America - Andrew Stephen anticipates the undoing of Bush

Bush insisted on taking the credit for his "axis of evil" soundbite. But he's less keen on taking re

Well I never, as my grandmother used to say. In last year's State of the Union address, Boy George used a phrase that was widely hailed as brilliantly memorable: he described North Korea, Iran and Iraq as an "axis of evil". Next morning, with the congratulations ringing in Dubbya's ears, the wife of the speechwriter responsible e-mailed friends to say it was her clever husband who had come up with the magic three words. Days later, the speechwriter left the White House; the very idea that Boy George was not responsible for what were purported to be his own gems was unacceptable.

Now we come to this year's State of the Union address, delivered on 28 January, in which Boy George used 16 words that have become equally memorable: "The British government has learnt that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." That claim was widely rubbished as untrue months later, so this time we are asked to believe the opposite - that Boy George was not responsible for the words he uttered. First the director of the CIA, George Tenet, took the blame (when he had not even read the speech beforehand). Then Stephen Hadley - the deputy national security adviser, and a man I know and respect and like - took responsibility. This time around, anyone but Boy George was responsible.

The contrast says much about the morality that pervades the Bush White House: others take the blame for errors while the man at the top, who is actually accountable, ducks and weaves around the unconvincing and doubtless requested apologies of subordinates. It is a squalid mess, made worse by a pliant American media, which is quite willing to accept that others are to blame for Boy George's words. The killing of Saddam Hussein's sons Uday and Qusay in Iraq diverted national interest from a furore here that is much more tame than its equivalent in Britain; nevertheless, I sometimes feel that the rumpus could mark the beginning of the unravelling of the Bush presidency.

Few care that Boy George sexed up the intelligence (not least by adding "recently" to his claim): what people dislike is someone they instinctively see as a coward, who cannot take responsibility in the way the man at the top should. Thus Bush's approval ratings have plunged from 74 per cent in April to around 55 per cent now. The number of people who thought the war was going very well dropped from 61 per cent in April to 23 per cent in June. Eight in every ten Americans, according to the polls, are now "very" or "somewhat" concerned that the US "will get bogged down in a long and costly peacekeeping mission" in Iraq. And the polls also show that Bush is losing ground on the economy, which is the issue on which the Democrats believe Bush will be most vulnerable next year.

Of all the quotations that illustrate how divided and contradictory the Bush administration has been over the Niger claim, the one I like best is from General Richard Myers, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, speaking after the Iraq war had ended. "Intelligence doesn't mean something is true," he said. "You know, it's your best estimate of the situation. It doesn't mean it's a fact. I mean, that's not what intelligence is." What was produced as intelligence to justify the Iraq invasion, clearly, was what the Bush administration wanted desperately to hear rather than what was known to be true: dodgy intelligence indeed.

Bush himself, the vice-president, Dick Cheney, the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and - most of all - the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice (Hadley's immediate boss) are all now tarnished with the attempted cover-up. They are awash in contradictions, denials and the blaming of others - a distasteful activity that, I believe, alienates much of the public. And while Tenet and Hadley commit hara-kiri and earn the sympathy of Americans - Tenet, a Clinton appointee, is reported to have considered resignation to go into the private sector this summer - the rest of the bunch are beginning to look just like murky and rather incompetent Washington operators, desperately trying to cover their behinds.

Rice's halo is certainly slipping. If we believe her, she did not know about various State Department and CIA warnings on the dodginess of the uranium claim, nor did she read last October's 90-page National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq - something mind-boggling and seemingly inconceivable for the president's national security adviser; that same month, Hadley saw to it that a reference to uranium and Niger was excised from a speech by Bush. Rice, in fact, emerges either as a liar or as someone of astonishing incompetence: "If the national security adviser didn't understand the repeated State Department and CIA warnings about the uranium allegation, that's a frightening level of incompetence," the influential Democrat representative Henry Waxman of California told the Washington Post. "It's even more serious if she knew and ignored the intelligence warning and deliberately misled our nation . . . In any case, it's hard to see why the president or the public will have confidence in her office."

But Rice is sticking to her latest line, now insisting that the president's 16 words were true after all. "I've been reading intelligence cases for 20 years now," she says. "This is one of the strongest I've ever seen. There are always dissents. But to my mind, the most telling and eye-catching point in the judgement of five of the six intelligence agencies was that, if left unchecked, Iraq would have a nuclear weapon in this decade." Rice's future, unlike that of Tenet and possibly Hadley, seems safe: Bush describes her as being "like one of the family".

The most cautious member of the administration has been Colin Powell, the secretary of state, who - five days after the State of the Union address - decided that the uranium/Niger intelligence was too dodgy to include in his presentation to the United Nations Security Council. The National Intelligence Estimate, recently declassified, clearly stated that Saddam "probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade"; Powell's State Department intelligence unit concluded that "the activities we have detected do not, however, add up to a compelling case that Iraq was pursuing an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons". Powell is motivated by the loyal old soldier ethos; though much of his presentation to the UN remained dodgy, the Niger uranium piece of intelligence was simply too dodgy for him.

What is clear is that all the intelligence agencies were hyped up by leading members of the administration to produce the intelligence they wanted to bolster their case for war. Rumsfeld even started his own intelligence unit to sift through CIA and other intelligence to find evidence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, a line over which the CIA itself has always been cautious. I have written before that it is clear that intelligence after 1998, when the UN weapons inspectors left Iraq, was sketchy to non-existent. What the administration did was to put pressure on the intelligence agencies to project forward the situation in 1998 - when Saddam was known to have WMDs that were unaccounted for - to 2003. Hence the belligerent tone of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al in claiming the rectitude of post-1998 intelligence that did not really exist.

We have seen from what General Myers said that intelligence is not necessarily true. One logical progression from this is that it can be invented by interested parties. The right here is now taking great comfort from Tony Blair's insistence that the Niger uranium intelligence is true after all, and is trying to justify Boy George's inclusion of it in his State of the Union address on those grounds. But the right has also got itself in a real twist by saying why those 16 words should have been deleted.

It has been a bad three weeks for the Bush administration. With the steady drip-drip-drip of American military deaths in Iraq, they could mark the beginning of a real fight for the presidency next year.