Celebrities are a shoo-in for Congress, right? Not so fast…

The CIA is big on “lessons learned”. One of the lesson to be learned here is a) that fame is fleeting and b) there’s more to running for office than buying TV ads.


This is a story about a spy who was forced to come in from the cold, a traitor who got off scot-free, and candidate for Congress who despite being a nationally famous figure is not a shoo-in.  

Valerie Plame is running for Congress in New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District.  The Washington Post called her “America’s most famous ex-spy.” 

Plame, of course, is the former covert CIA operative who whose identity was leaked to the press. CIA operatives are sent abroad to spy on foreign governments. Every major player on the world stage does it. It’s dangerous work. Not a few of our undercover agents have died in the line of duty. When that happens the nation they serve so honorably is of necessity kept in the dark.

Gold stars hammered into one of the marble walls in the entrance to the headquarters building are the only existing memorial to these anonymous American heroes. There are many rows of gold stars. 

The capacity to collect foreign intelligence depends upon assets in foreign countries which in turn depends upon deep cover operatives who recruit, develop, and handle these assets. It is not easy work. It requires rare skill sets and iron self-discipline. Success depends upon protecting the identity of both the agents and assets.

Arguably, nothing short of military service in a combat zone is more vital to the national interest, to national security and the safety of every American than the work CIA and FBI undercover agents do everyday behind a veil of secrecy.  

The story of how her career in espionage ended was headline news. Scooter Libby, a high-level White House official under President George W. Bush, outed Valerie Plame as a CIA secret agent. In so doing, he broke the law and put people’s lives at risk. What’s worse, he put the nation at risk.  Plame was not even the target of Libby’s treachery—her husband,  Joseph Wilson, a retired career diplomat, was the target. 

The backstory: In 2002, Wilson traveled to Niger on an official fact-finding mission to investigate allegations that Saddam Hussein was attempting to buy lightly processed uranium (“yellow cake”). The CIA enlisted  Wilson in response to a request from Vice-President Dick Cheney’s office—Libby was Cheney’s chief of staff at the time. Wilson found no evidence that Niger was guilty as charged.

But the Bush administration decided to go to war against Iraq anyway, prompting Wilson to publish an op-ed in the New York Times entitled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa”. Wilson questioned the wisdom and rationale for this war and suggested President Bush was fed flimsy or false information. “America’s foreign policy depends on the sanctity of its information,” he wrote. “The act of war is the last option of a democracy, taken when there is a grave threat to our national security.”

Libby was eventually convicted in a federal court on several felony counts—obstruction of justice, perjury, and lying to federal prosecutors.  Apparently, Libby did it to get even with Plame’s husband, Joe Wilson! 

President Bush commuted Libby’s prison sentence but stopped short of pardoning what, by any reckoning, was a treasonous crime. In April 2018, President Trump, in one of his most shameful acts to date, gave Libby a full pardon. 

The family including son and daughter moved to New Mexico in 2006.  Plame and Wilson divorced in 2017.  Joe Wilson died at age 69 in September 2019. That same month, Plame announced her intent to run for Congress in a slick, supercharged video entitled “Fast and Furious”.

Not so fast, Valerie.

This headline in the Santa Fe New Mexican on March 7, 2020, did not surprise the locals:

Dems back Leger Fernandez by wide margin in 3rd Congressional District

Teresa Leger Fernandez is a Santa Fe attorney and a native New Mexican.  Leger Fernandez makes a point of telling the voters that as “A daughter of Northern New Mexico, she will represent the district with a deep understanding of what New Mexico’s communities need.” And that she was  “a little girl who went to Head Start [in Las Vegas, New Mexico] and fell in love with learning.”  The deeper you dig, the better her bona fides as a candidate for Congress get. 

For Plame, not so much.  She’s raised plenty of money and run some slick ads on TV and YouTube, but she has failed any real traction.  I had some difficulty locating her campaign headquarters in Santa Fe and when I did the place was all-but-deserted.  At first, I thought it really was deserted.  I wandered through the place and finally encountered one oblivious staffer who was whose eyes were glued to a glowing monitor.

No wonder Leger Fernandez won 41.9 percent of the delegate vote.  Treasurer Laura Montoya was second in a crowded field, winning 20.4 percent. 

Meanwhile, Valerie Plame placed fifth with a paltry 5 percent of the vote, despite “taking a commanding lead in fundraising,”.  The staff writer who reported the results noted:

Plame has been considered one of the favorites in the race because of her name recognition — her identity as a CIA operative was famously leaked and published in 2003 — and because she has raised the most money by far in the race, pulling in $1.1 million through the end of 2019.

Given her fame in “the Plame affair” (a.k.a. the CIA leak scandal and Plamegate), Plame would likely become an instant media star on nightly news shows and, what is far more important for the voters of New Mexico, she would have a high-profile from day one on Capitol Hill, where celebrity begets influence and independence.  

Full disclosure: I once worked for the same organization as she did, but as an analyst, not an operative in the field. I do not know her, have never met her, but I know a good deal about the kind of work she did, as well as the character, courage, and commitment those who do this work exemplify.

In my book, she is a great American.  By the looks of things, however, she will not win the June primary in New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District. 

The CIA is big on “lessons learned”.  One of the lesson to be learned here is a) that fame is fleeting and b) there’s more to running for office than buying TV ads—like a well-thought-out campaign strategy, an organization, speaking the language(s) of the locals, and having a message that resonates with the people where they live.


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