Valerie Plame photographed in her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Photos: Benjamin Rasmussen

Can a Cool Spy Warm Up the Voters of New Mexico?

Valerie Plame worked for the CIA and tangled with Bush. Now she wants to fight Trump from Congress.

Nina Burleigh
Published in
20 min readMay 29, 2020

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Ten Thousand Waves Spa is a pagoda of Zen steam on the New Mexico high desert. Behind the sliding doors and walls of falling water, a photogenic blonde drops her robe and, backdropped by the flag-blue sky, slips into the 106-degree water of the women’s communal tub. No one seems to recognize the famous ex-CIA agent running for Congress. Naked as the day she was born, Valerie Plame is almost as anonymous here as she ever was, back when she was known only as “Val P.” to her fellow agents-in-training at a CIA camp in Virginia, and later, slipping around the world with a fake passport. She doesn’t seem to be in a terrible hurry to make it otherwise. In fact, she almost doesn’t seem to care.

James Bond cool is a hard habit to break.

Spooks, nukes, and celebrities are not all that unusual around Santa Fe and Los Alamos, where the atom bomb was invented, and where, today, the highest concentration of PhDs and millionaires in America are lavished with federal billions to create top secret weapons for the world’s last military superpower. The woman luxuriating in the steam has spent a lot of time inside that and other nat-sec inner sanctums — Langley, Los Alamos National Labs, the CIA’s training “farm” and undisclosed locations around the world — before Republican operatives, furious at her husband for contradicting their excuse for attacking Iraq in 2003, blew her cover. Even then, she didn’t see a political future. “Through my years in the CIA, by and large, I did not know people’s political proclivities,” she says now. “It is just not a good sound bite to say you serve as an American, you don’t serve as a Republican or Democrat. You’re so busy doing your work. And I loved what I did.”

Ten Thousand Waves spa is a long way from Iraq, and 2020 is a long time from 2003, but Plame — whose congressional future will be decided by New Mexico voters in a few days — is embedded in the modern history of that war. The U.S. never got its own Chilcot Inquiry, that British forensic investigation into the lies behind the Iraq War. Conventional D.C. wisdom on why not is that both sides in Washington are so enmeshed in the…

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Nina Burleigh
GEN
Writer for

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