WASHINGTON—Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage acknowledged Thursday that he was a columnist's primary source in the disclosure that retired U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. The revelation touched off a wide-ranging special counsel's investigation and led to the indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff.
Armitage said in an interview that the disclosure was inadvertent and that he had cooperated fully with Justice Department special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald in the months since.
Fitzgerald, he said, had requested that he not talk about his role in the case, a restriction that was lifted only Tuesday.
"I called the special counsel on Tuesday of this week to ask if I could end this nightmare. He said yes," Armitage said.
Wilson traveled to the African country of Niger in February 2002 to check out claims that Iraq was seeking uranium ore there to restart its nuclear-weapons program. Wilson found the claims baseless, and after the Iraq invasion he went public with criticism that the White House had manipulated intelligence on Iraq.
The revelation that his wife, who used the name Valerie Plame, was a CIA officer in July 2003 by columnist Robert Novak prompted a series of events that led to Fitzgerald's probe and allegations that top aides to President Bush had leaked her name in an attempt to intimidate Wilson and other critics.
The administration's defenders have claimed that Armitage's acknowledgement of his role, which has been speculated about for months, takes much of the sting out of those allegations.
But interviews and documents also portray the White House—in the persons of Bush aide Karl Rove, Cheney chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby and others—as furiously trying to get information about Wilson and Plame, then discussing it with reporters.
Fitzgerald, whose probe hasn't concluded, indicted Libby last October on charges of obstruction of justice, perjury and making false statements. Libby is contesting the charges, and Armitage said he would testify at the trial if called.
In the interview with McClatchy Newspapers, CBS News and The New York Times, Armitage said he had no partisan intent in mentioning that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA at the end of an interview with Novak on other subjects in the summer of 2003. He didn't know her by the name Valerie Plame or that she was working undercover.
Armitage was rueful nonetheless, and disclosed that he had written a letter of resignation as the State Department's No. 2 official and closest adviser to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell.
"There wasn't a day that went by that I didn't feel that I let down the president, the secretary of state, the Department of State, my family and friends and for that matter, the Wilsons," he said.
"I consider myself someone who's valued the ability to keep state secrets," he said. "This was bad."
Novak didn't immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
Armitage also said he had discussed Wilson's wife's employment at the CIA in an earlier conversation with Washington Post editor Bob Woodward, on June 13, 2003.
He said he hadn't recalled that conversation until Woodward reminded him of it later, and he then immediately called the FBI and sought another meeting with Fitzgerald.
The affair also led to subpoenas for several journalists in connection with their conversations with top White House officials, including Matthew Cooper of Time magazine and Judith Miller of The New York Times. Miller spent nearly three months in jail for refusing to identify Libby as a source, although she never wrote an article on the matter.
Armitage said he first contacted the Justice Department on Oct. 1, 2003, the day after the department launched a criminal investigation into the leaking of Plame's name. Knowingly disclosing the identity of an undercover CIA officer is a felony.
The former senior U.S. diplomat and Pentagon official said he had never been accused of wrongdoing in the matter or subpoenaed, and had cooperated fully with Fitzgerald. "I offered everything fully ... even my wife's computer," he said.
Armitage, who appeared before a grand jury three times, said he could only guess as to why Fitzgerald continued the investigation.
There were allegations at the time, he noted, that two White House officials had discussed Plame's identity with a half-dozen reporters.
"There was a question, I believe, not only of who talked to Mr. Novak, no matter how inadvertent it was ... (but also there was) the question of whether there was some sort of `conspiracy,' unquote."
Armitage learned that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA from a memo that the State Department's intelligence bureau had produced in response to queries on the matter from the White House, relayed via then-Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman.
The memo, also read by White House officials aboard Air Force One while Bush was en route to Africa, identified her as Valerie Wilson, not Plame, her maiden name.
Armitage said that Novak, at the end of the interview, asked him why the CIA had sent Joseph Wilson to Niger to check on the reports of Iraq's interest in uranium. He said his recollection was that he replied, "I don't know, but his wife works out there."
"I had no real understanding I told Novak something of enormous interest," he said.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.