the agency anymore, but can you talk about the effectiveness or efficiency of those efforts?

Well, as we sit here, many of my former colleagues — really good, decent, smart people — are toiling away in anonymity for a GS-11 salary to keep the world safe, so we can sit in downtown New York and not have this threat present in the forefront of our consciousness. Having said that, you may have seen Dana Priest's series of articles in the Washington Post about how bloated and bureaucratic and ultimately ineffective our intelligence community has become. That's a conversation for another time, but that's deeply concerning to me. It's nothing new, but I find it deeply disturbing.

When I saw you at Cannes, you made a remark to the effect that if nothing changes, it's more a question of when some terrorist group gets the bomb and uses it, rather than whether they do it. That's pretty dire.

I have to say if I weren't ultimately an optimist, I wouldn't be doing this. You have to believe that we are able to steer ourselves away from this truly existential threat. The good news is — and there is some good news on this very gloomy topic — that at the height of the Cold War in 1986, we had something like 70,000 nuclear weapons. Now we're somewhere in the neighborhood of 23,000. There has been a significant reduction, and we are continuing those steps. President Obama has provided amazing leadership on many different fronts of that effort. Also, look at chemical or biological weapons. They still exist in the world but they are now considered absolutely taboo.

There's a whole social-action campaign that has been created around the movie, much as they did for "Inconvenient Truth." Your readers can go to Global Zero or TakePart. There, as individuals, they can do something, whether it's petition a senator to ratify the START treaty, sign up for the Global Zero declaration, or find out where to see this movie and buy tickets. Because otherwise you just want to crawl under the bed covers and not come out.

Lucy did a lot of man-in-the-street interviews internationally, and you get a lot of "Uh, yeah — I hadn't really thought about that much." That's where we are. This has not been a terribly fashionable subject since the close of the Cold War. And I really believe that we have this window of opportunity right now, a leader in the White House and an international consensus that we cannot continue the way we are, not only with nation-state actors like Iran and North Korea, but also with the sub-state actors, the terrorist groups. That is the most dangerous thing, to my mind, the most dangerous intersection.

So that's a long way of not answering your question in terms of the probability. Of course it's there, but what can you do but try to effect some positive change?

You and I are from the same generation, roughly speaking. We grew up during the Cold War years, and the threat was always there, from at least the Cuban missile crisis all the way to the fall of the Berlin Wall. So it's in our mental background. But I feel like younger people have absolutely no idea about this and never think about it.

I know, no kidding! College students today were not even alive when the Berlin Wall fell, which is kind of amazing. It is not in their frame of reference. Participant are big believers in the power of positive social change through film. It's not the be-all and the end-all, but it starts the conversation, and it's particularly effective at reaching younger people.

There's a Pakistani scientist who says in the movie that the human mind cannot comprehend the damage that would ensue from the detonation of a nuclear weapon. We do have small minds in that way, but the threat is very present and real. I am heartened by this little moment. They started making this movie before Obama was even in office, and there has been this serendipity of events that have provided a window where we can begin doing something worthwhile.

I have always wondered, apprehensively, about the fact that Pakistan is one of the known nuclear states. It seems so unstable, so divided, so plagued by internal conflict and at least partly undermined by Islamic extremism. It's the country where Osama bin Laden is presumably living. It seems like a total mess. Is that off base?

I think that if you talk to most experts on this, they would have exactly those same feelings. It is an extremely volatile country, and we cannot be assured that their command and control has all the integrity we need to understand that ultimate control over their nuclear arsenal will be secure. The tensions that escalate and then de-escalate, ever so slightly, between Pakistan and India are also a tremendous factor.

That is why the film builds toward this notion that the only safe option is zero. You cannot sit across the table from an Iranian — and I've done it — and talk about, well, why should all the Western, Judeo-Christian countries have nuclear weapons and other countries cannot? There's no way to square that. Of course, the only rational response is to ultimately — not unilaterally, not easily, not capriciously — through a dedicated and orchestrated step-by-step process, get to zero.

Another interesting nation to consider is Israel, which is known or assumed to have a nuclear program but has never disclosed it publicly. An awful lot would have to change in the Middle East before A) the Israelis admit they've got the bomb and B) they get rid of it.

[Laughter.] We're not naive enough to believe that if Russia and the United States, for instance, were to sign the START treaty, then everyone would fall in line because we're leading by example. Israel is in a very difficult neighborhood — and Iran would say the same thing, and thus their quest. But what you do is, you really strengthen your verification, your monitoring process. Intrusive inspections. You build an international framework, and you use all the tools at your disposal — diplomatic, intelligence, sanctions — so that rather than having an upward spiral, you begin to have it go downward. It's sort of the domino theory in reverse, until a country like North Korea, for example, feels so totally shunned by the international community, including China — which would be critical — that they can no longer continue with their nuclear program.

I'm not addressing Israel specifically, but it's part of that equation. It would be very provocative, it would throw everyone in the Arab world back on their heels, if Israel would say, "Let's declare a nuclear-free Middle East, with intrusive inspections, and we can start this day next year." That would get everyone wondering, "What are they up to?" And then maybe they could make some progress.

Can you talk briefly about the peculiar process of having your life fictionalized? In "Fair Game," which comes out this fall, you're played by Naomi Watts and your husband is played by Sean Penn, and we learn about your CIA work, your problems in your marriage, and all the political infighting and intrigue that led to your exposure. It's quite an invasion of privacy for somebody who used to be an undercover operative.

I have to come up with a better word than "surreal," but that's still working for me. If none of this had happened, I would be happily living overseas, undercover, working on counterproliferation issues. Joe and I are thrilled that the movie was made. It's beautifully done, with Sean Penn and Naomi Watts. How weird is that, though? I'm delighted with the movie, and if "Fair Game" shines even more light on this issue that I care so much about, then I'll feel even better about it.

It must be strange to reflect — I mean, "ironic" isn't even the right word — that you were outed or exposed by people who arguably should have been pinning medals on you for the work you were doing.

[Laughter.] First, let me say that despite how Hollywood depicts CIA operatives, it's truly a team effort. You have the targeteers, you have the analysts, you have the tech guys, and you have the ops officers, which is what I was. You're all pulling in the same direction.

[Extended pause.] You know, ultimately history will judge this period. Our story is one little piece of that time, one small story about the consequences of speaking truth to power. So I don't spend a whole lot of time — any time — feeling bitter or angry. That's really a waste of time. We have moved through this, we are happily married, we have two beautiful children, and we live in Santa Fe! So I will let others judge.

"Countdown to Zero" is now playing in New York, Washington and Rockland, Maine. It opens July 30 in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., St. Louis, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Austin, Texas; Aug. 6 in Cleveland, Miami, Pittsburgh, Sacramento, Salt Lake City and Santa Fe, N.M; Aug. 13 in Charlotte, N.C., Kansas City, Las Vegas, Madison, Wis., Sarasota, Fla., and Winter Park, Fla; and Aug. 20 in Albuquerque, N.M., Little Rock, Ark., Olympia, Wash., Tucson, Ariz., and El Paso, Texas, with more cities to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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