Who outed Valerie Wilson as a CIA secret agent? Clue: her husband, Joseph, had just criticised the Bush administration. Julian Borger talks exclusively to the man who may have started a new Watergate
It is early autumn in Washington. The leaves are falling, another election season is limbering up, and the nation's capital is once more embroiled in a gale-force scandal. It is an extraordinary affair that combines espionage, political dirty tricks and weapons of mass destruction - a heady mix normally found only in airport thrillers. But fact has had a knack of trumping fiction in Washington lately. In principle at least, this is worse than Watergate and far worse than Bill Clinton's sexual liaisons. According to the claims now under scrutiny by the FBI, senior officials in the Bush administration (possibly including aides close to the president himself) blew the cover of a high-ranking CIA agent in order to punish and discredit her husband, a critic of the administration. In doing so, they endangered the very national security in the name of which the administration has so far invaded two countries. Ironically, the agent in question was a leading player in the monitoring and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction around the world. Her outing has undoubtedly hamstrung that pursuit.
If caught, the culprits could face jail sentences of 10 years. Even if they escape jail, the affair could seriously tarnish a president who, in the early stages of a re-election campaign, has made the restoration of "honour and dignity" to the White House his central goal. What happens in the next few days and weeks will determine the extent of the damage.
Meanwhile, the man at the centre of the row, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, is scarcely 100 yards from the White House, contemplating his epitaph. It was going to be "the last American diplomat to meet Saddam Hussein". Now he prefers "the husband of the CIA agent outed by her own government".
Valerie Wilson, the woman in question, is not talking about her experience. She has authorised her husband to say only "that she would rather cut off her right arm than speak to the press". But her discretion will not bring back her secrecy. Whoever leaked her name did not just jam a spoke into the work that her department was doing, Joe Wilson believes, but also exposed her family to serious danger.
He does not fear the intelligence services so much as terrorists bent on finding soft but valuable targets, or just "just somebody who's a little bit paranoid and thinks somehow that the CIA is responsible for the voices he hears in his head". They are taking their own security precautions, he says, but they have had no help from the state to keep them safe.