ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A former Central Intelligence Agency officer accused of leaking to journalists the identities of two former colleagues involved in the agency’s detention and interrogation program for high-level Qaeda suspects pleaded guilty on Tuesday to a single charge. The plea deal was a victory for the Obama administration’s crackdown on unauthorized disclosures of government secrets.
The former officer, John Kiriakou, 48, stood in a federal courtroom in the Eastern District of Virginia and told the judge that he had violated the Intelligence Identities Protection Act by disclosing the name of a former colleague to a reporter, who has been identified as Matthew Cole, formerly of ABC News. Under the terms of the plea deal, Mr. Kiriakou will be sentenced to two and a half years in prison.
But prosecutors agreed to drop several other charges, including accusations that he identified another colleague involved in interrogations to a different journalist, Scott Shane of The New York Times, and that he lied to a C.I.A. publication board reviewing his memoir.
Mr. Kiriakou worked for the C.I.A. from 1990 to 2004. He was a leader of the team that located and captured Abu Zubaydah, a suspected high-level member of Al Qaeda, in Pakistan in 2002. He came to public attention in late 2007 when he gave an interview to ABC News portraying the suffocation technique called waterboarding as torture, but calling it necessary. It later emerged that he significantly understated the C.I.A.’s use of the technique.
Mr. Kiriakou spoke calmly in court as he stood to face the judge, Leonie M. Brinkema. His lawyer, Robert Trout, stood beside him as the judge asked him a series of questions to make sure he understood the details and ramifications of his plea before she asked him how he would plead.
“Guilty,” he said, nodding slightly.
The former C.I.A. officer raised only one objection during the proceedings, questioning why a statement of facts to which he signed included admissions about some of the other charges that prosecutors had agreed to drop. The judge told him that such admissions were “window dressing” that would not change the outcome of the case, and he agreed to keep them in.
Judge Brinkema set a hearing to sentence Mr. Kiriakou formally on Jan. 25. But she indicated that she thought the 30-month term in the plea deal was appropriate, noting that it was the same term that I. Lewis Libby Jr., the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, received for obstruction charges in connection with the investigation into the disclosure of the identity of Valerie Plame Wilson. President George W. Bush later commuted Mr. Libby’s prison term.
The new case began in 2009, when government officials learned that defense lawyers for high-profile Qaeda suspects at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, were trying to identify their C.I.A. interrogators. The lawyers wanted to call the officials as witnesses at their military commission trial to make the case that the government had tortured their clients, which could be mitigating evidence against death sentences.
Among other things, the defense lawyers had learned the name of the C.I.A. officer associated with Mr. Kiriakou’s guilty plea on Tuesday. The discovery led to an uproar within the C.I.A. amid fears that officials involved in the interrogation program could be put at risk.
The case was assigned to Patrick J. Fitzgerald, then the United States attorney in Chicago, who had led the investigation in the Valerie Plame Wilson case. He eventually cleared the defense lawyers of any wrongdoing, but discovered Mr. Kiriakou in the process.
Investigators traced the name to a researcher working with the defense lawyers. The researcher had apparently learned the name from Mr. Cole. Mr. Cole in turn had discussed it with Mr. Kiriakou. Court documents cited e-mails from Mr. Kiriakou to Mr. Cole and to Mr. Shane, neither of whom were identified by name.
Mr. Kiriakou had initially vowed to fight the charges. But Judge Brinkema ruled that prosecutors needed only to prove that Mr. Kiriakou had reason to believe that the information he disclosed could be used to harm the country, not that he had willfully intended to do so. That ruling made it easier for prosecutors to win the case at trial.
Mr. Kiriakou has five children. Jesselyn Radack, who portrayed Mr. Kiriakou as a whistle-blower and who worked with him through the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit advocacy group, said Mr. Kirkiakou had agreed to the plea to ensure that he would be in a position to watch them grow up.
She said it was ironic that Mr. Kiriakou was the only person who had been convicted in the United States in connection with the C.I.A.’s interrogation program, while no charges were brought against the C.I.A. officials who carried out the interrogations or who destroyed videotapes of the sessions, or against the lawyers who blessed the techniques as legal despite anti-torture laws, or against the higher-level officials who ordered the use of the tactics.
In a statement, Mr. Trout, the lawyer, said that Mr. Kiriakou was “a loyal American who deeply loves his country and who served the United States as a C.I.A. agent over many years in challenging and often dangerous assignments.” His client’s actions, he said, “were without malice to others and were not motivated by disloyalty to the United States or benefit to himself.”
Neil H. MacBride, the United States attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, praised the outcome of the case.
“The government has a vital interest in protecting the identities of those involved in covert operations,” Mr. MacBride said. “Leaks of highly sensitive, closely held and classified information compromise national security and can put individual lives in danger.”
The prosecution of Mr. Kiriakou was the sixth criminal case brought under President Obama against current or former government officials accused of providing classified information to the news media, more such cases than under all previous presidents combined.
In a statement to employees of the C.I.A. on Tuesday, the director of the agency, David H. Petraeus, hailed the guilty plea as the first successful prosecution under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act in 27 years and called it “an important victory” for the intelligence community.
“Oaths do matter, and there are indeed consequences for those who believe they are above the laws that protect our fellow officers and enable American intelligence agencies to operate with the requisite degree of secrecy,” Mr. Petraeus said.