by Elizabeth Hemmerdinger | bio

Just how many women in history have been effective spies? No doubt more than we know. 

There is, for instance, the story that Mary Lindley Murray played a big role in America’s independence by inviting Lord Howe to dine on cake and wine at her home in what is now known as Manhattan’s Murray Hill. The visit gave Israel Putnam and his men time to join General Washington’s forces on the lower end of Manhattan Island — saving 4,000 troops who would have been cut off and captured.

On Sunday night, "60 Minutes" aired the first interview with Valerie Plame Wilson, whose life was put in jeopardy by the present administration.

When her husband, Joe Wilson, was sent to Niger, he didn’t find evidence that Niger was selling uranium ore to Saddam Hussein. He disagreed openly with the administration’s contention on the question that this sale was a causa belli, because uranium ore is the main ingredient of a nuclear (or "nucular," if you’re George W. Bush) bomb.

You all remember that the administration fed Plame Wilson’s name to the press. On CBS, with Katie Couric interviewing her, Valerie Plame Wilson said, "Finally, I get to set the record straight. Everyone in the world spoke about this. And can speak about me. Can write about me, except for me. So finally I have a voice."   

How cool is it to see a real life spy, not in wrinkled raincoat and pulled-down fedora, but the elegant Ms. Plame Wilson, a competent executive and spy, charming, articulate, smart as all get out and able to articulate that she was betrayed by our government — her employer.

Though a congressman called her "a glorified secretary," Plame Wilson had worked in the CIA for more than 20 years, and by the time her name was leaked in 2003, she was, as CBS notes, "chief of operations for the CIA’s joint task force covering Iraq, in charge of dozens of officers and analysts. It was before the Iraq war, and she was trying to find evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction."

Bush’s administration, Plame Wilson told "60 Minutes," was "cherry-pi.jpgcking facts to make a case for war in Iraq." And we all know where that has led. Close to 4,000 American soldiers dead, more than 27,000 wounded, and an unknown number of men and women dealing with post-traumatic stress and other difficulties adjusting to coming home.

For the first time, Plame Wilson described the 16 words that President Bush declared in his state of the union address on Jan. 28, 2003 as a lie. Bush said, "The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

Until that time, Plame Wilson apparently had no intention of making her accomplishments known. She was happy to fly under the radar. But her government risked her life and the lives of her family and colleagues. 

In July 2003, Condoleeza Rice, then national security adviser, said, "What we’ve said subsequently is, knowing what we now know, that some of the Niger documents were apparently forged, we wouldn’t have put this in the President’s speech — but that’s knowing what we know now."

There’s much more on this topic in the postings I cite and a gazillion more you can seek out. Much of what we read may be merely politics; some might be self-promotion. I wouldn’t judge that here. What I do know is that 20 years ago it was inconceivable to read about women occupying the eye of a political or diplomatic storm.

I heard Hillary Clinton speak last week in a packed ballroom in New York City. She recounted the story of a 95-year-old woman who came up to shake her hand. The woman said, "I was born before women had the vote. And I’m going to live long enough to see a woman in the White House."

No matter on which side of the aisle we choose to sit, we’ve come a long way, having walked in the footsteps of pioneers. Let’s celebrate all American heroes, but let’s be particularly mindful, here on these pages, of women who have stepped out of traditional roles to change the course of history. I, for one, offer all of them my gratitude.

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  • Laura Sillerman October 24, 2007 at 10:31 am

    As always, Elizabeth reminds us that we have the power to access the truth and the responsibility to speak it.
    Thanks to her for how she writes and leads.

  • Elizabeth Hemmerdinger October 23, 2007 at 11:46 pm

    Thanks, Dee. I enjoyed Joe’s unequivocal style. If you have any more tips, let me know.

  • dee October 23, 2007 at 2:52 pm

    I read a great commentary on the Plame incident. Finally an author who looks beyond politics.
    Here is the link if you are interested.