It was just a week after my return from Spies, Lies & Nukes, a weekend espionage seminar hosted by former CIA agent Valerie Plame in November at a hotel in downtown Santa Fe, when one of the conference attendees — let’s call him Snow Goose — buzzed my cell with some urgent news.

He wanted me to know that, based on his professional judgment, honed over decades in covert intelligence, one of our fellow guests at the conference was now playing for Moscow. His evidence was far from conclusive: Now officially retired, the other spy — call him Copernicus — had simply stated the opinion, to anyone who would listen, that presumed Russian meddling in the 2016 election on behalf of the Trump campaign was overblown. He’d pushed the same line in a private conversation with me.

To Snow Goose, Copernicus’ arguments hewed suspiciously close to Kremlin spin.

“I know what it looks like because I used to to do it myself, for our side, ” he told me on the phone. He said he planned to alert the FBI, just to be prudent, and warned me not to be surprised if I got a call from the bureau asking about my one-on-one chats with Copernicus.

I thanked him for the warning.

The conference had drawn an audience of 175 academics, historians, and espionage groupies, each of whom had paid up to $500, not including hotel rooms, for a series of presentations and panels bearing titles like “Terrorism, Intelligence, and the Paradigms of Perception” and “The Cuban Missile Crisis: A Secret Intelligence Perspective.”

Valerie Plame. Photo: Dave Stabley, courtesy Spies, Lies & Nukes

One of the final panels, featuring a group of ex-spies, examined the question: “Was There Russian Interference in U.S. Elections?” Nearly all of the participants answered in the affirmative, but they disagreed, sometimes vehemently, on the effects. (This predated a report last month that the FBI had, in fact, investigated whether Trump was working for the Kremlin.)

“The Russians did what they always do and what we frankly do, too,” Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, who served for 23 years as a CIA intelligence officer in various domestic and international posts, including Russia station chief, told attendees. “They went to active measures. They wanted to hurt Hillary and help Trump. There is no question they tried to influence voters.”

“If any of us did not try to remove this man [Trump] from office, we would be derelict. It is absolutely clear that Russian intelligence manipulated him.”

While Mary Beth Long, a former CIA agent and assistant secretary of defense, defended the president as the duly elected commander-in-chief and slammed former intelligence chiefs John Brennan and James Clapper for publicly criticizing Trump, she also admitted he might well have been compromised. “I would be shocked if it was not the case that, while Trump was a businessman, he was approached by Russians,” she said, “and I have no doubt he was sexually entrapped and he had arrangements, for business purposes. But that doesn’t make him a traitor.”

Then again, it certainly might, insisted Glenn Carle, who worked for the Agency for more than two decades on four continents before retiring in 2007. “This is the greatest threat to our country since 1861,” he said. “Not even Watergate, not World War II — there was never any real danger Hitler would walk down Constitution Avenue. But I think there is substantive, overwhelming evidence, and that if any of us did not try to remove this man [Trump] from office, we would be derelict. It is absolutely clear that Russian intelligence manipulated him.”

“I strongly disagree,” countered Larry Johnson, former staffer at the State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism and ex-CIA agent, who now runs his own private investigation and security consulting firm. “Is there gambling at the casino?” he asked. “Yes, Russians have been intervening here for years. I harbor no illusions about that. But we do it, too.”

Johnson added that the “level of Russian hysteria” directed at the Trump election “is jeopardizing our ability to actually work with Russia, in places like the International Space Station.” “If they’re so damn bad,” he wondered, “why are we trusting our astronauts to them?”

Santa Fe is one of those places — like the South of France and the city of San Miguel de Allende in Central Mexico — where American spies often go to retire. Today, the city, with its art galleries and turquoise jewelry, is best known as a moneyed playground for gentleman ranchers, heiresses, and horsey trophy wives. But that reputation belies a far more controversial backstory: the city’s vital place in the history of Cold War espionage. According to ex-CIA officer Bruce Held, author of A Spy’s Guide to Santa Fe and Albuquerque, the nearby Los Alamos laboratories, where scientists developed the atom bomb, attracted the KGB’s attention early on. For decades, Americans working in the service of the Soviet Union showed up in the area, using code names like Star and Bumblebee, looking for technical information on the nuclear weapons program and delivering it to their Russian handlers. KGB agents dead-dropped papers and notes in invisible ink all over town, exchanged intel at clandestine meetings at the Paseo de Peralta bridge, and executed expert brush-passes at the Greyhound station.

Plame and her husband, former diplomat Joseph Wilson, settled here after Plame’s cover as a CIA agent was blown — not by Moscow or another foreign adversary but by senior members of the Bush administration. A week before her outing in 2003, Wilson had publicly disputed one of the Bush team’s main rationales for the invasion of Iraq. Outing Plame was an attempt to retaliate and discredit him. The so-called Plame affair led to the conviction of Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby, for several felonies (he was recently pardoned by Donald Trump) and became the subject of the movie, Fair Game.

