WASHINGTON – A former top official in the State Department acknowledges he was the source who outed a CIA operative to reporters, but he says it was an accident and he's sorry.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, the former No. 2 official in the department, said he inadvertently disclosed Valerie Plame's identity in conversations with syndicated columnist Robert Novak and Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward.
"I made a terrible mistake, not maliciously, but I made a terrible mistake," Armitage said in a telephone interview from his home Thursday night. He said he did not realize Plame's job was covert.
"I did what I did," Armitage said. "I embarrassed my president, my secretary, my department, my family and I embarrassed the Wilsons. And for that I'm very sorry."
For almost three years, an investigation led by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has tried to determine whether Bush administration officials intentionally revealed Plame's identity as a covert operative as a way to punish her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, for criticizing the Bush administration's march to war with Iraq.
Armitage's admission suggested that the leak did not originate at the White House as retribution for Wilson's comments about the Iraq war. Wilson, a former ambassador, discounted reports that then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had tried to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger to make a nuclear weapon — claims that wound up in President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address.
Armitage said he was not a part of a conspiracy to reveal Plame's identity and did not know whether one existed.
He described his June 2003 conversation with Woodward as an afterthought at the end of a lengthy interview.
"He said, 'Hey, what's the deal with Wilson?' and I said, 'I think his wife works out there,"' Armitage recalled.
He described a more direct conversation with Novak, who was the first to report on the issue: "He said to me, 'Why did the CIA send Ambassador Wilson to Niger?' I said, as I remember, 'I don't know, but his wife works out there."'
Armitage, whose admission was first reported by CBS News, said he cooperated fully with Fitzgerald's investigation. He was never a target of the investigation and did not hire a lawyer. He agreed to speak to reporters after Fitzgerald released him from a promise of confidentiality.
Armitage said he considered coming forward late last month when a flurry of news reports identified him as the leak. But he said he did not want to be accused of trying to get the story out during the summer's slow news cycle.
I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, a former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, is the only administration official charged in the CIA leak case. He faces trial in January on charges he lied to authorities about conversations he had with reporters about Plame.
Armitage said he assumed Plame's job was not a secret because it was included in a State Department memo.