Ex-CIA agent Valerie Plame discusses nuclear proliferation and cybersecurity

Credit: bostonbookfestival via Flickr Credit: bostonbookfestival via Flickr

As part of Carnegie Mellon’s Information Networking Institute (INI) celebration of Carnival weekend, Valerie Plame was invited to give a keynote speech on the issues of nuclear proliferation and cybersecurity, two major threats that affect all of us today.

When you meet her, Plame may look like a regular activist for causes that all of us can relate to. But many may also remember her as the subject of the infamous 2003 Plame affair, which ended her twenty-year career as a covert CIA agent.

In her keynote, Plame gave a brief overview of the events leading to her career at the CIA and the subsequent Plame affair. She described herself as “very honored” to have had the opportunity to serve her country by working for the CIA, continuing her family’s legacy of public service. Her expertise was in the issue of nuclear proliferation and the covert cyber-operations relating to it. She described the multifaceted training that she had to undergo, which included surviving in the wilderness, jumping out of planes, shooting automatic weapons, and recruiting foreign intelligence sources.

In the years after 9/11, the U.S. government was preparing to invade Iraq with the justification that Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons. Her husband, a diplomat named Joe Wilson, went to Niger to investigate uranium transactions there and to figure out if any of them involved the Hussein regime. Wilson concluded that America’s justification for the war was false because he could find no evidence that Saddam Hussein was trying to buy nuclear weapons or nuclear material. After the war started, Wilson wrote a column discussing his findings. Shortly after, Plame’s identity as a covert CIA agent was leaked to the Washington Post, which she believed was done by administration officials as political retaliation for her husband’s article. She was forced to resign from the CIA. Plame described the situation at that time as a “complete loss of privacy.”

“You don’t know what it’s like until you have photographers on your lawn snapping pictures of your toddlers,” she remarked, reflecting her concern at that time about the safety of her family and the intelligence networks she had cultivated for two decades. She believed that the media firestorm and personal attacks on her that resulted reflected the increasing unpopularity of the war among citizens. The leak became known as the Plame affair.

After summarizing her story, she moved on to the topic of nuclear proliferation. She first started by calling election night “just ugly,” and said that the current president is very unstable and says many conflicting things. She remarked that none of the attributes she just described of President Trump “should be in the same sentence as nuclear weapons.” She believes the problem isn’t that President Trump has access to the nuclear codes — it’s that they even exist in the first place.

Plame gave a brief history of nuclear weapons, starting with the Cold War. During that time, there was a policy of mutual annihilation if either the Americans or the Russians were to use nuclear weapons, which worked as a deterrent. However, by 1982, American citizens got tired of this perpetual brink-of-war state and approximately a million of them took to Central Park to protest the existence of nuclear weapons. She remarked that the good thing that came out of it is that the American stockpile has been reduced from 60,000 nuclear weapons during the height of the Cold War to 15,000 today. The protests in 1982 forced Reagan to talk with the Soviets and come up with an agreement to destroy nuclear weapons. Some of these materials were used for nuclear power plants. Yet this decommissioning of nuclear weapons has reversed for a few reasons — there are more countries with nuclear weapons now (nine instead of two), terrorists have increased interest in attaining them, and there has been a rise of new U.S.-Russia tensions.

Plame brought up an issue that she said “rarely comes up in discussions” about nuclear weapons: the President is not legally required to consult with anyone before he launches a nuclear strike, because nuclear weapons are on “high alert” status. She believes that people now are less aware of the nuclear threat than they were during the Cold War, and one of her goals as an activist is to raise awareness among the public on this issue.

Despite criticizing Trump for being unstable and unpredictable, Plame said that the president can lead the world into nuclear disarmament if he decides to. She suggested a few policies the president could change to lessen the nuclear threat, such as changing the high-alert status of nuclear weapons and changing the policy of nuclear-striking anyone who uses nuclear weapons in the world.

She also discussed cybersecurity, which is increasingly important as we become more connected than ever before. As an example of how much of a threat poor cybersecurity can pose, she cited the example of a bank whose computer system was hijacked in a sophisticated attack that took over the systems and obtained a lot of confidential information. She offered an analysis on why some hostile parties act the way they do: Russia to carve out a sphere of influence, China because it is behind the U.S., Iran because it wants to be a revolutionary (she believes the deal is essential to keeping Iran from disrupting the US more), North Korea because it is starving for attention, and terrorists because they’re just hateful. She believes the Sony and Democratic Party hacks were influence operations, and that in terms of cyber attacks, it just keeps escalating and there is little deterrence in play.

As a way to tackle cybersecurity issues, she said that the government must support the private sector more instead of making them comply with orders from the Department of Defense. This way, it would be easier to cooperate in the event of a cyber-threat and make use of the advantages that the private and public sector each have.

During her conclusion, Plame asserted that we are living in unprecedented times. While we often shake our heads at every blunder — she gave the examples of Sean Spicer’s botched comparison of Hitler and Assad and United’s violent removal of a passenger from an overbooked flight — this leads us to lose sight of the real threats out there. She called for more diplomacy and increased citizen engagement and knowledge in regards to social issues. She also encouraged young people to explore public service as a potential career, despite lower pay and what she termed her “crazy story.”