Left to right: Bruce Held, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, Glenn Carle, Larry Johnson, James C. Lawler, and Mary Beth Long. Photo: Dave Stabley, courtesy Spies, Lies & Nukes

Now the author of a memoir and a few novels, and a regular on the lecture circuit, Plame launched the conference, Spies, Lies & Nukes, last year, inviting eight retired CIA agents to reminisce about their adventures in Russia, Chad, Libya, Switzerland, and other countries they said they were forbidden from naming. At least one, Mowatt-Larssen, bore the honor of having been PNG’ed at Moscow; as spies put it — caught out, declared “persona non grata,” and sent packing.

Having been obligated to keep their work secret for years, it turns out that retired spies like to talk. Working in intelligence can be lonely and thankless. The best operatives are invisible, so bland and colorless that they are capable of hiding in plain sight. It is not a job for someone with a narcissistic bent or a need for public validation.

The CIA “wanted me to exploit, manipulate, persuade, and bribe people. And I found out that not only was I good at it, but I enjoyed it.”

As spy-turned-novelist John Le Carre knew, the life can be psychologically and emotionally challenging. “What the hell do you think spies are?” the jaded British spy Leamas snarls to his naive girlfriend in the 1963 adaptation of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. “They’re just a bunch of seedy squalid bastards like me: little drunkards, queers, henpecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?”

The spies who came in from the cold for Plame’s warm Southwestern spy-hang were not seedy or squalid. They didn’t swagger or drink heavily. They wore business suits or the fleece vests preferred by west of the Rockies elites, and reminisced placidly about hiding their identities, bribing foreigners with suitcases full of cash, and sometimes, risking their lives.

Even so, in his talk “Soul Catcher — How the CIA Recruits Assets,” James C. Lawler, retired member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service who spent much of his career tracking and fighting WMD proliferation, described the sort of old-fashioned tradecraft Leamas would have recognized.

An elfin man with a white goatee, Lawler said he decided to join CIA in 1980 without giving the idea much thought. “I had no idea what they wanted me to do,” he said. “Then, I learned they wanted me to exploit, manipulate, persuade, and bribe people. And then, I found out that not only was I good at it, but I enjoyed it.”

He added: “There’s sociopathy involved.”

The first rule of recruiting an asset, he said, is identifying the target’s vulnerabilities. “You study the cracks. What are your stress points?” he explained. “And then, you let them know, ‘I can relieve your stress.’” Revenge was one motivation to commit treason. Money was another. People going through a divorce were “prime bait” — child support, health care, the cost of education. And then there were those with what he called, “a Walter Mitty fascination” — people who would betray their country because it fed their sense of self-importance.

Lawler recounted his first attempt to persuade one embassy deputy in an unnamed country to share information with the CIA. The deputy, who had until then thought of Lawler as just an American acquaintance, turned him down. After worrying that the target would turn him in to local authorities (and knowing the CIA would cut him loose if it happened), he decided to call a week later to see if they were still on good terms. To his surprise, the deputy not only affirmed the friendship, but asked if the offer was still on. His wife had announced she was divorcing him, and he needed money. Lawler signed him up.

“Recruitment is metaphysical,” he concluded. “It’s as if you have a mental link to the target.”

In the end, he justified such manipulation by convincing himself he was improving his targets’ lives. “Maybe that’s my coping mechanism,” he told the audience.

The invitees broke for lunch, queuing at stainless steel chafing dishes piled with green chile enchiladas, guacamole, three kinds of local salsa ranging from really hot to make-you-gasp, and posole. I spent a lot of time talking to a shy farmer and homemaker named Rita Jo Flynn, a self-described lifetime spy-wannabe with 17 grandchildren, who traveled to Santa Fe from her home in Harper, Iowa. After watching the movie Fair Game on Netflix, she googled Valerie Plame, found out about the conference, and immediately bought a ticket.

“My husband and five kids kind of laughed, but they knew I always wanted to be a spy,” she said. So far, the trip had been worth it. “I usually get shingles when I travel,” she said. “But not this time.”

After lunch, Glenn Carle, the only CIA official to publicly refuse to participate in torture during the war on terror and author of the book The Interrogator, gave a talk entitled, “Terrorism, Intelligence, and Paradigms of Perception.” The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he declared, have been a waste of money, having cost $5 trillion, so far. In the years since 9/11, he pointed out, the same number of Americans (fewer than 200) have died at the hands of Islamist terrorists as have been killed by right-wing extremists.

Valerie Plame and Glenn Carle. Photo: Dave Stabley, courtesy Spies, Lies & Nukes

Later, Mary Beth Long, the former assistant SecDef, gave a PowerPoint on the long and dastardly history of U.S. covert activities in foreign lands, from the Bay of Pigs and other Cuban adventures to Oliver North and Iran-Contra. She said she was aware of at least 20 other “extraordinary” Cold War operations ordered by various presidents, “most of which won’t ever make the public eye.” One recently declassified example, she said, involved the CIA’s manipulation of Lech Walesa and the Polish labor unions in the years before the Berlin Wall came down.

Long added that she and her colleagues had come to the conference partly because it offered an unusual chance to reconnect with former colleagues and to speak in public. “I don’t remember ever having had an opportunity to be in a room with my colleagues, especially this caliber of case officers,” she said. “We all are wired with a passion for public service, and after you leave the CIA you have to find a way to satisfy that. A lot of us struggle with that. We don’t usually engage people on questions regarding our work. So this is a very important opportunity, psychologically.”

