Just days before a film about her debuts in movie theaters, “outed” CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson told her spy story to women donors to United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ.
Wilson was the keynote speaker at the CHOICES Redux dinner, sponsored by UJC MetroWest’s Women’s Philanthropy. Over 400 women supporters of the UJA Campaign came to the Nov. 1 dinner at the Crystal Plaza in Livingston.
Jacqueline Levine nearly upstaged the keynote speaker in accepting the national Kipnis-Wilson/Friedman Award for women who have set a high standard for philanthropy and volunteerism.
Wilson’s story, which broke in 2003, is back in the headlines as the subject of Fair Game, a film based on her 2007 memoir of the same name. It opens in theaters on Friday.
Wilson herself looks as if she dropped out of a James Bond movie. First in her CIA officer training class with an AK-47, she bears a striking resemblance to actress Naomi Watts, who plays her in the movie, opposite Sean Penn.
The Alaska-born Wilson reviewed her decade or more as a CIA operative in Athens and Brussels (at least what she could reveal of her actions) and the series of events that led the White House to leak her identity to reporters. The career-ending move came in retaliation for a scathing editorial by her husband, diplomat Joseph Wilson, which appeared in The New York Times questioning the credibility of sources behind the Bush administration’s claims of WMDs in Iraq.
“I felt like I’d been sucker-punched in the gut. I instantly knew my career was over,” Wilson said, of the moment her husband tossed the newspaper, with her identity as a CIA operative revealed, on the bed.
A federal investigation of the leak by the United States Department of Justice resulted in the conviction of Lewis Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, on four counts of perjury and obstruction of justice.
Nearly as compelling to her audience was Wilson’s story of how she discovered her Jewish roots. She gave a description of her paternal grandfather, a Jew born in Ukraine, who came to the United States through Canada and married her grandmother, a woman “from strong pioneer stock,” whose great-great-grandfather was Andrew Jackson.
“My grandfather’s family probably sat shiva for him,” she said. “He had no sense of what you seem to enjoy here — a deep sense of family and community.”
Although she tried, she could never find any relatives from her grandfather’s side of the family — until her cover was blown. Then, a cousin contacted her brother in Portland, Ore.
“From that point on,” she said, “we’ve been able to find so much more of our family. The next thing you know, I was at a family seder, dipping bitter herbs — the whole thing!” She called it one of the few “points of light that came out of this whole crazy experience.”
Despite all she’s been through, she said, she continues to encourage young people to pursue a career in public service.
“How we treat civic discourse on the eve of a bitterly contested election is more important than ever,” she said, pointing out that her story is all about “the price of speaking truth to power.”
Levine, who lives in West Orange and has been a champion of civil rights for 60 years, marched with Martin Luther King Jr., has advocated for women’s rights, and took the lead nationally in the struggle for Soviet Jewry. She received a standing ovation after her remarks, in which she said, “Not everyone pickets or marches or gets arrested. But if you give of your time and your efforts and your resources — that’s what you have to do.”