Victoria Clarke makes remarks after being sworn in as assistant secretary of defense for public affairs.

Victoria Clarke makes remarks after being sworn in as assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. (Courtesy of DOD)

ARLINGTON, Va. — Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke is leaving her post Friday, according to an announcement released Monday.

“I depart sadly, because this has been the best professional experience of my life,” Clarke said in a written statement. “It has been a true honor working for the men and women of the U.S. military.”

Clarke, the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, cited personal reasons for her departure.

A career public-relations executive before accepting the defense job in May 2001, Clarke became a familiar face to the public after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Although her boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, conducted many more press briefings in person than his predecessors, she has often been called upon to explain Pentagon activities, almost always appearing in tandem with a senior military official.

“Torie Clarke is a gifted communicator,” Rumsfeld said in the statement. “During her remarkable two years of service in the Department of Defense, she has developed countless new methods to tell the story of our fighting forces, and bring their courage, dedication, and professionalism into sharp focus for all Americans.”

Clarke’s main job, however, has been to devise strategies to ensure the Bush administration’s Pentagon policies reach the public.

Her most ambitious effort has been the Iraq embed program, which resulted in more than 500 national and international journalists living and traveling with military units both before and during that war.

Critics warned the embed program could backfire if reporters were too close when something unflattering occurred. But almost all of the coverage that emerged from “embeds” was highly flattering to the Defense Department and servicemembers, and in the end, both the media and Bush officials praised the program as successful.

But Clarke also has her detractors inside and outside the media, including those who derided her lack of experience in defense matters before coming to the Pentagon.

As a result, she made a few serious errors, including once offering reporters in Washington information about a particular operation in Afghanistan while the mission was in progress.

Lawrence Di Rita, special assistant to the secretary of defense, will perform her job until a permanent replacement for Clarke is confirmed.

— Pat Dickson contributed to this report from Washington.

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