Relations between British and American intelligence agencies, a central pivot of "the special relationship," are in disarray over disputed claims about Iraq's attempts to procure weapons of mass destruction.
In a dispute with serious political repercussions for British Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George W. Bush, the CIA and MI6 have made it clear that they do not believe each other's intelligence, notably about a claim that Iraq was trying to obtain uranium from the west African state of Niger for nuclear weapons.
While George Tenet, the CIA's director, is expressing doubts about the claim, MI6 is adamant it is accurate.
Documents claiming that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger have turned out to be forgeries. But British intelligence sources said yesterday that MI6 had separate information to back the claim. MI6 was provided the information by a third party which insisted that neither the source nor the intelligence could be passed on.
"Certain protocols have to be observed," an intelligence official said yesterday. He added that if Britain failed to respect such protocols, sources would refuse to provide MI6 with intelligence again.
UK government officials suggested on Sunday that the claims came from a "close ally" but one which did not want Britain to give it to the US as a further pretext for war. It is extremely rare for Britain not to pass on intelligence to the US, even more so when it refers to a common enemy, in this case, Iraq.
In the past, the CIA's station chief in London has had close links with Whitehall's joint intelligence committee, the body which compiled the government's controversial September dossier.
In a further indication of Whitehall distancing itself from Washington, a British official said yesterday that even if the CIA had been provided with all the information available to British intelligence, "it may not have come to the same conclusion as us."
Britain's intelligence and security agencies are angry about America's treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, not least because of unfavorable impact on the Arab world and Muslim opinion in Britain. They were also angered by persistent and unfounded attempts by the US to link al-Qaeda to Saddam Hussein. Officials are also dismayed by the way in which the dispute over Iraq's banned weapons has put them and the government in the spotlight.
They are even more alarmed about how the CIA is fuelling the unwelcome debate. "It is a mystery," a well-placed source said yesterday.
British intelligence is sticking to its story despite UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's statement in the House of Commons last month that he was unsure the claim was correct.
"Until we investigate properly, we are simply not in a position to say whether that is so," the foreign secretary told MPs.
Under pressure from the White House, Tenet was forced at the weekend to take the blame for including the claim in the president's state of the union to Congress in January.
Bush told Congress: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
Tenet said that just because the British included the claim in their September dossier did not mean that the US should take Britain's word for it.
"This did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches, and the CIA should have ensured that it was removed," he said.