Valerie Plame Wilson suddenly went from being a CIA covert operations officer to a household name in the summer of 2003, when the Bush administration outed her to the press in retribution for her husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson, dismantling its shaky claims about Saddam Hussein's nuclear ambitions. After unwillingly becoming a public figure, Plame laid low for a couple of years. But now she's lent her expertise as an expert on nuclear proliferation to Countdown to Zero, the new documentary from the makers of An Inconvenient Truth that aims to jumpstart a post-Cold War movement to ban the bomb. (See David Corn's recent article on the making of the film.) The film will leave you wondering why one of the world's 23,000 nuclear bombs hasn't already gone off—and how much longer it is until one does. (One expert explains that smuggling nuclear material into the U.S. is as simple as hiding it in a box of kitty litter.) Plame Wilson talked to Mother Jones about appearing in the film, how we can tackle a problem so big, and the upcoming movie about her, in which Naomi Watts plays the reluctant celebrity spy.
Mother Jones: At the CIA, you specialized in nuclear counterproliferation; Countdown to Zero is largely about how easy it would be to buy, steal, or build a nuclear weapon. Did you learn anything new from the film?
Valerie Plame Wilson: I've seen it several times now, and I was surprised at points. They talk about the flight over the Carolinas in the early '60s where a plane crashed with a nuclear weapon on board. I didn't know about that. I was not familiar with that incident in NORAD where the $1computer chip made everyone think it was the real thing instead of a training exercise. As the film talks about, there's always the potential for accident, miscalculation, or madness. Along with the terrorist threat, those are, unfortunately, very real possibilities.
MJ: The movie identifies the three main nuclear threats as madness, accident, and miscalculation. Which do you think is the greatest?
VPW: I would not want to assign numbers to any one of them. Ask BP executives how often low-probability events happen. I think really the only rational, sane way of proceeding is to set as your objective zero [nuclear weapons] and move toward that.
MJ: One of the things that really struck me is the wide range of people interviewed—you've got liberals like President Jimmy Carter, you've got conservatives like former Secretary of State James Baker. Is nuclear proliferation really a non-partisan issue?
VPW: I think it is; it certainly should be. I think Lucy Walker, the director, went to great lengths to demonstrate that. As you noted, you have people of all political stripes who speak in the film. The well-known liberal, Ronald Reagan, started this. And I think that's a really poignant scene with Gorbachev's interview, speaking about his 1986 meeting in Reykjavik with Reagan. These were two men who genuinely wanted to see a world free of nuclear weapons,and they genuinely wanted to achieve it. Gorbachev speaks with tears in his eyes with great sadness about what they weren't able to accomplish. These two men really wanted to do that.