Reasonable Doubt

Spy vs. Spy

Ex-CIA spooks talk Trump-Russia, JFK, and more at Valerie Plame’s inaugural espionage conference

Nina Burleigh
Published in
13 min readFeb 18, 2019
Photo: Busà Photography

ItIt was just a week after my return from Spies, Lies & Nukes, a weekend espionage seminar hosted by former CIA agent Valerie Plame in November at a hotel in downtown Santa Fe, when one of the conference attendees — let’s call him Snow Goose — buzzed my cell with some urgent news.

He wanted me to know that, based on his professional judgment, honed over decades in covert intelligence, one of our fellow guests at the conference was now playing for Moscow. His evidence was far from conclusive: Now officially retired, the other spy — call him Copernicus — had simply stated the opinion, to anyone who would listen, that presumed Russian meddling in the 2016 election on behalf of the Trump campaign was overblown. He’d pushed the same line in a private conversation with me.

To Snow Goose, Copernicus’ arguments hewed suspiciously close to Kremlin spin.

“I know what it looks like because I used to to do it myself, for our side, ” he told me on the phone. He said he planned to alert the FBI, just to be prudent, and warned me not to be surprised if I got a call from the bureau asking about my one-on-one chats with Copernicus.

I thanked him for the warning.

The conference had drawn an audience of 175 academics, historians, and espionage groupies, each of whom had paid up to $500, not including hotel rooms, for a series of presentations and panels bearing titles like “Terrorism, Intelligence, and the Paradigms of Perception” and “The Cuban Missile Crisis: A Secret Intelligence Perspective.”

Valerie Plame. Photo: Dave Stabley, courtesy Spies, Lies & Nukes

One of the final panels, featuring a group of ex-spies, examined the question: “Was There Russian Interference in U.S. Elections?” Nearly all of the participants answered in the affirmative, but they disagreed, sometimes vehemently, on the effects. (This predated a report last month that the FBI had, in fact, investigated whether Trump was working for the Kremlin.)



Nina Burleigh
Writer for

Writer, explorer, national politics, 6 books, NYC.