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  • Courtney Linder, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Ex-CIA operative Valerie Plame talks nuclear, cyber threats at CMU

“It’s two and a half minutes to midnight,” said Valerie Plame, a former covert operative for the Central Intelligence Agency. “The clock says we’re closer to human extinction than ever since 1953.”

Ms. Plame, who worked to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, referred to the Science and Security Board’s “Doomsday Clock” in her keynote speech at Carnegie Mellon University on Friday, prefacing a panel on inclusivity in STEM — or science, technology, engineering and math — for students and faculty.

In her hour-long discussion of nuclear threats and cybersecurity, Ms. Plame kept the conversation solutions-oriented, rather than dwelling on the high-profile “Plamegate” scandal that ended her espionage career.

In 2003, Washington Post columnist Robert Novak outed Ms. Plame as a covert officer. Purportedly, the George W. Bush administration had leaked the information after Ms. Plame’s husband wrote an op-ed for The New York Times questioning whether the government manipulated the public about Iraq having nuclear armaments.

“After that, a member of Congress called me a glorified secretary,” she said Friday, pausing. “Because I’m a girl,” she said with an intentionally plastic smile.

Now, Ms. Plame sits on various boards, including cybersecurity company Global Data Security and the Penn State School of International Affairs. She writes memoir and fiction novels, and uses speaking engagements as a platform to educate the public.

Ms. Plame didn’t hesitate to criticize those who don’t fully grasp the power of nuclear armaments.

“It’s very clear [President Donald Trump] doesn’t understand much about the nuclear threat,” she said, citing his first television interview as president. He told ABC’s David Muir that having access to the nuclear codes was “very, very, very scary.”

“The fundamental problem is not that Trump has access to the nuclear launch codes, but that they exist at all,” she said.

Ms. Plame offered that Mr. Trump could “be the very person to move us toward nuclear disarmament,” prescribing a diet that includes a “no first use” policy, which pledges a country won’t use nuclear arms unless first attacked by an adversary that is using them.

But the only true answer is abolition of nuclear weapons, she said.

In the same vein, she called for deterrence of cyberattacks and influence operations, noting the Democratic National Committee email leak last year. The U.S. needs to work harder to protect its citizens from cyberattacks, she said, deterring use of domestic cyberwarfare, not just abroad.

“To my knowledge, no one has died from a cyberattack ... but there is a gray area between peace and war,” she said.

Despite being publicly outed from her own position, she asked that the best and brightest at CMU consider working in public service.

“I believe in much more diplomacy, not less,” Ms. Plame said. “We are living in unprecedented times.”

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