Ultimately Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, was put on trial for misleading FBI agents investigating the leak. He was convicted on four out of five counts - but not for leaking Plame's name.
Plame wrote about her story in her 2007 memoir Fair Game (made into a 2010 film starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn), and has now followed up with a new spy novel getting critical acclaim called Blowback (co-written with Sarah Lovett).
"It's been enjoyable and fun and I figure y'all need something to read while we wait for the government to re-open," Plame cracked Tuesday night at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California, where she was interviewed by California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom.
Blowback centers around a fictional CIA agent named Vanessa Pierson, who is determined to bring down a nuclear arms dealer before he arrives at an underground nuclear facility in Iran. If it sounds like it's ripped from the headlines, is is. Plame says the arms dealer is based on A.Q. Khan, Pakistani nuclear scientist who admitted that he had given nuclear technology to other countries, including North Korea and Iran.
Plame began her CIA career working on nuclear proliferation, and it's a subject that she says she is still passionate about, "especially in the hands of terrorists."
Plame also says that part of her motivation for the character of Valerie Pierson is her own "disgust" at how female CIA operations officers are usually portrayed in popular culture. "Highly sexualized, too physical or too reliant on guns. You know that's not how you collect intelligence." Plame says she is frequently asked about the Showtime program Homeland starring Claire Danes now beginning its third season. She calls it "great TV" and declares Danes a "fabulous actress," but says the show is "really unrealistic."
"Did anyone notice that she has no friends?" she asked the standing room-only crowd at Book Passages, perhaps the preeminent San Francisco Bay Area bookstore for authors to make personal appearances. "It's helpful to have good interpersonal skills if you’re going to be in human intelligence," she added.
Newsom, whose own book Citizenville written earlier this year was also on display on a sidewall along with Plame's two books, then asked the former CIA agent what was it about spycraft that has always seemed so alluring?
Plame attributed a lot of that allure to James Bond character, first depicted in the Ian Fleming novels and then the movie series which just celebrated its 50th anniversary a year ago. But she added that maybe something that was cool about spy culture is how unique it is in our current TMI culture.
"We are now living in a day and a time where there is so much information that we give up voluntarily about ourselves, and the notion that someone would actually be discreet and more private and maybe not tell you everything is so different from what you see now, I mean, there’s just way too much oversharing, right, and maybe that’s a piece of it?"
Another issue that Plame is asked on the lecture circuit are the revelations exposed about the National Security Agency by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden - revelations that are still being dribbled out, mostly (but not exclusively) by the Guardian.
Plame has no interest in debating whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor, calling him generally irrelevant to the issue. But she says the public conversation that he has opened about the balance between security and privacy is necessary. "I'm not surprised but am profoundly concerned of how deep and we're finding out just how extensive it is," she says of the NSA snooping.
She's completely unnerved by the preponderance of what she calls the "Military Industrial Intelligence Complex," best summarized by the Washington Post's Dana Priest in her 2011 book Top Secret America.
Plame says a visit last week to Washington D.C. blew her away with the money being spent on private contractors for intelligence gathering. She says the adage made popular by Ronald Reagan that the private sector is more efficient and costs less than the government is true in some cases, but not when it comes to our intelligence gathering. She cited a 2012 Project on Government Oversight report that shows that the Department of Defense pays contractors nearly three times more than the average civilian employee in the DoD for performing the same job.
When discussing how the CIA treated her after she was outed, she says there's one thing that still bothers her. It's when she learned that there was a death threat against her from Al-Qaeda (along with Karl Rove, former CIA director George Tenet and former Attorney General John Ashcroft), and yet the agency wouldn't protect her, while those other officials were getting protection. "It felt like a portrayal all over again."
With the vitriol in Washington at seemingly a fever pitch, Plame says that it's critical for citizens to be engaged and pay attention to what's going on in the world. "Otherwise you're just taking up space."