Valerie Plame Wilson: ex-spy, activist, global player

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She spent years lying to everyone but her family about her job, she publicly shamed the Bush administration, she moved to Santa Fe because she was receiving too many threats at her home in DC — Valerie Plame Wilson has led a complicated life, but she’s not done fighting yet. The ex-spy who infamously had her cover blown, allegedly as political revenge for an anti-Iraq-war article by her diplomat husband, has a new mission.

Q. Why is Global Zero important to you?

A. In my other life, as a covert CIA operations officer, I developed expertise on nuclear counter-proliferation, which means making sure rogue states and terrorists can’t get ahold of nuclear materials. I resigned from the CIA back in 2007. Soon after, I was approached by the producers of a documentary called “Countdown to Zero” to appear in their film. That’s when I first became aware about the movement to eliminate nuclear weapons worldwide. It’s fabulous that Global Zero is independent, nonpartisan and international. Our bench is also quite deep — it includes generals, diplomats, former presidents and prime ministers and students, all of whom really do have a vision.

Q. What lessons have you brought from your CIA work to Global Zero?

A. My career made me realize how close we really are to a nuclear accident or miscalculation. My job with the CIA was to delay or deter [these situations] or, in any other way, try to provide more space and time for political and diplomatic processes to work towards nuclear arsenal control.

That influenced my thinking. I believe we really have to drain the swamp. The Cold War is over and we no longer need these enormous arsenals that sap so much in terms of resources and money, [that could go to] programs that make positive changes. It seems like, after the Cold War, we breathed a worldwide sigh of relief and then saw no further forward motion on arms control and reduction.

President Obama is really committed to the cause, though, as shown by his 2009 pledge in Prague to continue to pursue reductions, and the new START treaty Congress approved last year. We are making progress.

Q. So, what can students do to help ‘drain that swamp’?

A. There are so many ways. It’s important to keep in mind that individuals do matter and can make change. Global Zero is very democratic in its approach — we don’t believe that it’s just a few elites that should be responsible for the existential removal of nuclear arms. It’ll take a highly orchestrated process to get from where we are today to where we need to be: a point where nuclear weapons are just considered taboo like chemical and biological weapons are.

Please attend the conference or go to our very cool website — it can show you, for instance, how much any city or state could save from nuclear weapons being cut over the next decade.

I hope that students will walk out knowing that they can make a difference. The whole issue is so intimidating — for decades, arms control negotiations have been in the hands of very precious, well, men, for the most part.

You can start a chapter of Global Zero at your school, dedicate yourself to issue and learn everything from what we’re doing already to how to understanding the real cost of nuclear weapons. The lineup [at Reaching Zero] is incredible — it’s people that think a lot about this issue all the time.

Q. Do you see a move towards a nuclear-free world in today’s political developments? Is that a feasible goal?

A. I do actually believe that we have a window of opportunity right now. President Obama and President Medvedev of Russia are both pulling in the same direction, and where there’s political will, things begin to happen. We did see progress with the new START treaty, and we got amazing news on Valentine’s Day — a leak, if you will, from the White House, about considering huge reductions in the nuclear arsenal. That’s jaw-dropping news. The Pentagon is currently doing a review, and Global Zero would argue, “Do we really need this massive overkill arsenal from the Cold War world?”

Of course, there will be critics. Everything unfortunately becomes highly politicized — Republicans are screaming that Democrats are soft on national security. But it’s not like the more weapons you have, the safer you are. In fact, the more weapons we have, the more likely it is that this technology will sold to or stolen by terrorist groups.

We simply do not need the massive arsenal that we have. What are these weapons for? Who are they targeting? Why do we have hundreds targeted at single cities like Moscow? Are nuclear weapons really ‘better’ than conventional weapons?

Q. What are the nondomestic factors that come into play?

A. The whole issue of Iran — the thought of Israel or Iran reacting in ways that destabilize the entire region and imperil millions and millions of people. Or you have a nearly failed state such as Pakistan that’s imploding before our eyes, but has quite a significant arsenal, as we know. The Cold War doctrine is not applicable any more.

Q. With countries like Iran and Pakistan, one key reason they want nuclear weapons is to assert themselves and prove that they can be in the elite nuclear club. How do you change the perception that an arsenal is a matter of confidence, particularly for borderline states?

A. When Pakistan got the bomb, it definitely had that prestige. Dr A.Q. Khan [the scientist behind Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal] is considered a national hero. It’s a no-win argument to say that only Christian countries should be allowed to have an arsenal. Try saying that to an Iranian or a Pakistani — it’s not sensible. The only alternative is to move forward as an international community and enforce strong controls on highly-enriched uranium and other gadgets you need for a nuclear weapon. Also, we need diplomatic initiatives. Let’s say you could wave a magic wand and the whole issue of Kashmir would be solved. I would think that nuclear weapons would no longer be attractive to countries like India or Pakistan. That’s how you can ratchet the situation down. And we can bring international pressure to bear on those outside the international norms.

Q. And how do you tell rising global players, like India and Brazil, to not prioritize big arsenals, as their influence and economies grow?

A. We had an amazing summit last year in London, that included everyone from all the interested nations and various walks of life: diplomats, the military, students and political leaders. It’s not Global Zero’s role to tell people what to do, but rather how to organize and set up pressures so that the political process works. It has to be about political will, but who does political will listen to? The people. When they no longer feel safe, because of the out-of-control nuclear race that we’re in now, maybe cooler heads will prevail. They did in South Africa.

But you’re absolutely right — right now, there’s still a certain amount of fairy dust around the notion that we must be a nuclear state. The fact that the U.S. and Russia are [cutting their arsenals] is great. As an American citizen, I’m proud that my nation has stepped out ahead and done what isn’t popular, the way we did with slavery and the Marshall Plan.

Q. Do you think the American public is behind that move to reduce the nation’s nuclear arsenal?

A. There’s not that much news out about it, but it is a variable, particularly in an election year. Obama is charting his path, of course, with an eye on November, but he’s committed to keeping his word and making strategic steps towards honest reduction in nuclear weapons. The American people are completely besieged and very much concerned about the economy, their jobs, their rent, but when you put all those concerns into the context of where all our money is going, you just see the huge, bloated arms budget.

Q. What developments would you most like to see in the coming years, with regards to nuclear arsenal reduction?

A. Starting with this news on Tuesday, I would like to see significant reduction in our arms arsenal. Russia would follow suit. The next big players, China and India, would do so too, and then we’d need to come to some sort of peaceful solution with Iran. I don’t know what that would be, but, for this country, waging three wars in one decade would be catastrophic.

Q. Well, speaking about this country: a lot of people on this campus want to grow up and have jobs that serve the nation, but your case showed that the noblest of intentions can backfire, and badly. What do you have to say to those kids, based on your experiences working with the CIA?

A. Despite a very painful experience with the leak of my identity, which really was about politics, my husband [retired ambassador Joseph C. Wilson] and I encourage all young people we speak to to consider public service. It really is noble to serve a cause greater than yourself, and I hope as many students as possible stop by Reaching Zero and come to understand that.

Valerie Plame Wilson will be addressing this weekend’s Global Zero student summit at 9:00 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 19 in Linsly-Chittenden Hall. The event is open to the public.

UPDATE: The talk has been rescheduled to 9:00 a.m. in the Yale University Art Gallery.

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