• Valerie Plame Wilson


Many of you know my name but not what I actually did for the CIA; instead you probably only know the story of how I became a national figure in the media.

Therefore, I am delighted to be here at TED this morning to talk about an issue I’m passionate about — something substantive and something other than partisan politics: Nuclear disarmament.

I joined the CIA because I wanted to serve my country. In my family, public service was seen as something noble and something worthwhile to aspire to. My father, Samuel Plame, who just recently passed away, was an officer in the US Air Force. He fought in World War II. My older brother, Bob, served as a Marine in Vietnam and was wounded during the Tet offensive.

My career expertise as a covert CIA operations officer was in nuclear counter proliferation—essentially, making sure the bad guys didn’t get the bomb. My job was to create and run operations that sought to peer into the procurement networks and acquisition chains of rogue nations. The work was intense, tactical, creative, demanding — and I loved it.

I resigned from the CIA in 2006, because it was no longer possible to do the covert work which I loved and for which I was highly trained. But stepping away from the daily challenges of running operations against the nuclear target has given me an opportunity to immerse myself in the issue in a more holistic way. While working at the CIA, I believed that the threat of nuclear terrorism was the most urgent and that there was no more important work to be done. I now see terrorism as only one of the three strands of how this catastrophe might engulf us all.

The Cold War ended 20 years ago—kids graduating from college this May were not even born when the Berlin wall fell. We have, as a community of nations, done very little to reduce the stockpile of nuclear weapons.

And right now, no one is really focused on this issue — it is not currently in vogue, and that is a problem, because the clock is ticking and we all need to be talking about this. That is the only way it will change. I want to change this. I want you to want to change this.

You can buy a bomb, steal a bomb, or make a bomb. And then you can explode it in a major city. In any part of the world.

There is enough highly enriched uranium – or HEU — in the world today to build more than 100,000 bombs. Anyone looking for HEU could easily find it in one of the eight countries that have nuclear weapons or in the approximately 40 countries with nuclear weapons materials.

If terrorists manage to get their hands on enough HEU, smuggling it into a target city to build a bomb is easy. A hundred pounds of highly enriched uranium could fit in a shoebox—and a hundred thousand shipping containers come into the United States every day.

Robert Oppenheimer was asked how he would stop terrorists from bringing a bomb into New York. He said, “With a screwdriver. To open up every container that comes into the city.” That was 1946.

And then there are rogue individuals out there who are running black markets selling nuclear materials and technology. Dr. AQ Khan did it for years before my group at the CIA brought him down in December 2003 after catching him red-handed selling a full scale nuclear bomb to Khadafi of Libya.

The spread of nuclear weapons increases not only the chances of terrorists and rogue nations getting the bomb, but also the chances of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear launch. Human and technical error are perhaps the most disturbing scenarios since they’re unintentional and impersonal.

For example, in Colorado at the hub of the American warning network, a training tape caused a false alarm of a full-scale Soviet missile attack that triggered a massive nuclear alert reaction because the operators were not aware that the indications of attack were self-generated internally. It took 8 minutes to figure out the mistake — only 2 minutes before the deadline for presidential decision-making for a nuclear response.

There have been many military accidents over the years where B52s and aircraft carriers with nuclear weapons on board have crashed or sunk. Low probability events, malfunctions, occur all the time. How many times this week or just today have you made a careless mistake? You dialed the wrong number, you forgot to charge your phone? The consequences of mistakes in nuclear operations are obviously life-threatening when the U.S. and Russia still maintain thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, poised for launch within a few minutes.

We are at an important moment. Today we have a window—a real opportunity—to address nuclear proliferation.

Motivated by concerns over proliferation and nuclear terrorism, political support for eliminating all nuclear weapons is growing. Presidents Obama and Medvedev — whose two countries have 22,000 nuclear weapons or 96% of the entire world’s stockpile – jointly declared their commitment to eliminating all nuclear weapons and began negotiations on reductions in their arsenals. Just last week, hundreds of former heads of state, foreign ministers, national security advisers and military commanders met in Paris for the Global Zero Summit and outlined a step-by-step plan to eliminate all remaining nuclear weapons.

The next few months are critical. In April, President Obama will convene more than 40 national leaders for a special summit on the nuclear threat. Those leaders have the power to take steps now to set the course for a world without nuclear weapons.

There is still time to do something. But it is now. And you are a part of it.

My purpose here today is to provoke. My hope is that I can provoke you, at the very least, to educate yourself about this issue.

I believe that if we don’t act now to reverse the spread of the bomb, we will witness in our lifetime the use of nuclear weapons by a country or terrorist group. Or there will be an accident.

When you become a parent, it is inevitable that your world view shifts and you begin to think about what you are bequeathing to your children. I have 10 year old twins at home who are the light of my and my husband’s lives. Our children—the ones who survive—would face a grim future. The only way to eliminate the threat of nuclear terrorism is to lock down all nuclear materials and eliminate all nuclear weapons in all countries.

I know this sounds intimidating and you are wondering what can I do? Like many of the serious issues threatening our world today, it is big. It is overwhelming. But it’s not too big to think about. Not too big to do something about it.

You can make your voice heard by bringing this issue to the top of the political agenda, to everyone’s kitchen table and to the front pages of every blog and every newspaper on the planet.

How do you do that?

You can go to globalzero.org.

You can learn more about the nuclear threat.

You can sign your name to a declaration calling for an international agreement to eliminate nuclear weapons.

Talk to your friends, your family, your church, your government and urge them to take action.

Call your government to account for its actions.

I’m proud to be working with Global Zero’s team of world leaders and grass-roots organizers, Presidents and college kids. I want to do everything in my power to raise public and political support for the elimination of nuclear weapons. And that is why I said yes when Lawrence Bender asked me to be in an extraordinary and chilling new documentary called Countdown to Zero, which just premiered two weeks ago at the Sundance Film Festival. I believe it will be a stunning wake-up call to citizens, regardless of age, gender, nationality, and to our political leaders. The wake up call we need.