Later that night, the group crowded into a ballroom for a screening of Active Measures, a 2018 documentary that examines the evidence that Donald Trump, whether wittingly or otherwise, is a tool of Vladimir Putin (full disclosure: the author of this article makes a brief appearance). The filmmakers were on hand to discuss the movie — but halfway through the screening, a fire alarm went off. By the time the hotel staff declared it a false alarm, the audience had scattered into the night, and the screening was cut short. Curiously, the alarm was only activated in the part of the hotel where the film was screening.

“Maybe it’s the Russians,” one of the filmmakers joked.

On the conference’s closing day, the white-haired Mowatt-Larssen walked us through his theory on who killed JFK. He started out with a key idea — that if the CIA killed Kennedy, the plot would have necessarily involved three people: a mastermind and two others — one to handle Lee Harvey Oswald and one to deal with Jack Ruby, the Dallas nightclub owner who shot and killed Oswald before he could be interrogated.

Then Mowatt-Larssen, using his access to classified CIA files, went looking for officers who would have had a motive, and access. “It takes an agent to find a mole,” he said. “Who would betray his country? We were looking for a team of rogues.”

After going through the names of ranking officers during the years before the assassination, and then cross-referencing them, he settled on Jacob Esterline, the CIA’s project director on the failed Bay of Pigs assault on Cuba, as the likely mastermind, the man with the best motive, and the probable ringleader. In his role as the CIA’s director of Western Hemisphere, he would have had access to Oswald, as well.

“The rogues must be expert, and they need a motive,” Mowatt-Larssen explained. “To me, JFK is the motive. He pulled the plug on the Bay of Pigs. And he was reckless. He almost got us into a thermonuclear war with the Soviets.”

Esterline went on to serve as chief of the CIA’s Miami office, and as deputy director of the CIA’s Western Hemisphere Division. He died in 1999. Of course, there is no shortage of conspiracy theories about the death of JFK, but Mowatt-Larssen currently serves as director of the Belfer Center’s Intelligence Project — at Harvard’s Kennedy School, no less — so his speculation carries some weight.

After operative Bruce Held regaled the audience with his adventures in Chad, including the story of being personally targeted for death by Moammar Gadhafi in the 1990s, the gang gathered in the dining room to say their goodbyes over coffee. Larry Johnson was elaborating on his opinion that it is impossible to rig American elections because they’re too decentralized. He said cyber experts call CrowdStrike, one of the security companies that has claimed to find evidence linking Russia to 2016 hacks into the Democratic National Committee, “ClownStrike.”

Across the room, Snow Goose was still fulminating about the lack of consensus on Trump as a Russian traitor. “The panel depressed me,” he said. “The facts are so overwhelmingly clear. There is no ambiguity. There is no debate on this.”

What ex-spies eat for lunch. Photo: Dave Stabley, courtesy Spies, Lies & Nukes

Students from the University of New Mexico’s political science department, who had volunteered their service for the weekend in exchange for the awesome chance to meet real spies, packed the various speakers’ unsold books into boxes and took down the tables. Mary Beth Long and Glenn Carle debated the wisdom of flying out of Santa Fe that afternoon, which had no direct flights back to Boston and Washington, D.C.

Valerie Plame hugged them all goodbye and extracted promises that they would return. She was so pleased with the turnout and the conversation that she vowed to start planning another Spycon for next year, perhaps with a major university or other institution involved.

Weeks have passed now since my alarming call from Snow Goose, and so far no G-men have appeared on my doorstep. But the conversation did leave me unsettled. What would I say if I got such a call? Journalists enjoy a measure of protection from government scrutiny — at least in theory. But that didn’t prevent a colleague of mine, Matt Cooper, from nearly landing in jail for refusing to name his source in connection with the Plame affair.

Copernicus didn’t strike me as a Russian asset, but in the “wilderness of mirrors,” as longtime counterespionage chief James Angleton put it, doubt and even paranoia go with the territory. I know that spies everywhere regard journalists as useful tools — trained information gatherers who can sometimes go where American officials cannot, and potential conduits for propaganda. Way back in 1977, Carl Bernstein published a lengthy investigation into links between U.S. intelligence services and mainstream journalists, and there’s every reason to believe such manipulation is still practiced.

Maybe Copernicus’ skepticism was part of a disinformation campaign. Or maybe Snow Goose was playing me. Or maybe Rita Jo’s fangirl-Iowa-housewife routine was just an elaborate cover…

In a post-truth world, you never know for sure, which many intelligence officials believe is exactly what our enemies want. During one presentation, spycatcher James C. Lawler compared the current American situation to a famous Twilight Zone episode, “The Monsters on Maple Street,” in which suburban residents, during a power blackout, start squabbling and killing each other.

Mary Beth Long agreed. Sure, our adversaries would like to undermine our political culture however they can, she pointed out. But we’re the ones that make it possible. “The cracks are ours,” she said, “at the end of the day, it’s us.”