America - Andrew Stephen unravels the CIA-gate saga

CIA-gate is a complicated saga, but most Americans understand enough to want the appointment of a sp

The British are to blame. If their dodgy intelligence service had not told the Bush administration that Saddam Hussein tried to buy yellow-cake uranium from Niger, Dubbya would not have included 16 fateful words repeating the claim in his State of the Union address. And that would not have led a former career diplomat to make public that he had investigated the allegations on behalf of the CIA and found them to be untrue. And the White House would not then have tried to discredit the diplomat by duplicitously involving his wife, a CIA employee. And we would not now have CIA-gate, the first scandal within the Bush administration that has opponents baying for a Starr-like inspector to investigate and prosecute.

It is a complicated saga, but not complex enough to stop seven out of ten Americans, according to polls, wanting a special prosecutor to be appointed, and eight out of ten believing that the scandal is "very serious". The Bush administration is more on the defensive than ever. With support for the "restoration" of Iraq waning fast, the administration is under siege, and internecine warfare - in this case, between the CIA and the neo-cons who have been driving US foreign policy - is raging all around us inside the Beltway.

The former diplomat causing trouble for the administration is Joseph Wilson. He was the US charge d'affaires in Baghdad when Saddam invaded Kuwait in August 1990; he remained in the job during the first Gulf war - making him a chum of the first President Bush - and then served as US ambassador to a succession of small countries. In February 2002, the CIA asked Wilson to travel to Niger to investigate the claims originally made by Italian intelligence. He spent a week there and concluded - like the UN - that the claim about Saddam, Niger and yellow-cake uranium was false. But that did not stop Boy George from including it in this year's State of the Union speech.

Wilson, however, was not easily fobbed off. Having retired from the diplomatic service and having accepted only expenses for his Niger trip, he was beholden to nobody. On 6 July, he described his trip to Niger in the New York Times. "I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons programme was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat," he said. It all has a whiff of the Kelly affair - except that Wilson is more than able to stand up to his foes.

His revelations immediately provoked the dirty-tricks merchants of the Bush administration (rather like those of No 10) into action. They phoned six journalists in an attempt to discredit Wilson by saying he was a second-rate former ambassador who had been chosen for the Niger investigation only on the recommendation of his wife, a CIA analyst on weapons of mass destruction. None took the bait, but then, on 14 July, a right-wing, elderly columnist named Robert Novak wrote: "Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me his wife suggested sending Wilson to Niger to investigate the Italian report."

Novak's disclosures sent the CIA and its director, George Tenet, into a flaming rage: Plame was no mere CIA employee, but a deep undercover agent. Her front was that she worked for an obscure scientific company and she travelled widely abroad under her own name. The moment she was outed, her cover was blown and her career over. There was also much anxiety inside the CIA that contacts she had made overseas would be compromised and possibly endangered.

Tenet's CIA was not going to be easily blind-sided by the Bush administration's spinners. Revealing the name of a secret CIA agent is a felony, punishable by heavy fines and prison; George Bush Sr, a former head of the CIA, once likened it to treason. In July, following the publication of Novak's column, the CIA sent a memo to the justice department saying that a criminal act might have occurred. Late last month, having got no meaningful response, it formally asked that a criminal investigation be started. By 30 September, the justice department had announced it would investigate. Democrats decrying the prospect of the Bush administration investigating itself were met with Dubbya's response that he was "absolutely confident that the justice department will do a very good job".

That is CIA-gate in a nutshell. It is why Senator Hillary Clinton, herself put through years of torture by Inspector Starr, is calling for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate. It is why at least half a dozen journalists, knowing that the justice department served 88 subpoenas on reporters in 2001, are fearful that they will be forced to reveal their sources or go to prison. And it is why there are now many worried men and women walking the corridors of the White House.