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Conference in Santa Fe offers glimpse inside America’s covert history

October 14, 2018 GMT

Pure electricity.

That’s what sparks, former covert CIA operative Valerie Plame said, when you throw a bunch of intelligence agents into a room together.

There’s no sharing of classified secrets — operatives are too canny and conscientious for that sort of novice blunder. But there’s plenty of charisma.

“We all have the same personality type,” Plame said. “I would say we’re irreverent; we’re curious. We have a good sense of humor — a black sense of humor. We’re creative. There’s definitely a little touch of arrogance, but you need that, I suppose.”

Plame, a Santa Fe resident whose espionage career came to an abrupt end in 2003 when high-ranking members of the George W. Bush administration allegedly blew her cover in an act of retribution, is hoping to spark some of that electricity here in her adopted home next month.

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Spies, Lies & Nukes: Inside International Espionage, is a two-day, open-to-the-public conference, with Plame at its helm. The event runs Nov. 3-4 at La Fonda on the Plaza in Santa Fe. Tickets cost $349 (or $399 if you purchase them after Oct. 15). A VIP reception will be held Friday, Nov. 2.

The conference features talks from and discussions with some of the biggest names in the spy game.

There’s Bruce Held, a former undercover CIA agent who served in the top ranks of President Barack Obama’s Department of Energy. Held had oversight responsibility for the nation’s nuclear weapons sites, including Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories.

At the conference, Held will delve into the Cuban Missile Crisis, while another former CIA intelligence officer, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, will explore the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

But for Plame, those topics are just the tip of the magnifying glass.

“Musty old stories of the past … are fun, but I wanted to connect the dots to today,” she said.

Plame added: “We have a president who’s been rather denigrating of the intelligence community, and it would be useful for the audience to have a better understanding of what [this job] takes.”

Speakers will touch on Russian election meddling, cyberwarfare, nuclear proliferation and a host of other timely topics, she said.

Speaker Glenn Carle, a longtime clandestine CIA operative and author of The Interrogator: An Education, a memoir of the monthslong interrogation of a man suspected to — and later demonstrated not to — rank in the top echelon of al-Qaida. Carle, who served on the National Intelligence Council, is a frequent critic of the war on terror and the infamous interrogation tactics that fueled it.

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His talk, “Terrorism, Intelligence, and Paradigms of Perception,” will explore the danger of what Carle calls frozen thinking among intelligence experts.

“The intelligence community’s paradigm, particularly under the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration … overstates and simplifies the nature of the terrorist threat to our way of life,” he said. “Since that’s the operative perspective, that’s led to all sorts of consequential actions, like invading countries.”

It also led, Carle said, to the normalization of waterboarding and other so-called enhanced interrogation techniques — an event that “changed who we are as Americans,” he said. “We believe differently now than Americans believed prior to 9/11. We’re not the society we think we are, and we’re not the society we were.”

For Plame, 55, the conference marks yet another a turning point in a whirlwind career.

In 2003, Plame’s husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, penned a now infamous op-ed in the New York Times, titled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa.” The piece called into question the Bush administration’s bombshell contention that the Iraqi government sought to purchase significant quantities of uranium from Niger, a West African nation.

A week later, conservative columnist Robert Novak leaked Plame’s name, a security breach that ended the covert agent’s career. The leak is alleged to have come from the top reaches of the Bush administration.

Following a maelstrom of news coverage, congressional inquiries and court proceedings, Plame and Wilson relocated to Santa Fe in 2007. From here, Plame started anew.

She’s penned three books (a memoir and two spy thrillers), raised her twins, collaborated with Hollywood on a feature film about the leak and worked to rebuild her life.

Now, she finds herself at another crossroads.

“My twins just went off to college, so that’s always a moment where you go, ‘Oh, OK, this is a new chapter,’ ” she said. “I’m really enjoying doing this, so if it’s as successful as I hope it is, I’d like to scale it up and take it national.”

If nothing else, the new endeavor is a chance to reminisce about a career she adored.

“What I was doing, there was a deep sense of satisfaction — not every day, but most days,” Plame said. “… I miss it very much. I do, indeed.”

If you go

What: Spies, Lies & Nukes: Inside International Espionage

When: Nov. 3-4 (exact times TBD)

Where: La Fonda on the Plaza, 100 E. San Francisco St., Santa Fe

Cost: $349 ($399 after Oct. 15.)

For more information: www.spyseminars.com