WASHINGTON -- With a phalanx of cameras awaiting her entrance, Valerie Plame stepped out of the shadows of the spy world and into the spotlight.
For nearly four years, Plame had been a silent, Garbo-like figure at the center of one of Washington's most consuming scandals. Her unmasking as a CIA officer became a case study of the brutal politics of the Iraq war, and it launched a criminal probe that led to the conviction of a top White House official.
Yesterday, Plame finally offered her inside account, testifying before a congressional committee that she felt as though she had been "hit in the gut" when her once-secret identity appeared in the press and accusing the Bush administration of "recklessly" blowing her cover.
Plame, 43, answered lingering questions about her husband's role in investigating one of the Bush administration's most alarming prewar claims about Iraq, and she provided new details on the tense maneuvering between the White House and the CIA in the run-up to the war.
At one point, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Georgia Republican, alluded to the flashbulb atmosphere and observed, "I've never questioned a spy before."
"I've never testified under oath before," Plame shot back.
In her opening statement, Plame made it clear that she has been waiting for a chance to confront critics. At one point she scoffed that her identity was "not common knowledge on the Georgetown cocktail circuit," as some have whispered in Washington in an effort to play down the damage of the disclosure of her identity.
She said she has been on secret foreign missions within the past five years and was under cover when her name appeared in a newspaper column by Robert Novak in 2003.
Plame also came prepared to settle scores with the Bush administration, which carried out a campaign to discredit her husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, after he surfaced as a potent critic of the case for war.
"We in the CIA always know we might be exposed by foreign enemies," Plame said. "It was a terrible irony that administration officials were the ones who destroyed my cover."
Plame was accompanied by two former CIA colleagues, who said that Wilson and the couple's children were traveling in the western United States. Wilson and Plame recently purchased a home in Santa Fe, N.M., after selling their Washington property for a reported $1.8 million.
Wilson, 57, has published a memoir, and Plame has written a book, Fair Game, that is undergoing a CIA review to prevent disclosure of classified information.
The hearing by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, was ostensibly meant to assist lawmakers in drafting improved procedures for safeguarding classified information. Its unacknowledged purpose was to give a platform to one who had been a mystery figure in a scandal bearing her name.
Plame offered only a general outline of her 20-year career at the CIA, saying that she was working in the counter-proliferation division of the agency - a branch devoted to tracking the global spread of illicit weapons - when her identity was exposed.
But for the first time, she offered her version of the chronology leading up to that breach.
Plame said that in early 2002 she was approached by "a young junior officer" who was "very upset" after getting a call from the office of Vice President Dick Cheney asking about a report that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from the African nation of Niger.
Plame characterized the call as part of a broader effort by Cheney to pressure the CIA, a charge that Cheney, as well as senior CIA officials who were present at the agency at the time, have denied.
Bush administration officials later claimed that Plame had proposed sending her husband to Niger to investigate, casting the trip as a junket. But Plame insisted: "No. I did not recommend him, I did not suggest him, there was no nepotism involved."
Instead, Plame said, the idea was proposed by another officer in her division and her only role was to ask her husband whether he would be interested.
"I was somewhat ambivalent at the time," Plame said. "We had 2-year-old twins at home, and all I could envision was me by myself at bedtime with a couple of 2-year-olds. So I wasn't overjoyed."
Wilson traveled to Niger and returned to file a report with the CIA that he found no evidence backing up the uranium claim. The allegation was nevertheless included in President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address. After the U.S. invasion, when it became evident that Iraq had no banned weapons, Wilson came forward publicly to accuse the White House of twisting the prewar intelligence, prompting a White House campaign to discredit him.
Greg Miller writes for the Los Angeles Times.