Illustration by Shonagh Rae of a woman with her faced digitised
© Shonagh Rae

Ten years ago it seemed as though Valerie Plame’s life had imploded. After two decades of working as an undercover officer for the CIA, battling to prevent Iran gaining nuclear weapons from locations in Europe (among other things), her identity as an agent was spectacularly leaked by officials in the Bush White House.

A huge scandal erupted, since it appeared that the leak was motivated by the fact that Plame’s husband, former diplomat Joe Wilson, had challenged the Bush doctrine over whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Plame wrote an indignant book about the affair, which was heavily redacted but nevertheless formed the basis of a film, Fair Game (2010).

But then, with Plame’s career over – and their marriage under pressure – the couple fled. They moved from Washington to a pueblo in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with their two children, hoping to build a quiet, normal life – or as “normal” as you can when you are a famous spy who has inspired a Hollywood movie, and you also happen to be dazzlingly blonde and beautiful. (Having met Plame earlier this year, via the Santa Fe Research Institute, which she is now linked with, I can report that she is not only stunning but charming, bright and has a terrific sense of humour.)

Now Plame is willingly stepping back into the limelight. Next month she will publish her first fiction book, Blowback, a spy novel written with a co-author, Sarah Lovett. This tells the story of a young female CIA agent who is working undercover on projects to … er … prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb in European locations such as Vienna.

And, just in case anybody fails to spot the echoes, Blowback’s heroine also comes from a patriotic army family (as Plame does) and has the initials VP: she is called Vanessa Pierson when she is not travelling under multiple aliases (which happens to be something Plame also used to do).

As a display of chutzpah, entrepreneurship and personal reinvention after a midlife career implosion, it is all rather impressive. Indeed, when I met Plame earlier this year, I felt tempted to cheer “Go girl!” In the past century, numerous other former military or intelligence officers have used their experiences to write spy novels: think of Somerset Maugham, Ian Fleming, John le Carré, Graham Greene, Andy McNab, Barry Eisler, Gene Coyle, Duane Evans and Jason Matthews. But aside from Dame Stella Rimington, they are exclusively male. Indeed, one factor that apparently motivated Plame to write her own novel was her frustration with the lack of strong female characters in spy novels: she wants to show that women can be taken seriously, even when they are blonde and beautiful.

To my mind, there is just one catch. After reading an early copy of Blowback (which is a fun, easy read), I was left wondering why any rational, young, ambitious woman (or man) would ever want to work for the CIA. As the young Pierson hurtles around Europe facing deadly attack from Russians and Iranians, she is constantly being let down by her senior managers back at CIA headquarters and squabbling with rivals. The book stresses that successful intelligence requires collaboration. But most of the time, Pierson leads a pretty lonely, thankless, dangerous life. She barely has any friends or a real relationship with her boyfriend, who – surprise, surprise – is treated badly by his superiors in the CIA too.

Maybe this is just pure fiction. Or maybe it is a subtle form of revenge on Plame’s part. Of course, many CIA agents would stress that there are other factors that more than compensate for any loneliness and risk.

Pierson (like Plame) takes profound joy from patriotic public service. She (like Plame) also clearly loves adventure, a factor I can understand, since I spent my own twenties chasing thrills in remote places as an anthropologist and journalist. But the joy of being a journalist is that you are a free (ish) agent who can speak your mind, not a silent cog in a bureaucratic and political machine. In the novel, at least, the Washington organisation seems dispiritingly capricious in how it treats its fictional spies (never mind the deplorable way that Plame was handled in her own, real life).

The next time I read a newspaper story about western efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb (or Syria from spreading chemical weapons), I will ponder the twists of that Plame-cum-Pierson tale. If nothing else, it is a timely reminder that behind all the stories about Iran and Syria there is a second tale too: hordes of hidden young intelligence officers toiling away to make sense of events, in tough and (often) thankless jobs. And, for the most part, battling in complete silence.

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