When it comes to spies, truth has been a lot stranger than fiction lately. Even Valerie Plame and David Ignatius would agree - and they are spy novelists.
Over the weekend, the White House accidentally released the identity of the CIA’s Kabul station chief to 6,000 reporters. Today, NBC News revealed highlights of Brian Williams’ exclusive interview with Edward Snowden, who claims he was trained as a spy and spent time under cover overseas -- an image which sharply contrasts with the Obama administration’s portrayal of the whistleblower as a low level systems administrator gone rogue.
In a Wednesday evening interview with The Atlantic’s Steve Clemons, Ignatius, a Washington Post columnist and preeminent intelligence commentator, and Plame, the former CIA nuclear weapons expert famously outed by the Bush Administration in 2003, offered their views on these and other real life spy stories.
Ignatius and Plame had mixed reactions to the preview clips they have seen of the Snowden interview. “He clearly took great umbrage at people calling him just a hacker,” Plame commented. Ignatius added that Snowden could have more effectively addressed his concerns about domestic spying by going through internal channels instead of to the media, which made Ignatius’s overall reaction more critical: “It’s hard for me to see Edward Snowden as a hero...He took an oath to keep those secrets.”
Both Plame and Ignatius - who were ostensibly at The Atlantic to promote their recently released spy novels -- found a silver lining, crediting Snowden with spurring greater awareness of and public debate about the reach of intelligence in an increasingly digital world.
Ignatius, whose most recent espionage novel, The Director, was just released, asserted that Snowden revealed a level of surveillance at odds with America’s founding principles. “On the question of whether we should be suspicious of government and government control over our lives,” he commented, “the Constitution couldn’t be clearer: Yes, you should be careful about that. And so the result of this year that we’ve lived through with Snowden’s revelations is that we are much more suspicious of government.”
Considering her personal experience with intelligence leaks, Plame was surprisingly sympathetic to Snowden. “There is not adequate whistleblower protection,” she said. Plame also scoffed at Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent assertion that the US would be reexamining its intelligence practices now, even if Snowden had not revealed the details of the NSA’s program.
“I respectfully disagree,” Plame said. “We would not be having this conversation.” Notably, Plame refrained from further characterizing Snowden’s actions: “I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of traitor [or] patriot,” she said.
Still, neither Plame nor Ignatius was willing to defend the more extreme of the NSA’s activities. Ignatius criticized what he called the “if you can hack it, hack it” frame of mind as “part of what got out of control with the NSA….I mean, do you really need to listen in to Angela Merkel’s phone calls?”
As for the accidental outing of the CIA chief’s identity in Kabul, Plame criticized conservatives for comparing the Obama administration’s mistake over the weekend with the deliberate and career-ending leak of her identity by the Bush White House. The “crucial distinction” between the current situation and Plame’s own experience was “intent,” Plame said. “The right is making a false equivalency that is misplaced.”
When asked about the interplay between intelligence and media -- in an age in which anyone can write a blog post from a smartphone -- Ignatius emphasized the need for “finding rules that work for everybody,” from traditional journalists whose employers have policies about not publishing life-threatening intelligence information to independent bloggers who lack the same structures. “A world in which there are no secrets that can be protected at all,” Ignatius said, “is going to be a pretty dangerous world.”