Fair Game is a new feature movie about the Valerie Plame affair. Naomi Watts plays Valerie Plame. Sean Penn plays her husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson. I am having trouble containing how much I appreciate this movie, so let me start with the facts:
In the buildup for the Iraq War, the Bush Administration was eager to claim that Saddam Hussein was building nuclear weapons. At the time, Valerie Plame was an undercover operative for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) working on counterproliferation. She was running operations around the world to find reliable sources of information about the funding and development of weapons of mass destruction. She has developed a most sensitive source to get information from an Iraqi scientist. Her bosses ask her if she can get her husband to help them check out a claim that Saddam was buying yellow cake uranium from Niger – one of the poorest countries in the world. Plame’s husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson, knew the area and had contacts in Niger. He agrees to check it out. The amount of uranium at issue would have filled a convoy of trucks. It would have been noticed by everyone around and left a long paper trail. Wilson goes to Niger, visits his contacts, talks to the witnesses, and inspects the records. Nothing indicates any sale to Iraq. He makes his report. Then he is stunned to hear President Bush claim in the 2003 State of the Union Address that, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
Joe Wilson (pictured with staff and interns of the National Whistleblowers Center) checks out whether President Bush could have been referring to any other African country other than Niger. He learns that the White House staff was relying on the same report that Wilson himself had checked out. He learns that the White House took out the claim from a speech President Bush gave in Cincinnati, but it popped back into the State of the Union Address. After the US invades Iraq, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice claims that if anyone in the government had reason to doubt the President’s claim about Saddam’s uranium, then it would have to be some staffer in the bowels of the CIA. Wilson knew this was wrong, and he felt compelled to call on his government to redress it.
Wilson wrote a now-famous op-ed article for the New York Times, “What I Didn’t Find in Africa.” White House political advisor Karl Rove and the Vice President’s Chief of Staff Scooter Libby are enraged. They see that Wilson is accusing the President of manipulating the intelligence to justify the Iraq War. They hatch a plan to get back at Wilson by attacking both him and his wife, Valerie Plame. They leak to several journalists the idea that Valerie Plame selected her husband for the trip to Niger. To do this, they necessarily reveal that Valerie Plame is a CIA agent. Robert Novak takes the bait and runs a newspaper story outing Valerie Plame as a CIA agent. Plame’s career is ruined. CIA management bar her from her office. She is unable to rescue her sensitive source and that source’s family out of Iraq. Wilson’s business career is also ruined. The stresses on their marriage are predictable.
Meanwhile, President Bush announces that the disclosure of a CIA agent’s true identity is a serious offense, and he promises to prosecute whoever leaked that information. However, after Scooter Libby is convicted of lying and sentenced to prison, President Bush commutes his sentence.
Both Valerie Plame (pictured with Joe Wilson, Doug Liman and Neal Conan) and Joe Wilson have written books about the affair. Now those books are a feature film. I had the privilege of seeing that film last night at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, Maryland, with Valerie Plame, Joe Wilson and director Doug Liman. NPR’s Neal Conan led a panel discussion after the movie.
It was just two weeks ago that the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) aired The Most Dangerous Man in America as part of its Point of View series. Viewers of this documentary about Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers and the Vietnam War might have thought that the release of the Pentagon Papers stopped our government from lying to get us into wars. Fair Game shows that the highest levels of our government resorted to lying to justify even our most recent war.
As a whistleblower movie, Fair Game tells the whole story. Government corruption sparks one individual’s conscience, and he feels impelled to speak truth to power. The power in this case is the most powerful group in history. Their retaliation is immediate, harsh, and devastating. They struggle for justice in the courts, and find that courts are made of people just as fallible as people can be. Fair Game ends with Valerie Plame telling her story to a Congressional committee – still speaking truth to power.
In the after-movie panel, Joe Wilson said that his letter to the newspaper was a “petition to redress grievances.” He considered his letter, “an act of good citizenship.” He noted that Brent Scowcroft acknowledged that Wilson would have raised his concern no matter whether the president at issue was a Democrat or Republican. His grievance was that his government was lying about the risk of Iraq getting yellow cake uranium from Niger. He was asking for the redress of setting the record straight. Interestingly, the U.S. Supreme Court has just accepted a case to consider whether the First Amendment’s protection of the right to petition might be a stronger protection than the right of public employees to free speech. How timely.
The panelists also noted that the retaliation in this case fell most heavily on the whistleblower’s wife. They suggested that such retaliation against a spouse is rare, but that is sadly incorrect. Courts and agencies have often addressed claims of retaliation that was directed against a spouse, or someone else associated with the whistleblower.
Wilson added that the process of writing the book and helping with the movie has been “like therapy.” Whistleblower advocates can appreciate how important it is to clients that they get to tell their story, and have it told correctly.
“I am a creation of Karl Rove,” Wilson concludes. That is, without the retaliation, the Plame Affair would not have become the powerful story of Fair Game. Hopefully more and more people of power will learn that it is the cover-up that gets them. If they could just refrain from the retaliation, they could more easily deal with the violations raised by whistleblowers.
Now it is time for my review. As Fair Game unfolded how the government’s retaliation affected Valerie Plame, Joe Wilson and their marriage, my heart went out to them. Fair Game combines the deepest of political corruption, and the deepest of human emotion. It reveals the human character’s potential for the daring pursuit of truth, forgiveness, redemption and tenderness. The strength of our soul is both the cause of our conflict with power, and our redemption in love.
Fair Game is the fourth best movie of all time (behind only Gandhi, Citizen Kane and Malcolm X). It is the best movie of the last 20 years, and a must see for anyone who cares about our country, our families, and the content of our character.
Valerie Plame told us that after Novak’s story ran, the CIA conducted its damage assessment. That assessment is classified, and Plame herself has not been authorized to see it. To this day, Plame does not know what happened to all the people who helped her with her counterproliferation work. She knows harm came to some of them, but she does not know the full outcome. That is why Fair Game does not show what happened to them.
When you see Fair Game, and you get to a conflict in a restaurant, think about Ann Coulter. That is what Joe Wilson told us to do.
In Fair Game, Sean Penn reminds us of Ben Franklin’s famous answer. Asked what form of government America will have, he says, “A republic, if you can keep it.” It is time now, and it will always be time, for us to speak up about wrongdoing and keep our republic.